Chapter XIV: The End of the Beginnings
Near the end of February, 1949, the architects Maginnis and Walsh sent on to us their detailed drawings of the college plant. Now we could better revise our attempts to match up initial costs with available funds. I recall one rather substantial change in the blueprints. We would have to reduce the cubic footage of the main building by a third. This meant a slice five stories high, from the center of the building!
When the earth dried out in the spring, about April, 1949, we started the site preparation. From the East Avenue intersection, we bulldozed a road curving north by east up to the top of the hill. It provided a news story about the college and again the campaign income rose.
To the James Stewart Co. of New York City, the stadium contract had been let. The firm sent to Rochester one of their best superintendents. He was a Mr. Joseph Cunningham, World War I hero, builder of the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey, astute engineer and all-round great personality. We became close friends. His firm intended to bid on the college project. By June, the Stewart Co.'s job was in full stride, pressing for a full opening of the stadium.
We were ready to turn the first sod at the St. John Fisher College site in mid-June. Joe Cunningham had a crew build a platform on the hillside of the college land for which, incidentally, he never sent the college a bill. "Breaking ground" for new buildings is a time honored ceremony, but it's difficult to make an exciting event of it, Its chief purpose is to declare, "At last we're on our way!"
We had good news coverage, and a large crowd assembled. One newspaper carried a previous notice that "The Rev. Hugh J. Haffey, C.S.B., executive director of the college, said today that diocesan officials, civic and educational leaders will attend the ground breaking. 'We cordially welcome everyone to join us for these ceremonies, particularly those who shared in the drive to finance the college.'"
Two weeks previously on June 5th, at the University of Ottawa convocation exercises, I received the earned degree of Doctorate in Philosophy (Ph.D.). My doctoral thesis was "The Philosophy of the Liberal Arts." It had taken some 10 years of intermittent courses, reports, studies at Laval University, New York University, Columbia and Ottawa. They were all worth the effort.
One of the last things our secretary, Miss Zelda Lyons, did for me was to supervise the typing of my 300-page thesis.
The ground breaking proved to be my last public official act as the executive officer at St. John Fisher College. My Superior General was transferring me to Detroit for the next school year. Thence, to the University of St. Thomas in Houston. At Detroit, I tried to help our Catholic Central High School with a citywide campaign to build a faculty residence. It was only partially successful. I learned quickly that Detroit was not Rochester.
Basilians take a vow of obedience to go and do the things deemed best by the Superior General. To the individual subject the good Lord gives the grace to be docile to the superior's decision. It was a pleasant experience for me to understand that my superiors were likewise being inspired and directed by grace. The past triumphal years of St. John Fisher's growth and development are witness to this divine aid.
"There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." - (Hamlet, Act V, Sc. 2 1. 10)
As the first President of the college, the Basilian Community could not have chosen a finer, more competent person than Father John Murphy. Nor could it have improved on the assignment of Father John O'Meara as Dean of the new college. To recruit staff and students and to structure curricula would be their immediate concerns. No pair of administrators could match these two for efficiency. In the earlier years at Aquinas Institute, these men were my esteemed colleagues. It seemed such an obvious arrangement that they should continue to serve the Rochester people with their educator expertise, as directors of the new college.
The teaching faculty at Aquinas in 1939 was additionally fortified. We counted in our ranks one Father John Kelly, C.S.B., who in recent years has been the President of St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto. Father John was an assistant in my Aquinas Mission Crusade. I was pleased to learn in recent years of his election to the Board of Trustees of St. John Fisher College.
In 1940, a young Basilian scholastic was assigned to teach at Aquinas who in future years was destined to be the second President of St. John Fisher College. This was Charles J. Lavery, C.S.B. As a lay student at St. Michael's College, Charles was one of my very best students. When he later joined the Basilians, his graduate studies were interrupted to teach at Aquinas for one year. Like John Kelly, he became my great aide in the work of the Mission Crusade. Under his aegis, there developed a group study project which involved the girls from Nazareth Academy, Mercy High, Sacred Heart Academy and the Aquinas boys. So much of the interschool, intergroup activity that would appear to be the discovery of the 60's and 70's was operative in the 1940's in Rochester. Father Lavery was years ahead of his time.
By way of recapitulation, in that one year at Aquinas Institute, there were on the staff three future college presidents, Fathers Murphy, Kelly, Lavery; one college dean, Father O'Meara; and one college executive director, myself.
In another year, the second Dean of St. John Fisher College, Father Joseph Dorsey, was my colleague at Aquinas.
For some years, I have felt that much of the success experienced by the college has been due to the confidence that Rochesterians have had in Basilian education. The Superior General in staffing both Aquinas and St. John Fisher sent good men to teach.
Gilbert Highet in his The Art of Teaching, a college classic, tries to analyze the "force of tradition" in schools and colleges. Large public colleges are not as likely to have preserved it as have private colleges. Colleges which have been church related in their early history are more likely to have this force in significant measure.
No one seems to know the future of higher education. To recommend blind adherence to tradition for tradition's sake could well be a stupid position. So also could be the attitude that the colleges must be completely overhauled if they are to survive.
As one who had a hand in getting a college started, I would single out the notion of "compassion" as the necessary distinguishing and continuing feature of the great college: compassion on the part of administrators and teachers towards the students; compassion on the part of the students for each other.
The beginnings of St. John Fisher College were rooted in the compassion of a great leader, Bishop James E. Kearney. For him and for us, the source and the model of compassion is Jesus Christ. In His Holy Name, St. John Fisher College was founded.