Fr. Prietto first came to SI in 1968 as a scholastic. He taught Spanish and Latin, coached golf and helped SI move from the old school to the new Sunset District campus. Those years were hard ones for the Jesuit community, he said, and he watched five brother Jesuits leave the order. “There were people who were resisting the changes called for by Vatican II and others who wanted change now.” He recalled the older Jesuits keeping him and the other scholastics “on a tight leash. We had to be back by 10 p.m. and had to get permission to go out in the evening with lay friends. At one point, we didn’t have house keys. If you came back after doors were locked, you had to go through a window in Welch Hall, which we called Squelch Hall.”
Though he liked blowing off steam in the recreation room with the other scholastics, he was glad to leave Welch Hall for new quarters on 37th Avenue. But even in these new quarters, Prietto’s superiors made it clear that they still ran the show. “There was a real us-versus-them mentality, with the governance of the community being very authoritarian, with no dialog, no question of young people having a voice. The Jesuit community continued to be old school.”
He left SI, was ordained in 1973 and worked for five years at Loyola High School before entering Fordham’s Jesuit Secondary Administrator’s Program. When he returned in 1980 as the assistant principal for student affairs, he found an SI changed for the better. By the end of that year, Fr. McCurdy was forced to step down for health reasons, and the job was offered to Fr. Prietto. At 37, he became the youngest principal in the history of the school when he took office in August 1981. (“Although I was 37, I looked as if I were 24,” he wrote inHeadmaster/Heartmaster, his memoir of his years as principal. “Here I was, the principal of the oldest high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, with teachers on the faculty who were old enough to be my parents.”)
At the graduation that June, Dick McCurdy took off his ring and handed it to Mario in a symbolic passing of the torch as they sat at the altar. Prietto, in turn, passed on his job as assistant principal for student activities to Charlie Dullea.
From the start, Fr. Prietto made it clear to the teachers and students that he was, first and foremost, a priest and a minister. Whether hiring a new chemistry teacher, preparing for a WASC accreditation or chatting with a student, Mario knew that his most important badge of office was the collar around his neck.
He credited Fr. McCurdy with laying the foundations in the 1970s for the work that took place in the 1980s. “Dick McCurdy was the one who really connected us to the JSEA,” said Fr. Prietto. “Some people made fun of SI by calling it ‘Preamble Prep,’ but McCurdy never wavered in his commitment to the initiatives that came out of the JSEA, which included the Colloquium and the Curriculum Improvement Process. SI benefited profoundly because the lay faculty were well instructed in the Jesuit foundations. This, for me, was the beginning of colleagueship. I inherited a school and a faculty committed to advancing SI’s Jesuit mission.”
Fr. Prietto also wielded a sharp axe, and he did not renew the contracts for several teachers he felt were not doing their jobs. He credits Steve Lovette ’63, the assistant principal for academics, and the department chairs, with helping him make the faculty more professional through the hiring of a number of excellent teachers. With the new renewable tenure system, SI’s teachers had a chance every five years to come up for scrutiny and be challenged to continue growing in their professions.
He also reinstated the admissions test, which the admissions department had earlier dropped in favor of an interview process. That had mixed success, and, in an effort to return to a more traditional and rigorous application process, Fr. Prietto ended the interviews altogether.
In his second year as principal, Fr. Prietto and the SI community faced several tragedies in the deaths of two faculty wives, senior Chuck Simon, former faculty member Carolyn Rocca (who had retired the previous June) and a student’s father. Then, on April 4, 1983, 33-year-old Katie Robinson, a member of the counseling department, died after a brief illness. Fr. Prietto describes that year as one of “unbelievable pain. We somehow not only got through it but also emerged with a deeper, closer bond. The young principal did a lot of growing up as well.” Longtime SI counselor Phyllis Molinelli described that year as feeling like “the end of Camelot.”