Golden Interlude

Author: Father Isaac McDaniel ’84M.A., ’91Ph.D.

The first two years of my graduate studies at Notre Dame were among the happiest of my life. I took four courses each semester and spent most of my time attending classes, reading and writing. After six claustrophobic years in the monastery, I was finally able to do what I wanted to do most. I often thought of Winston Churchill’s sage observation: “Fortune’s darlings are those whose work and their pleasure are one.”

Saint Meinrad had sent me off to study religion and Hispanic-American culture, but I gravitated instinctively towards courses in U.S. history. The first semester I enrolled in a class on American Thought Since World War II, taught by Philip Gleason. His lectures were well-organized, detailed and illuminating, though his manner of delivery was often less than compelling. He was patient with students who interrupted to ask for clarification, but he had little time for idle questions.

After he described John Kennedy’s foreign policy as a continuation of the Eisenhower years, an undergraduate raised his hand and asked, “Don’t you think that’s a little bit unfair?” Gleason retorted, “No. If I thought it were unfair, I wouldn’t have said it.” He corrected written assignments with a ruthless and exacting eye, and his sharp critiques helped me to improve my writing style.

I later signed up for his colloquium on American social history, which turned out to be the most intellectually demanding course I ever took, in part because there were only three other students in the class. We met one afternoon each week for two hours, sitting around a long rectangular table to discuss our reading assignments, which usually included two books and three or four academic articles per week. Gleason interrogated us with a barrage of trenchant questions, decisive inquiries that went to the heart of whatever we were discussing. His manner was quietly encouraging, but he didn’t hesitate to disagree when he thought a student’s judgment was off-target. He held us to the highest standards, and I usually left the classroom feeling a mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration.

I also signed up for Robert Kerby’s required seminar in U.S. history. Kerby gave us a run for our money, though he hardly looked the part of an erudite college professor. He was big-boned, middle-aged and paunchy, a chain-smoker with a Cheshire grin and a grizzled crew cut that made him look like an erstwhile football player who had long since gone to seed. A Melkite priest who presided at weekend Masses in a nearby parish, he spoke to his students with a finely-honed cynicism that made his clerical collar (which he wore only once, at the start of each semester) seem all the more incongruous.

He had a devastating wit and talked with a nasal twang that reminded me of George Burns, tossing off gruff remarks designed to startle and subdue his students. The first day of class, he informed us: “The good historian reads a book a day.” Then, leaning back to savor our audible intake of breath, he added: “If you don’t like the profession, ladies and gentlemen, then get out.”

One morning I cornered him in a booth at the University snack bar and induced him to tell me about his past. Before he became a teacher, he spent several years in the military, where he inhabited an Air Force command post, learned French in Japan and served as an American adviser in Vietnam during the early 1960s. He told me that General Paul Harkins, the U.S. commander in Saigon, once summoned a small group of advisers and asked them for their estimate of the war’s progress. Each of them gave a glowing prognostication, some even predicting that South Vietnam would win the war by Christmas.

Kerby said he told the general, “We’ll fight this war for 10 years, and then we’ll lose.” Harkins narrowed his eyes, leaned forward and muttered, “And you are a goddamn fool!”

Fredrick Pike presided over a colloquium on Latin American history. We met once every three weeks to discuss the assigned readings, which included more than a dozen books. Pike seemed less intimidating than Kerby, though he was reputed to be one of the top Latin American scholars in the country. He looked wiry, restless and keyed-up, his owlish expression peering out from behind round, reddish glasses, and his curly gray sideburns blossoming across his chin into a beard.

I also audited his undergraduate course on Spain and Spanish America. His lecture style was urgent, sometimes a trifle too melodramatic, as he waved his arms and his voice boomed across the small classroom. His eyes protruded whenever he listened with rapt attention to a student’s question. He had read widely in a vast miscellany of subjects, and he wove quotations, facts and disparate schools of thought into an elaborate tapestry of the past, sketching people and places so deftly that they seemed larger than life.

His gentle wit did not usually elicit much response from the undergraduates. One day he asked how many of them had read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. After a protracted silence, one student raised his hand and said, “I haven’t read it, but I was in a class once where we were assigned to read it.” Pike smiled and said, “Well, at least you had a close encounter.”

Father McDaniel is a priest in the archdiocese of Louisville, where he works in several parishes and teaches part time at Bellarmine University and Spalding University.