Thanksgiving is a time to say thanks for kindnesses, favors and good deeds that have gone too long without expressions of gratitude.
Sometimes it’s too late to tell the person. Sometimes you don’t even know the name of the stranger who gave you a lift, helped you out of a jam, extended a hand when you felt like you were drowning.
But it does a body good, I think, to recall those acts. It’s a reminder how we all fit together and how our lives are built upon goodness given.
Last year I wrote about a high school basketball coach. This year I’m thinking of teachers I had at Notre Dame.
John Dunne, CSC, ’51, who passed away this past year, would be on the minds of many who might recall an indelible teacher. He was a popular, inspiring and beloved professor of theology. What I learned from him during two semesters of my senior year has stayed with me for a lifetime and guided my life as it unfolded over time. He provided truths I carried like a medicine bundle during travels good and bad.
That’s more than enough to warrant a “thank you.” But there was something else.
There were maybe 50 or 60 of us in each of his classes. He had no idea who I was. But still, when I needed a letter of recommendation for graduate school, I went to his office and asked. And he said yes.
But he also asked me to send him some information about myself and maybe one of the papers I had done for his class, one that might help him say something about this stranger at his door.
I had no justification for asking this of him; he could easily have said no. But he didn’t. The man who often said he labored all day over a single paragraph in one of his books agreed to write a letter on behalf of a student who should have known better than to ask.
I should have gone back to thank him for that when I was accepted into grad school. But I didn’t.
I do not know what ever became of Mike Melody ’71M.A., ’76Ph.D., but he was much more influential on my life than he would ever guess. And he wouldn’t think to guess. I seriously doubt he would even remember my name.
But for two semesters my sophomore year (or was it junior year?) he taught what was then called Collegiate Seminar, a required course. Mike was a scraggly and somewhat disheveled grad student, and also an RA in Farley Hall where I lived. And every Monday night all the Farley sophomores (or was it juniors?) in Arts and Letters gathered in the lounge for three hours to fulfill that requirement.
It worked like this: Two students wrote papers and led the discussion on the week’s readings and were also responsible for bringing the wine. We read the requisite literature of the day (Aristotle, Augustine, Camus and Marx), but Mike also had an interest in indigenous people. Native American spirituality was the subject of his doctoral dissertation.
We read a couple of books on humanity’s relationship with the earth. Exploring such natural connections to the landscape had been personally important to me. But until Mike Melody opened the windows, I didn’t know that so much thought, writing and analysis had addressed the subject — that so many wise and serious thinkers had examined so deeply what had been mere notions to me driving around and camping out.
Writing about the environment and our relationship with it has been a significant current in my life, and Mike Melody opened those taps in a revelatory way. He also — despite our joking — orchestrated some surprisingly meaningful and earnestly engaged conversations from a ragtag band of playful pretend scholars.
I should have thanked him. He died in 2003.
Joseph X. Brennan, on the other hand, had the air of an intellectual about him — erudite, literary, with sophisticated tastes in music and the arts. Every Monday night my senior year five of us went to his house for a class on Willa Cather. We went to his study and perched on chairs while he sipped sherry and talked long about the work and life and themes of the great American novelist.
The poor man could not have recruited five quieter, shyer English majors, and he tried his best to get us to talk, to participate, to make his Monday evenings easier. And each Monday night, when we drove back to campus in a single car, we all went on about how brilliant were his lectures, how great was the material, how much we liked Cather and how certain we were that next week — this time for sure — we would all enter in.
And each Monday night went the same. It must have been excruciating for him. He must have thought we were deadly bored.
Some years back I would see Brennan, who had a bad leg, walking around the track at Loftus for exercise. Each time I would think I should wait for him to finish, or walk alongside him, and tell him how much those lectures meant, how sorry we were we talked so little, but how much we benefitted from those classes, his gifts.
But I never did. He died in his home in 2010.
There were others of course. Notre Dame is nothing without the legions of men and women who have taught here and given their lives to young people, not just stimulating minds and illuminating hearts, but showing by example how to be human. The list is long; we all have our litany.
But these teachers, these stories come to mind this Thanksgiving week. There are others — others for whom it is not too late to say thank you. That’s what Thanksgiving’s for.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.