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DeMatha’s 75th anniversary, and pandemic, marked eventful school experience for two seniors

Keyvar Smith-Herold, at left, and Thomas Krukar, members of the class of 2022 at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, stand together outside the school, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year. The statue depicts St. John de Matha, who founded the Trinitarian order that sponsors the Catholic high school for young men. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Keyvar Smith-Herold of the class of 2022 at DeMatha Catholic High School smiled as he explained the inspiration for his name, noting that his father Vincent Smith works as a locksmith.

“That’s why ‘Key’ is in our names,” he said, shedding light on the origin of his first name and that of his twin sister, Keydra, and also their older brother Keyden, a 2018 DeMatha graduate.

Smith-Herold was interviewed on the campus of the Hyattsville, Maryland Catholic high school for young men on the same morning as a fellow graduating senior there, Thomas Krukar.

For both Smith-Herold and Krukar, attending and graduating from DeMatha meant continuing a family tradition and also making their own mark during the school’s 75th anniversary year. And like their classmates and fellow students, their school experience coincided with more than two years of a worldwide pandemic.

Keyvar Smith-Herold, at left, and Thomas Krukar, members of the class of 2022 at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, pose together for a photo near the sculpture of a stag, the nickname for the school’s sports teams. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Family traditions

Krukar, 18, lives about an hour away from school in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, and he and his family attend nearby St. Anthony’s Parish in North Beach. He is the son of Maria and Stephen Krukar. His dad is a 1990 graduate of DeMatha, his older brother Alex graduated from there in 2019, his uncles Mark and Pete also graduated from the school, and his grandmother Patricia Krukar formerly was a longtime staff member there, working in its main office and library.

“It means a lot… When I went here, it felt like it was my turn to play my role in my family tradition,” Krukar said.

He would also like to follow in his father’s footsteps with his life’s work. Stephen Krukar works as an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, and after graduating from DeMatha, Thomas Krukar will be attending the University of Maryland at College Park and plans to major in criminal justice there.

“Everybody looks up to their dad growing up… My dad has always been somebody I admire, and he’s definitely had a big influence on me wanting to get into law enforcement,” the DeMatha senior said.

The younger Krukar is especially interested in possibly working for the FBI some day. He noted that these days, many people might be hesitant to enter law enforcement as a profession, but he added, “I feel a draw to it. We really need law enforcement. It’s a necessary job for people to have… A lot of people forget, the real purpose of law enforcement is to help people and to protect innocent civilians.”

Music ‘in my blood’

While his name reflects his father’s work, Keyvar Smith-Herold’s interest in music has been inspired by his mother, Eldra Herold, an opera singer who once sang the National Anthem before a Washington Redskins football game and also sang at one of the inaugural balls for President Barack Obama. Now she sings in the choir at Sacred Heart Church in Bowie, the family’s parish. 

“I always heard classical music growing up,” he said, adding, “Classical music has always been a part of my life, and it’s in my blood.”

At DeMatha, Smith-Herold played the clarinet in the school’s Wind Ensemble and the saxophone in its Jazz Band. This fall, he will be attending the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, seeking a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance.

“Going to Oberlin has been a dream of mine since freshman year, and I was fortunate enough to get a full-ride (scholarship). They have a phenomenal music conservatory there,” he said.

Smith-Herold praised the music program at DeMatha, saying, “It is an outstanding program. We play very high-level music, and it’s a challenge for everyone.” He noted that the program is open to students of all skill levels, from experienced musicians to those learning a new instrument. 

DeMatha’s Wind Ensemble was named the top Catholic high school band in 18 out of 20 years by the National Catholic Bandmasters Association. DeMatha’s music program includes five concert bands, three choruses, three percussion ensembles, three string orchestras, two jazz ensembles, a pep band and a gospel choir.

The student musician said it’s a special experience for the students in DeMatha’s music program to put on a performance there. “It is not often you find a high school band as motivated and talented as DeMatha’s (is),” and then “to hear the audience erupt in applause is a great culmination of the work you put in,” he said.

In 2022, Smith-Herold earned the National Catholic Band Association Honors Jazz Band Award and the John Philip Sousa Band Award.

School activities and service

During his years at DeMatha, Thomas Krukar has made the Principal’s List every semester and has served as treasurer of the National Honor Society there. In addition to playing basketball and soccer as a freshman and sophomore, this year he served as the editor-in-chief of the DeMatha Stagline, the school’s newspaper.

“When you’re writing stories, you get to talk to a wide range of people… and you broaden your horizons,” he said.

Krukar as a DeMatha student also volunteered at a homeless shelter in Prince Frederick, which he said was “an eye-opening… just seeing people who didn’t have much, but were happy.”

He added, “It’s always good in any profession or walk of life to meet people from different backgrounds. It gives you a better understanding of the people you’re working with.”

Smith-Herold, who volunteered at a food pantry in Laurel, said, “What I liked most about it (was) they served everyone, no matter who you are or how many people you had to feed, they made sure everyone is fed.”

Anniversary year

Both DeMatha seniors, who are among 165 young men in the school’s class of 2022, said it meant a lot to them to be part of its 75th anniversary year.

With prayers, blessings and fist-bumps, students, faculty and staff members at DeMatha celebrated its diamond anniversary on Sept. 9, 2021 with a special Mass on the same date that the all-boys Catholic school sponsored by the Trinitarian order held its first classes exactly 75 years earlier in  1946. The school is named for the Trinitarian order’s founder, St. John de Matha.

Trinitarian Father James Day, DeMatha’s president and the main celebrant for the opening Mass for the 2021-2022 school year there, noted that due to the pandemic, it marked the first school-wide liturgy for students, faculty and staff since December 2019.

In his homily, the priest said when DeMatha held its first classes, 18 students assembled together in a room in what was then the monastery building, and they had fewer than five faculty members.

“Here we are 75 years later,” he said, pointing out that DeMatha now has 800 students, more than 100 faculty and staff members, and five buildings.

The Trinitarians had established a monastery in Hyattsville in the early 1930s, selecting that area because of its proximity to The Catholic University of America. They originally planned DeMatha as a minor seminary for young men studying for their order, but after parents in that area asked them to open their school to boys in that community, they expanded the school’s scope and it became a Catholic high school. Since its founding, more than 10,500 young men have graduated from DeMatha, and its graduates have excelled in many different professions, ranging from medicine and law to science and engineering, and some have made careers in business, the arts or professional sports, while others have become priests or educators.

During DeMatha’s anniversary year, the school also broke ground on The Cross Center for Engineering, Arts and Robotics, a future building named for the cross of Christ, which is the symbol of the Trinitarian order.

Smith-Herold praised DeMatha for the impact that it has had on individual lives and on the community over the years. Reflecting on the school’s  anniversary, Krukar said, “Considering all the history DeMatha has had, being able to graduate in such a special year – we’ve had a tough journey this year because of COVID, we’ve had a tough four years – to be able to graduate in (the school’s) 75th anniversary definitely makes it extra special.”

School during the pandemic

Krukar said that when the pandemic shutdown happened and the school pivoted to online classes, it was difficult at first, but he added, “Last year, our junior year, we had really good teachers, passionate about what they were teaching, and it was really easy to pay attention and buy into the class.”

For the student musicians, working remotely presented special challenges, since they couldn’t rehearse and perform together during that time, Smith-Herold said. He noted how the members of the Wind Ensemble were sent their music via Google classroom, and the more than 40 student musicians then performed their individual parts of that piece of music, sometimes recording them at home in their bedrooms or kitchens with the air-conditioning turned down and other background noise eliminated. Then they transmitted their recorded pieces, which were edited together for online concerts via YouTube, with the panels showing the individual students performing “together” as an ensemble. With that method, they were able to post several online videos of DeMatha’s Wind Ensemble performing a piece of music this past year.

“We were still able to make music,” said Smith-Herold, who said the lesson they learned was, “No matter where we are, music will prevail.”

The DeMatha experience

On the eve of their graduations, both DeMatha seniors said they appreciated their experience there.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot spiritually and socially in my four years at DeMatha,” Krukar said, adding that Mike Ptomey, the school’s chair of theology, “had a profound impact on my spiritual life and the way I look at the world… I think a major lesson he’s taught me is it’s not important what you have, it’s who you are.”

Smith-Herold said that in addition to building up his appreciation for the arts, he also liked how DeMatha is a diverse community.

“The biggest thing is, DeMatha is a melting pot. We have people from all different cultures and all different backgrounds, and that’s a huge representation of what the world is,” said Smith-Herold, whose parents are from Jamaica and the Virgin Islands. “DeMatha has prepared me for interacting with all types of people.”

Together again

About one month after DeMatha’s opening Mass for its 75th anniversary last fall, the school’s music students staged a concert featuring its vocal and instrumental groups, the first time in many months that they had performed together, due to the pandemic.

“It was kind of nerve-racking. It was so long since we had performed for anyone,” Smith-Herold said. “When we first came back for rehearsing, we were not the same. We had a lot of work to do.”

But they were together again, and the DeMatha student musicians received hearty applause from the audience of students, parents, alumni, teachers and staff.

“It was definitely a fulfilling experience,” Smith-Herold said. “It really shows after all the struggles we went through, how we were able to come together again and make music and put smiles on people’s faces again.”