Edward Gannon, SJ and I used to have the best conversations on the steps of the now defunct Gunster Memorial Student Center at The University of Scranton. One particular day he complimented me on my shirt, and instead of just saying "thanks"... I said "this old thing, well I got it...". His response -- "learn how to take a compliment. Just say thank you."
I think of him from time to time, and keep a letter he sent framed in my office. In explaining Fr. Gannon to my friend...
He was your quintessential Jesuit, if there is such a thing. We would chat outside the student center and he would always know when a conversation should be finished... at that exact point when one might bring up, or repeat something, for the sake of continuing a conversation that would/should be over... and just say "to be continued", and walk away (this used to tick me off but I understand now!). He continued to write to me and urge me to come back to school, telling me to simply write him and I'd be back in, which I did. The last time I saw him he was bald from chemotherapy, and I made a well intentioned but poor attempt to console him. The next time I was in Scranton I stopped by his office in the library and his name was off the door, and they had told me that he died.
When I finally got my stuff together and had my epiphany to go back to school (and graduate) I applied to St. Joe's (another Jesuit school) -- and they told me there was a recommendation letter in my file from Fr. Gannon that was glowing -- one I never had asked for. I don't know how he knew. There were a few people up there -- Mr. Gavigan, Mrs. Lawhon, Dean Parente -- that looked out for me. I never appreciated it then -- not knowing how rare it was. The Cura Personalis, in Jesuit parlance, was taken very seriously at Scranton. I hope there are people out there at colleges like that still, but I doubt it: Too corporate now, too big. No names, just social security numbers. When I did finally graduate after years of night school on Hawk Hill (my penance for being too stupid to get it done the first time) I could hear him say "finally", in his usual gruff voice.
Toland also lined up Princess Grace (former Philadelphia actress Grace Kelly) of Monaco to attend the event as well. The conduit for that request was her former baby sitter, with whom he had a friendship. After 8 hours on the dais Grace asked the permission of Toland to leave so she and her cousin wouldn't hit too much shore traffic on the way down to Ocean City, NJ, where the family maintained a summer home. Most European princesses wouldn't know to avoid the AC Expressway during rush hour -- a Philly girl certainly would ;-)
Pictured are the Very Reverend Pedro Arrupe, S.J., General of the Society of Jesus; Terrence Toland, S.J., former president of Saint Joseph’s; and Rev. Edward Brady, S.J. , founder of the Faith-Justice Institute at SJU. The photograph was taken in the Presidents’ Lounge on July 31, 1976 and marked the 125th anniversary of Saint Joseph’s College and the last day of Fr. Toland's eight-year term as president.
"So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin,it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him."
We also chatted about the origin of the US News and World Report rankings of colleges. When he was president he never cared that St. Joe's was #1 -- he cared about the Magis -- making each student the best they could be, both academically and spiritually. That we were really competing against ourselves, not other schools. When I mentioned how much respect I had for the diversity program at his alma mater, St. Joseph's Preparatory School, now under the leadership of George Bur, SJ and Jose Gonzalez, he smiled and told me about giving academic opportunities to those who had none. That he really felt we did our job when taking a chance on a 2.5 incoming freshman who turned into a senior on the Dean's List.
I guess I could share some more of his stories, like the one about where Dan Berrigan, S.J. hid in Philadelphia when he was on the FBI's most wanted list... but I don't know if that's still a secret, so you may have to wait for his memoirs ;-) And I hope you are feeling better soon, and are able to jay walk on City Line Avenue soon, not to mention resume your duties at Chelsea before the summer closes.
To be continued?
For those who may have known Fr. Gannon (we used to joke and say his name like James Bond... Gannon, Ed Gannon, SJ) here's an excerpt from Michael Baumann's blog Edward Gannon, SJ (one of the good guys). Seems like I wasn't so special after all... he looked out for a great many students. Guess he considered us all special.
When I attended my 25th class reunion in 2007, I walked up to Gannon Hall, as if to pay my respects to the man who talked me off the ledge. I wonder if the students living in that building now have any idea of the lasting impact that man had on generations of students.
Father Gannon was a campus legend. He was much bigger than his diminutive frame and he had a commanding, reassuring presence where ever he went. Outside or in his office he usually had a cloud around him from the ever present cigarette in his hand. This was the only vice he allowed himself. When not in his roman collar he was usually in a turtleneck and a cardigan. He was like a weird hybrid of Albert Einstein and Mr. Rogers. To say that he was intelligent would be a gross understatement. Father Gannon was granted the title of University Professor which meant he could teach in any department in the University. His classes were impossible to schedule because upperclassmen would take every available space. Given what I just said, you should not assume that a class with Gannon was an easy A. You had to work to meet his incredibly high standards. He was not willing to accept anything less than what he thought you were capable of giving. He was not just teaching us philosophy or theology, he was teaching us to think, to question, to challenge. If we learned philosophy or theology along the way, so much the better. After the “The Empire Strikes Back” hit the streets at the end of my sophomore year, many of us were convinced that Yoda was channeling Gannon.