I had the opportunity to have dinner a few weeks ago with some friends I haven’t seen in a long time. Among them were two men who made a tremendous difference in my life as mentors and teachers, back when I was in high school and college. I was so glad I had the opportunity to express to them my gratitude for a gift that ultimately knows no bounds, and has a value beyond estimation. Theirs was the gift of teaching, mentoring, giving an example of Christian manhood, and drawing from me gifts I did not know I had.
Scripture says, Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6). And I want to say that, to a large degree, I have seen that happen for me. And as I look back over my life, and I think things over, I can truly say that I was blessed with strong men who guided me in the right way. Both of them had their own wife and children, but they were like fathers and mentors to me too.
High School and college were not easy years for me. I had a rebellious streak, as do many young men of that age. And frankly, I was having a tough time with my own father, again, as most young men do. It was during this time that Col. Leonard Loomis (United States Army) encouraged me to join the High School Choir he was organizing in the parish I attended. Not being able to sing well, I balked at the notion but he assured me that a good number of very pretty girls had already signed up, and that sealed the deal, I was in. At that same time I also met Col. Wayne Kastl (United States Air Force) who was the organist and accompanist for the choir. And thus began a journey for me that would ultimately lead to the priesthood.
I was these two men, along with my Father and also my track coach (who I will mention more specifically in a moment) who ultimately summoned me to manhood. Theirs were the lessons of discipline, responsibility, confidence, meeting challenges, facing down fears, and stepping up and out into life. These were men who called gifts out of me that I never knew I had. In the span of the five years I knew them, I discovered not only musical abilities, but also leadership, and even my own faith.
I cannot say to you that when I joined the choir I even believed in God. I was in something of an angry, agnostic phase, questioning everything, and only going to Church because my mother made me. But through music and witness, a door I had shut, eased opened. Cols. Loomis and Kastl did not only teach music they spoke of the faith that underlay what we sang. And they spoke as men. That was important to me since I had come to see spirituality as a sissified thing (frankly, a lot of it was in the early 1970s, if you ask me). But they modeled Christian manhood in a way that I, a young man could aspire to. And as I learned to trust them, I started to listen. Their words and the power of the music working with God’s grace gradually curbed my anger and clarified my doubts.
They also summoned me and the other members of the choir to discover our gifts and to learn about leadership. Soon enough that had me doing some cantoring. I remember how terrified I was at first, but there’s just something about two military colonels designating a young man leader and telling me I could do it. So I did and eventually mastered it.
In those years, inspired by Col Kastl, I also learned to play the organ and Col. Loomis taught me how to tune and repair the pipe organ. I got good enough that a local pipe organ builder offered me a job which I had for two summers. I would also go on in later years to be the organist at the seminary I attended.
Leadership and a path the priesthood took a leap forward when I was appointed director of the choir. Col. Loomis had been transferred and I, by that time in college, was asked to take the lead. Again, I was terrified but I was assured by two men that I was ready. Col Kastl really saw me through in the early years of directing and we had long talks on the faith and the Church. Here too he led me by stages to ever greater challenges, and my first experiences of real leadership. It was good to have a strong and steady presence gently urging me on. I had gone from a rebellious, agnostic, and angry teenager to a more faith-filled and steady young man by stages under the care of some very good and solid men.
I am also most grateful to my Track and Cross country Coach Paul Syzmonski. He too, helped summon me to manhood. Sports have a way of testing you. And as every good coach, he demanded discipline, dedication, and determination. And he modeled all those as well. He ran with us every day and was able to combine humor with serious and sober instruction. He was a friend, but always in a proper way that never surrendered his role as teacher and elder. He expected the best from us, and was willing to rebuke us when we needed it, but always added praise for what we did well.
His nick-name for me was gutbustius clenchfistae (that’s “pig” Latin for the fact that I ran with an often pained look on my face, looking like I was about to bust a gut).
Some of those ten mile runs in the heat of the summer were quite the test, but Mr Syzmonski never sent us on a run he wasn’t willing to make, and he often boasted he would outrun us all. The challenge laid out, we hit the trail and some of us got good enough to beat him. Under his leadership I lettered in track for three years and was made captain of the Cross Country Team. My best time in the mile was 4:44; not record setting, but not bad for the scrawny teenager I was.
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.
I am grateful for these men who made such a difference in my life. My father too, though I was often stubborn with him, pointed the way.
If you’re raising children, don’t give up, don’t despair, and certainly don’t stop insisting or challenging. There were times in my teenage years when, if you saw me, you’d wonder how I ever got to be a priest. It did not look so good for a while, or that I’d amount to anything. But God sent men like these, and many others beside. And though I often balked, and was slow to learn, though I made mistakes, and did not always follow the sound advice I was given, I actually was listening. And, having been trained up in a godly way, I have not turned from it now that I am old(er).
Thank you Lord for these good men. Thank you for all those who showed me the way. Help me to do the same for others. And when I get discouraged Lord, help me remember that these men did not give up on me, and neither should I give up on those you send me. Thank you Lord. Thank you!
Bottom Right: Me (center photo) running so as to win.
Middle Left: Me as Organist at Seminary (looking very serious).
Top Right: Me, all grown up, exhorting youth at the rally for life, trying to return the favor and lessons.
Here’s an inspirational video about the next generation, (if we train em up).