"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mike & Val, SJ, RIP

Jesuits die almost every day, Chi Province alone. Today’s listing has three. One was a nice fellow, personable, who headed St. Ignatius High in Chicago for a time. The other two had color to burn.

Mike English died in 1973, seven years to the month after he offered me a job at Loyola Academy, Wilmette, where he was rector. I was loose, having done a turn at U. of Ill. at Chi intending to become a sociologist but giving up after a quarter, still living at Ignatius on the West Side. He had a hole to fill, of a Jesuit who he told me was “nervous from the service” and was checking out. I would take over this man’s religion classes and help people forget him. I would need summers free to continue heading up a summer enrichment program for neighborhood boys, I told him when we ran into each other at Loyola in the week after Xmas. He agreed to that, I said I’d get back.

I did, on time to wish him a happy new year and to decline the offer. Instead, I hung on at Ignatius and did a semester of giving retreats around the Midwest.

Mike’s color lay in his being quick on his feet, for one thing. He was a born administrator and leader. Spotting me earlier, he had put the offer to me face to face. When I said no, he returned my happy new year wish, and we closed the conversation.

Some seven years before that, I had gone to him to check on what I had heard, that the sole black kid taking the entrance exam was doomed to fail it. Not yet, said Mike when I, a teaching scholastic, put it to him, probably in the very parlor where he asked me to join his faculty. It would hurt us, he said, meaning that desperately needed funds would dry up if the school took a black kid. Tell that to the Jordan brothers these days, as they play and star while their father Michael watches from bleachers.

Things were different then. Mike English was saving the school from dissolution, having relieved its founding rector (in its new location after moving from Rogers Park) after only two years, as creditors were closing in. He did save it, for the Jordans among others. But what I was amazed at was his candor with me and his not getting nervous when I asked. I was a big race man in those days, bringing students out to the South Side to meet blacks in Friendship House programs. He never once slowed me down on that.

The third Jesuit is Brother Val, a short pudgy guy who would have done Damon Runyan proud for volubility and willingness to stop in the middle of his none too productive work day to jabber with a philosopher or theologian. He died in ‘90. His ideas would get ahead of his ability to spit words out. You wanted time to burn if he headed your way. He also didn’t let data interfere with the flow.

Theologian (theology student) George, a stocky ex-footballer from John Carroll U., would engage Brother Val now and then. Val was going on about major league baseballers, when George asked him if he knew of or had seen Joe Gosman play. Oh yes, Val told him, his eyes widening. George had made Joe Gosman up, but he listened eagerly as Val recounted his exploits. George, still a Jesuit, became a psychiatrist.

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