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St. Joseph College alumnus Jim Tarka

Highland resident and 1973 St. Joseph College alumnus Jim Tarka rests on one of many concrete dividers blocking access to the former school's Rensselaer campus.

RENSSELAER | The yellow signs with huge black and white print are everywhere, in long, neat rows, like grave markers.

The signs are the first thing you notice at the entrance to the deserted St. Joseph College campus.

They scream out: Store Fixtures For Sale!

If you were in a satellite orbiting earth the last several months, you probably didn't know St. Joe's has closed its doors for financial reasons.

It was a sudden, unexpected announcement, leading many alumni and school employees to suspect gross mismanagement.

We may never know for sure.

Last Monday, a 12-week liquidation sale began with everything on the 180-acre campus given a price tag. And I mean everything.

Each day, hundreds of items are stuffed into the school's sprawling fieldhouse — stoves, refrigerators, computers, laptops, microwaves, chairs, bookcases, tables, beds, couches, new air conditioner units, musical instruments, pianos, athletic equipment, and more.

In one corner were stacks of volleyballs, batting cages, dozens of track hurdles and — I swear — a fully-inflated pole vault pit complete with cross bar and runway.

I toured the facility Tuesday and sales rep Tony Wicksall of Grand Rapids-based Hilco Fixture Finders told me then: "We're just scratching the surface. This is only the second day."

Don't blame the company he works for. St. Joe's hired them to strip the campus bare.

Even the Pumas' baseball, soccer and football fields, along with the new basketball court, are for sale.

Say what?

"The fencing, press box, scoreboards, bleachers, the turf. All of it," Wicksall said.

There is a chance the town could purchase the fieldhouse and basketball facility for a much-needed youth center, but it's only a rumor now.

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The campus, founded in 1889, is deserted and closed to the public. All roads leading in are blocked with concrete dividers. Dorms, business offices and the student center are locked up.

Security officers discourage you from walking around and "reminiscing." If you somehow sneak in with your car, you will be ticketed.

All that's missing are vultures circling above this storied carcass and picking at the bones.

"It's a sad movie. What more can I say?" grumbled a retired professor who had 30 years of service but wouldn't give me his name.

What about the St. Joe library and its thousands of books, you ask? They will be sold during scheduled tours for both the alumni and the public.

Wicksall added that alumni will have the first shot at purchasing anything on campus that is engraved, embroidered or stenciled with "St. Joseph College."

As of last Tuesday, the sale of campus cars, trucks and lawn mowing equipment had pulled in between $30,000 and $40,000, according to Wicksall.

At the popular McDonald's across College Blvd., assistant manager Abigail Bardoczi is doing a slow burn. The closing of St. Joe's will hurt businesses throughout town, particularly at the Golden Arches.

"Right around now we're really going to see it as (college) football begins. This is definitely going to put a damper on it, not having the sports teams come in after games," Bardoczi said.

"The fans, the bus drivers from other teams, would come in and we got to visit with them because we had become friends."

Her parents, Penny and Joe, grew up in Hessville. Abigail attended Valparaiso University and now lives in Rensselaer, as do her folks.

"The (sale) signs bother me," she said. "It reminds me of a crappy close-out sale at a store. Instead, it's a crappy close-out of a college."

Glancing across the street won't be easy now.

"St. Joe's was a fixture of this city forever," Bardoczi said, softly.

Now it belongs to the vultures circling above.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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