Ron Cote, Dick Agreste and Don Wilson share memories while looking at old photographs outside the former St. Louis High School in Biddeford on Friday. They all played for state football championship teams at St. Louis during the 1960s. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

And while June marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of St. Louis High, the school’s legacy, especially in athletics, remains a cornerstone of the Biddeford community.

“That school had such a place of prominence in Biddeford history,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “Athletically, there was something about it. Even though it was a small school, look at the athletes it generated, look at the quality. It was amazing. Academically, many of the students that came out of there excelled. For me, it was an educational jewel that offered people from Biddeford a chance to not only get an education, but to revel in their community and Franco pride.”

The school opened as a place where Biddeford’s Franco-Americans could send their children to a Catholic school while preserving their Franco heritage. But the Eagles were a sports power as well.

The St. Louis High yearbook, in two volumes, no less, from the school’s final year in 1969-70. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

While only the football team won state championships – five in all, including four with the late Bob Cote as head coach (1958, 1961, 1964, 1966) – its basketball and baseball teams were always competitive, especially with its Twin City rivals, Biddeford High and Thornton Academy of Saco.

“Gyms were packed, fields were packed for those games,” said Casavant, who didn’t go to St. Louis, though all his cousins did. “The energy was incredible.”

The closing of the school because of financial reasons in 1970 came as a shock to many. While there had been rumors of its imminent closure for months, people were still angered when the doors actually closed for good. And they still are.

“There are still some tough words out there from some of my peers,” said Roch (pronounced “Rock”) Angers, who was a junior in 1970 and graduated from Biddeford High a year later. “They just have a hard time with it.”

And it’s understandable. “It was very, very proud to be a kid who did go to St. Louis High School,” said Angers, who has served on the Biddeford City Council and is now the chair of the Biddeford Housing Authority. “The Eagles were something to have a lot of pride with.”

RIVALS WITH BIDDEFORD HIGH, THORNTON ACADEMY

Ron Cote (13) and his St. Louis High teammates run onto the field. Cote graduated from the former Biddeford school in 1968. “Back then, football really meant something to the city,” he says. “It was really important. And every time we stepped on that field, we had the confidence that we could win.” Photo courtesy of Ron Cote

Sports had a lot to do with that, especially football. While St. Louis was a small school – the Class of 1965, for example, had just 66 boys – it was always competitive.

Ron Cote, who graduated in 1968 as one of the school’s greatest three-sport athletes, said it was simply part of the culture of growing up in Biddeford at the time.

“It was pride,” he said. “It was a culture in the city, the way parents raised their kids, with discipline and pride.”

Those that went to St. Louis, said Don Wilson, a 1965 St. Louis graduate and former Biddeford High athletic director and coach, went there “to get a good Catholic education.”

That Cote, now 70, would go to St. Louis, which was about a football field away from his home on Green Street, was never a question. When he was 9, he went to the home of St. Louis star athlete Red Sevigny, the quarterback of the 1961 state football champs, with an 8-by-10 photograph of Sevigny and asked him to autograph it. Cote would often see Guy Garon, the quarterback of the 1958 Class A state championship team, walking down his street.

“It was that camaraderie and closeness,” said Cote, who would become a three-sport coach at Biddeford, assisting Mike Landry in football and heading up the boys’ basketball and baseball programs. “Bob Cote was a really good coach and we all respected him. We had some really good kids and we all worked hard.

“Back then, football really meant something to the city. It was really important. And every time we stepped on that field, we had the confidence that we could win.”

“People wanted to be, whether they were the first or 60th guy on the roster, they wanted to wear the blue and gold on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon,” said Wilson, now 72. “They wanted to be part of a first-class program.”

Dick Agreste (12) celebrates with teammates after defeating Thornton Academy in 1964. The Eagles were state champions that season. Agreste later became the head football coach at Thornton, then served as an assistant coach until last year. Contributed photo

Dick Agreste, who graduated with Wilson in 1965, said everyone in his family went to St. Louis, so there was never a question where he would go. And he loved the bonds he formed.

“When you went in as a freshman, you knew everybody in the three classes ahead of you,” said Agreste. “And when you graduated, you knew everyone in the three classes behind you.”

For many years, the Eagles’ biggest rival was Thornton Academy. Biddeford, which was rebuilding its football program at the time, had dropped down a class and wasn’t playing either team. But in Agreste’s junior year, the Tigers came back onto the football schedule. He vividly remembers that game.

St. Louis played its home games at St. Louis Field, which is now the home of Biddeford High’s baseball team. The Eagles’ football field was located just beyond where the right field fence is currently located. Biddeford, of course, played at Waterhouse Field, across the street from St. Louis Field.

“Biddeford had everything back from a very good team the year before and we had lost virtually everything, we were very young,” said Agreste, now 73. “I thought we were going to walk over. Bob says, ‘Get on the bus.” So we got on a bus on Hill Street, took a right, took another right and went into Waterhouse Field. It was packed. People were screaming at us. It was fun for us. And it was a hell of a game. We ended up winning 7-6.”

Cote, who quarterbacked the 1966 state championship team, remembers another St. Louis-Biddeford game vividly. “My sophomore year,” he said. “It was at Biddeford. Mike Landry was playing for Biddeford. We walked across the street. There were 7,500 at the game. I intercepted a pass at the 50 and ran it in for a touchdown. We ended up winning.”

What made it so memorable? “Mike missed me on the 5-yard line,” said Cote, laughing heartily. “I always reminded him of that.”

‘LO AND BEHOLD, WE BECAME THE LAST GRADUATING CLASS’

Sports were an integral part of the culture at St. Louis High in Biddeford, as seen in the school’s final yearbook in 1970. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

St. Louis graduates would populate every part of Biddeford life, as teachers, coaches, business owners and mayors. Its band was one of the state’s best, twice performing in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. In 1948, the school underwent an expansion, adding wings onto each side. The girls’ wing was located on the Birch Street side of the building. Boys and girls were not allowed into each other’s wing. Enrollment increased, and slowly the girls were integrated into the St. Louis family.

But the school struggled financially. In 1967, it became a regional school and the enrollment increased to 520. But it continued to lose money, and on March 30, 1970, Bishop Peter Gerety of Portland wrote a letter to the board of directors, according to a history of the school on the St. Louis Alumni Association website, saying that as much as the diocese tried, it couldn’t raise enough money to keep the school running. Gerety concluded, “In view of these facts, I have no other choice but to concur that the high school cannot continue beyond the end of the present school year.”

So that meant that the last football game St. Louis played was a 38-14 win over Thornton Academy on Nov. 15, 1969, which improved the Eagles record to 5-4. The next year, Bob Cote would be coaching the rival Trojans.

In basketball, the Eagles finished 11-8, losing to Thornton in the Western Class A quarterfinals. Girls’ basketball went 0-8. Baseball finished 5-11, beating Biddeford 9-7 in its final game, on Saturday, May 30, 1970, to win its fourth consecutive Twin City championship.

Roger LaBranche, a 1970 St. Louis graduate, played in both the final football and baseball games. He grew up idolizing Agreste, who he would coach against for many years as a football assistant at Biddeford, where he also coached varsity baseball for 12 years.

Many of Biddeford’s Franco-American families sent their children to St. Louis High. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

He never understood the closing – then again, most 18-year-olds didn’t. “I had heard rumblings,” said LaBranche, now 68 and living in Florida. “I guess I was in denial because I never thought it would happen. Then, lo and behold, we became the last graduating class.

“It was just sad. And, because of Ron Cote, I got involved in Biddeford athletics. So it was a little weird. We used to bleed yellow-and-gold, and now it was orange-and-black.”

One of his classmates, Guy Laliberte, would go on to play minor league baseball for three years as a pitcher. He, too, was unaware the school was in serious danger of closing.

“There was talk it would close,” said Laliberte, now 68 and living in Saco. “But we never knew.”

Ron Cote, who had hoped to return to St. Louis as a coach and teacher, said the closing “was devastating to the whole city. We were down in the dumps, really.”

The final graduating class had 126 students, the final graduation was held at Thornton Academy’s Linnell Gymnasium on June 7, 1970. It was, as one might expect, a poignant event.

For those who had to transfer to Biddeford, it was a strange situation. Because of such an influx of students, Biddeford had double sessions, with juniors and seniors attending classes in the mornings and freshmen and sophomores in the afternoon. Sports practices were held at night, beginning close to 6 p.m.

“It was tough,” said Angers, now 67. “It was challenging.”

But, he added, “I made some new friends from Biddeford – some people I never thought would be friends of mine and still are today. So we got to see a whole different world.”

The building that once housed St. Louis High is still in use today as the home of St. James School, which opened in 1992 and has students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. And while St. Louis’ legacy continues through its alumni association, Agreste sometimes wonders what would have happened if the school had remained open.

“I think many of us would have sent our kids there,” he said. “We had a good experience and it was something you looked forward to.”


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