My Fairfield Years

In the fall of 1978, when I arrived at Fairfield University – a small Jesuit school in Connecticut – wanting to learn how to write I joined the staff of the school newspaper “The Fairfield Mirror.”

Interviewing Head Baseball Coach and Athletic Director C. Donald Cook about the upcoming baseball season was my first assignment.

Unproven and unqualified, having been on campus two weeks, I went to meet one of the more influential persons there. But, in Cook’s modest office in the Fairfield gym, an obscure freshman and the Athletic Director were on equal footing.

After years of playing their “home” games off campus, Cook’s enthusiasm furthermore for the baseball team’s new on campus home field taught me the first Ignatian lesson I learned at Fairfield: always cultivate gratitude.

Confident yet grateful after my experience with Cook, I covered the baseball, soccer, and rugby teams, and after a month, Sports Editor Steve Motta ‘79 gave me my own column, “Athlete of the Week.”

While writing for “The Mirror” was an education, I also appreciated the formal education I received.

Walter Petry’s Western Civilization classes my freshman year were my most memorable academic experiences at Fairfield.

His legendary quizzes were learning crucibles, unlike anything we had ever experienced. My heart sank when I received a 63 on the first quiz, but my mark was stellar compared to another classmate’s 29.

Mr. Petry paced the floor, pleading with us for a good answer, with his left hand scrunched up as if to snatch up the first decent one, which came his way.

His ardor for knowledge impressed my increasingly restless soul. One spring night freshman year, unable to concentrate on the books assigned to me, I walked to Nyselius Library and took out Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

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Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe’s writing about a young writer establishing himself in Manhattan fueled my desire to take advantage of Fairfield’s proximity to the city. I visited my brother Jim and sister-in-law Susan there a couple times a year.

Accompanying them to art galleries, museums, movie theaters, bars, and restaurants dramatically enlarged my world. I wanted to absorb the visual, gustatory, and auditory sensations I experienced even if they almost overwhelmed me.

I studied Jim’s practical lessons. When you hail a cab, step off the curb and shoot your arm straight in the air. And he taught me how to handle cabbies to get where I was going without being taken for a ride. Jim finally taught me one last memorable lesson: never eat at a Needick’s.

Better equipped to live in the “real” world, I didn’t feel like an adult until I was the “Mirror” Sports Editor my senior year.

Striving to achieve the high standards “Mirror” Editor-in-Chief, the estimable Michael “Doc” Dougherty ‘79 established our freshman year, my good friend Carl Gustafson ’82 nonetheless carved his own trail as Editor-in-Chief.

Brimming over with enthusiasm, always running at full speed and volume, challenging us to reach higher, Carl brought out the best in us.

Encouraging us to play softball, go to dinner, support fundraising efforts, enter group academic and athletic contests together, Carl fostered a camaraderie, which brought us closer to each other than we had been to any other group of people.

That camaraderie informing us, and doughnuts, pizza, and Coke fueling us, each Sunday we worked into Monday morning and put out one of the best college papers nationally.

My time as a “Mirror” Editor finally prepared me to live in the world, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Although journalism seemed a natural progression, I sensed I wanted to do something else with my life.

What that could be began to emerge during my senior year when I rediscovered my profound appreciation for what I took for granted; Fairfield is a Jesuit school. Its Jesuitness drew this Georgetown Prep graduate to it.

And the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ (JVC) Jesuitness encouraged me to apply to the JVC: to do a year of service living and working alongside poor people.

But I believed going into the JVC was buying me time until I figured out what I wanted to do.

However, after a year working at a Latino parish in San Antonio and second year working at a homeless shelter in New Orleans, I was on a journey I couldn’t have anticipated taking as a white male, who grew up in relatively affluent circumstances.

This journey has taken me from the St. Thomas Housing Projects in New Orleans to lean-to shacks in Pickens County, AL, from marching from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty alongside Sister Helen Prejean to working to overcome racism in Birmingham, AL with people, who marched with Dr. King, from working with undocumented immigrants in Houston to working with African Americans in Washington, DC’s storefront churches.

If Campus Minister, the late Kim McElaney, herself a JVC alumna, hadn’t invited a JVC recruiter to campus in the fall of 1981, none of this would have happened.

But when you promote justice in the service of faith, you encounter more opposition than support, more defeats than victories, and you rely upon your steadfast friends’ unconditional love to remain faithful.

In my case, I rely upon my “Mirror” family. We’ve celebrated weddings and births. We’re happy when our friends’ children do well, but listen compassionately when our friends’ children struggle. We comfort each other as our parents’ health declines, and consoled each other when these parents finally gave up the ghost.

Numerous reunions have strengthened our bonds, and our Fairfield experience just gets better. At our most recent reunion in October 2015, something magical happened when I re-connected with Mary- Margaret Walsh ’84. A past Alumni Association President, she was a “Mirror” Arts and Entertainment and Executive Editor.

Dilly and Dally ClevelandJPG

Mary- Margaret and I in a Cleveland Hotel, en route to Chicago for Jim and Susan’s oldest son Ian’s July 2016 wedding.

We took a chance. And traveling between Connecticut and Washington, DC, 35 years after we met, we fell in love, and are engaged to marry.

In the end then, after all these years, Fairfield gave me love and companionship. Who could ask for more?

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My Abolitonist Anniversary

On the road to abolition in central Texas in 19991.

On the road to abolition in central Texas in 19991.

October 24 marks a significant milestone for me. On that date in 1984, I joined 25 others on a three day 78-mile march, from outside New Orleans to the Louisiana state capital Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty.

I was 24, and after two years in the JVC, I had begun work at the Holy Ghost Community Center, providing direct assistance to persons in an uptown New Orleans community near the Magnolia Housing Projects. And I was restless to do more to promote justice.

The late George Lundy got me involved in the Ernest Knighton case that fall. He faced imminent execution, and George and others were trying to gain clemency for him from Louisiana’s Pardon Board. High on drugs, Knighton shot a convenience store clerk during a botched robbery in Bossier City. The bullet ricocheted off the clerk’s shoulder before traveling to his heart killing him.

Knighton’s impulsiveness argued for clemency. Circumstances in another contemporaneous Bossier City murder also demonstrated how racist and arbitrary Knighton’s sentence had been. In that case, three white men raped and murdered a young African American woman. They slit her throat, and let out a rebel yell of triumph. Yet, a jury spared these men’s lives.

The Knighton case was the march’s catalyst, and when I received the invitation to join it, I was ready to move. Catholic social justice types, civil rights leaders and civil libertarians formed our ranks. “A rag tag band of protestors,” was how one journalist described us.

We certainly weren’t properly prepared for that kind of march. It was in the 80’s that weekend, but we didn’t apply enough sunscreen and discovered moleskin’s virtues to protect blisters belatedly. As a result, we walked a marathon three consecutive days, sweaty and sunburned, with blisters and sore legs.

Misery engendered solidarity, which our mutual convictions about capital punishment strengthened. We slept on gym floors, and showered in strangers’ homes. We ran through BENGAY tubes, and cracked numerous jokes about our quarters smelling like old folks’ homes. Yet, generous volunteers fed us well, and the camaraderie we experienced as we got to know our new friends, over a few beers, nourished our souls and lifted our spirits and prepared us for the journey ahead. By the time we arrived at the capitol at dusk Sunday evening, our legs burning with lactic acid build up, I was a confirmed abolitionist.

As I committed to do more to end Louisiana’s death penalty, I soon discovered however how difficult and long the road to abolition would be. We were trying to change a law that the overwhelmingly majority strongly supported. We didn’t know how to address victims’ families’ members understandable anger or counter the perception we were bleeding hearts more concerned with murderers than crime. We were also largely a movement of white justice types that had to confront our own racism if we hoped to sustain our movement. Plus, we faced the typical internal personal and philosophical differences.

Until I left New Orleans in 1987, I worked alongside Helen Prejean to organize more actions against the death penalty, working imperfectly, messily, painfully, all too humanly through the above issues. I encountered similar issues when I worked with my good friend Rick Halperin and others to organize the statewide Texans Against State Killing march in 1991.

In 1993, I participated in the first Journey of Hope in Indiana. Persons who had lost a family member to murder but opposed capital punishment led this two-week educational tour, which represented a sea change in advocacy against the death penalty.

Family members’ powerful eloquent testimony exposed the myth all victims’ family members wanted vengeance. Journey members also exposed the lie the death penalty brings closure to them, when nothing can bring back their loved ones; executions merely compound their suffering. Compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation will heal victims, rehabilitate offenders, and turn our society away from vengeance, violence and death toward mercy, peace and life.

That message has gradually taken hold nationally. 18 states have abolished the death penalty and others such as New Hampshire and Delaware appear close to abolition. These realities, which seemed far-fetched 30 years give me great hope abolition will become universal in the United States.

The understandable anxiety persons experience in the age of Terrorism presents new challenges to death penalty opponents. However, I’m confident the tide has turned, and I will continue to write and speak about abolition. And one October 24 I hope I won’t commemorate another anniversary as an abolitionist.

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