The Big BrothersRead Now
My class at St. Joe’s [freshman high school, September 1962] was the last of the six-year classes, i.e., four years of high school and two years of college on Aroma Hill. It occurred to me that those who joined several years later would not have experienced the campus as a high school/college establishment. Looking back, it was a curious arrangement, probably more difficult for the college men, particularly those who entered from the military or as graduates from outside colleges. None of the men who entered the college division of Callicoon from other colleges, businesses, or armed services received any “life experience” credit, and thus started from seminary scratch and lived side by side with the “lifers” who had come up through the seminary.
I was reminded of the college population when I received a kind letter from George Kelly, who had seen the St. Joe’s Reunion page and my Aroma Hill blog. We connected by phone in December and I picked his brains about life in Callicoon. George was a sixth-year man when my class arrived in September 1962, and his tenure on the hill began in 1957. He reminded me that he left St. Joe’s after the first semester of the 1962-63 academic year, so our “overlap” was just four months. George was the older brother of Gerry Kelly, who was a high school junior or senior and a basketball starter in that 62-63 academic year. I did remember George, as I looked up to his class on Olympus from my lowly freshman high school status, as well as a good number of his classmates.
George was a wealth of information about his class and St. Joe’s life. A few of his classmates I remembered by name, and he filled in most of the rest. The class senior was Bernie Del Mastro [see below]; Bernie’s brother Tony was senior of fifth year. Some other names: Bruce Pilon, Rich Pescatore, Paul Ehrhardt, Kevin Sweeney, Bill Gorley, Paul Wyskoska, Joe Kiernan [see below], Jack Leavins, John Gerdes [whose brother Dick was in my class], Anselm Spada, Paul McAuliffe, Bill Baranick, and Wayne Gartner among them. His class was among the first to break in Scotus Hall and recalls that there were problems with the building from the beginning. He told me that in his years there was a healthy interest in ham radios on campus, with a room in the main building dedicated to that hobby—with a cable extended to the gym, if I understand correctly.
George would go on to two distinct and highly successful careers—with the exploding computer field with IBM in 1967 and later the financial management world with Morgan Stanley. He remains active with his alma mater, what is now the New Jersey Institute of Technology or NJIT in the college basketball wrap-ups. He also maintained close contacts with several of the friars from Callicoon, those living at the retirement facility in Ringwood, New Jersey, including Anthony McGuire, Eric Kyle, Romuald Chinetski [the brother cook], and Brennan Connelly. He mentioned several other St. Joe’s veterans some of you may remember, including Dennis Vannote, Chip Brescio, and Frank Cincotta. Dennis was one of the seminary’s projection operators, and I remember very well that he was at the helm during the showing of “Sink the Bismarck” when the table fell, and the mighty ship disappeared beneath the screen. Amazingly, he got things running again.
George mentioned several Aroma Hill alumni whose stories are close to my own heart because of my later relationships with them. His class senior, Bernie Del Mastro, would take the religious name Brother Gabe, and six years later, when I arrived in our major seminary, Holy Name College, Gabe was in what would have been his ordination year but because of a nervous disorder his ordination was postponed. He lived at Holy Name for a few years during my time, and we became thick as thieves as we were both musicians and played every Saturday night at the base chapel Mass at Fort Myer [Arlington National Cemetery.] He taught me how to play a bass fiddle, among other things.
The Order believed that a change of scenery might do him good, and Gabe was assigned to Timon High School in Buffalo. As it turned out, my younger brother Al was the Don Corleone of the student body, and he and his friends protected Gabe and took a strong liking to him. Gabe, in turn, was the soul of kindness to young people, something I had seen when we gave youth retreats together inside the DC beltway. Soon Gabe and other friars [including Venard “Gerry” Carr] were regulars at my parents’ house, stopping in for dinner at least weekly. Gabe’s parents in New Jersey became close friends with my parents.
But Gabe’s emotional and physical symptoms did not abate, and in the summer of 1974, as I was working at St. Bonaventure University just prior to my own ordination, surgery revealed that Gabe had a massive brain tumor which led to his death that summer. I will never forget that funeral in New Jersey in his parents’ parish. It was a personal blow to me and maybe even more so to my family.
One of George’s classmates in his final year of Callicoon was a “belated vocation.” Joe Kiernan came to the seminary in 1962 from several years in the employment of Raytheon, the military contractor. Years later I would always chide him about his involvement in the military industrial complex. I was newly arrived at the major seminary in Washington about a week when Joe was ordained in 1969. He stayed in Washington to complete his doctorate in moral theology on world population at Catholic University. He became a professor in my seminary, and I had him in my last semester, spring 1974, just before my September ordination. The course was “social justice” and I enjoyed it, but in the madness of the pre-ordination build-up, I never completed the course paper and was awarded an “I” grade, as in incomplete. I had until October 6 to complete the paper.
Needless to say, with my summer job, then my first assignment in late August to a college campus ministry, then ordination and first Mass, I never got the paper done. I had a wedding scheduled for one of my retreat ministry kids in Georgetown on October 5, so I decided to fly into DC a day early and rejoin my Washington friar friends for the Feast of St. Francis before the wedding. At the cocktail hour I ran into Joe, and in some embarrassment, he reminded me that he would have to submit an “F” in two days for the course. In the glow of good scotch, I laughed it off and told him not to worry. [Little did I know that I would be submitting my transcript to Florida institutions and colleges for teaching positions in phase two of my life.]
Fast forward to 1985, a decade later. Joe was seeking a change of ministry, and the Order assigned him to a Florida parish where I happen to be the pastor and superior. We had remained good friends over the years and I was delighted to have him come on board, but I wasn’t going to let this opportunity for humor pass by. At the Masses on his first weekend, I announced to the parish that Father Joe had failed me in grad school, and therefore he would never have a day off while I was in charge.
In fact, Joe was the missing piece to the past pastoral team I ever belonged to. We quickly established the practice of having the entire adult parish staff join us for dinner several nights a week at the friary. Everyone had at least a master’s degree and read new theological books religiously, so we had many a fine dinner alongside the wine du jour. Joe, our true resident Ph.D., was coaxed to bring his professorial skills to the table. [A humble gentleman, he was averse to flouting his sheepskin at the table.] Somewhat prophetically, I observed to the group one day that it was rare to belong to such a compatible team, and that we should cherish our time together. It was during that time frame [1985-89] that we built the present church structure. But, as I sensed, good teams can disband very quickly, and by 1990 I had left the order on the way to laicization, and several others were promoted. Joe remained as pastor, but his health began to deteriorate, and he died about ten years ago.
Before I close, I need to remember several other college seminarians who left a good impression on me. A college freshman waited on my table during my first months on the Hill. Aubrey McNeill was extraordinarily patient with our incessant demands for seconds and thirds. He did not remain in the formation program then, but reconnected with the Order as an adult and eventually pastored at one of the friars’ historically Black parishes, St. Mary of the Angels, in Anderson, S.C. I had worked in that parish during summers in 1970 and 1971. My wife Margaret and I drove up to Clemson, S.C. in August 2017 to view the total eclipse on the Clemson University campus. We arrived the Sunday before, and I drove over to St. Mary’s on the chance that I might catch Aubrey. Aubrey was indeed home, and we spent several hours talking about Callicoon, but more about the outstanding work the friars in Anderson, which had come a long way from my student days in the early 1970’s. Aubrey was clearly in declining health, and he passed away shortly after our visit.
I believe it was my sophomore year [1963-64] that a Minnesotan entered the college program after graduating from St. Bonaventure University. Orrie Jirele had been a starter on the St. Bonaventure Division I basketball team that finished fourth in the national polls in 1961. I had seen him play in Buffalo and on TV, where the Bonnies, then #2 in the country, lost the final game of the Holiday Festival to Ohio State, the nation’s number one team, by an 84-82 score in Madison Square Garden, on New Year’s Eve, 1960.
Orrie was an affable and friendly fellow who frequently fielded my many questions about his basketball days. On occasion he would break out his fiddle. He played for our college team in his one year with us and shocked quite a few of our opponents with his magical ball handling, particularly a memorable night against Delhi Tech, which generally had its way with us. There is an old surviving story that some of Orrie’s former teammates at St. Bonaventure called the seminary’s emergency phone number to say hello to their old friend at 2 AM. I looked him up this week and discovered that he died in 2013 at the age of 73. From several Minnesota reports, it appears that he devoted his life to high school coaching and teaching math, as well as significant involvement in the leadership of his Catholic parish.
God bless them all.
The Boys of Aroma Hill