‘It isn’t Latin or Greek I’m teaching, but how to think’: Memories of a formative Jesuit educator
During the autumn of 1944, Canisius High School, a Jesuit school in Buffalo, N.Y., was breaking in a group of new teachers and also shifting its first-year boys to a new and improbable location. The first business was usual enough. Every fall, along with new lay teachers, several young Jesuits joined the faculty for what was called their regency—a few years of teaching before the theological studies that lead to ordination. There were four of those beginners that year, and I was one of them.
But starting classes at that new location was not routine; it was more like flying an airliner without instruments or much fuel. A few months before, the school, which had been housed for decades in a four-story, red-brick building on Washington Street in downtown Buffalo, had bought at a bargain price an immense layout in what was then a neighborhood of handsome private residences on Delaware Avenue. This building, popularly known as the Consistory, had been the local Masonic center—a gray stone mansion to which had been appended an auditorium that was big enough for occasional grand opera and auto shows and had bowling alleys and a swimming pool in its basement.
“It isn’t Latin or Greek I’m teaching,” Tom Jones once told his son Edward, “but how to think.”
What the Consistory naturally didn’t have were school facilities. All that summer, Lorenzo K. Reed, S.J., Canisius’ exemplary principal, directed an improvisation that converted the mansion’s quarters into temporary classrooms and its second-floor ballroom into a chapel, after William G. Vogelsang, the Jesuit brother who was the school’s chief engineer, had painted over a frieze of sportive cupids. In a booming wartime economy, students were plentiful, but instructional supplies were not. Father Reed made chalkboards by coating Beaverboard with a compound advertised as “blackboard paint,” and he cut yards of sheet metal to make book trays for some 300 tablet-arm chairs needed for the nine sections of incoming freshmen.
On a September morning when volunteers were carting those chairs from the foyer to the makeshift classrooms, I met for the first time Thomas J. Jones, the senior member of the lay faculty. From him I was to learn more about the practice of teaching than from any book or course in education. It was no accident that Tom Jones marvelously embodied the tradition of Jesuit secondary education and the workable principles of pedagogy that can be discovered beneath the rind of the 16th-century Jesuit handbook for school organization, the Ratio Studiorum, or Plan of Studies. He was himself the convinced and conscious product of that tradition at a time when it was still lively.
At Canisius High School, from which he graduated in 1919, and then at Canisius College on Main Street a few miles away, from which he graduated in 1923, he had been shaped by two teachers whose work dovetailed and amounted to a powerful one-two academic punch. At the high school, the German-born Frederick J. Bunse, S.J. (1863-1935), taught Latin and Greek grammar to generations of Buffalo Catholic youth. At the college, Francis X. Sindele, S.J. (1865-1936), taught a stiff course in classical rhetoric to some of the young men who had mastered the rudiments with Father Bunse. Tom Jones must have been one of the best students of those legendary teachers. He certainly became their influential professional heir.
In that autumn of 1944, Tom was 45 years old and had been teaching at Canisius since 1926. He was then a strong and solidly built man above middle height. Although his ancestry was Irish, he had an olive complexion that was the legacy of a childhood attack of jaundice. In his own school days, he had been a spectacular first baseman for whom a career as a professional ballplayer would have been a possibility if his mother had not disapproved. He still moved decisively, if a bit heavily. He had been serious as a student, and now he was serious as a teacher. He once recalled that in his first week as a Canisius boy he so feared being late that he ran to class one morning and dropped his new pocket watch on the way. The truth is that he was a worrier both by temperament and by vocation—as many good teachers are. An irrepressible Jesuit regent, who had a repertoire of one-line imitations of Canisius’ leading personalities, used to do Tom Jones by assuming an air of exaggerated sobriety and asking: “Father, how do you present the ablative absolute?”
For Tom Jones teaching was literally a vocation. His son remembers his father’s exact words: The work was done “for the church and for God.”
Of course, Tom could appreciate the off-beat recollections of former students—for instance, the story James Joyce would have relished of a pungent sermon during one of the annual retreats. Opposite the old school on Washington Street, there was a dusty building given over to manufacture of a long-forgotten nostrum called Dr. Pierce’s Pills. Between classes, the unregenerate among the seniors in the top-floor rooms used to make for the windows to watch the young women working in the loft across the way. The old German Jesuit who was retreat master one year underscored the consequences of this scandalous behavior. He pounded on the chapel floor and called out: “Canisius boy in hell, come up out of hell.” When the summons had presumably been answered, there was further inquiry: “Canisius boy in hell, why are you in hell?” Through the stern medium, the unseen wretch replied: “Oh, that pill factory! Oh, those Pierce girls!”
Anecdotes of this sprightly sort could draw a rueful smile from Tom, but his expression in repose was usually pensive. In his classes, however, he had no time for repose or even for sitting down. If lessons don’t keep teenage boys busy, they may provide action by hanging their textbooks out the window. At Canisius in 1944, first-year students had eight periods of Latin a week, and in Tom Jones’s sections all were involved all the time.
A perceptive commentator has said that the Ratio Studiorum contains only a single theoretical principle: Variety is good because satiety is bad. For beginners in Latin, Tom Jones had a dazzling variety of drills and exercises. Declensions and conjugations were run through in roaring unison or tossed to and fro antiphonally. Phrases to be completed or translated were batted out and hurled back. There were daily quizzes and ongoing competitions that matched individuals of equal ability with one another. There were no discipline problems in these classes because there was no room for them.
The art of some great teachers is so much a function of their personality that it cannot be easily shared. But Tom Jones did not operate instinctively, nor was he the outgoing, “boys’ man” type. His skills had been developed by reflection and practice. He prepared lesson plans every night and knew just how he got his effects. And because he was a true Christian, he had none of that careerism that sees colleagues as rivals. Although he offered no unsolicited advice, he seemed truly glad to share his knowledge, techniques and materials with anyone interested.
Tom Jones did not operate instinctively, nor was he the outgoing, “boys’ man” type. His skills had been developed by reflection and practice.
He might, for example, explain his strategy of four carefully graduated tests a month—one every Friday. The first was on new vocabulary; the next, on the grammatical inflections taught since the last such test; the third called for putting these recent acquisitions together by translating English sentences into Latin. The fourth test, which Tom fondly imagined to be playful relaxation, required translating a Latin passage at sight.
“It isn’t Latin or Greek I’m teaching,” Tom once told his son Edward, “but how to think.” Indeed, he could see 14-year-olds exercising their power to perceive relationships when they had to translate a tricky phrase like “to the good sailor” and make the adjective agree with the sailor’s gender rather than with his position in the first declension, where most nouns are feminine. For Tom Jones teaching was literally a vocation. His son remembers his father’s exact words: The work was done “for the church and for God.” It certainly could not have been done for money, because in the United States teachers have never been well paid. In 1925, Tom married Emily Wick of Fort Erie, and together they raised a daughter and two sons. For many years, Mrs. Jones worked as a secretary, and during the summer vacations, Tom picked up other jobs.
He continued to teach at Canisius until his retirement in 1964. By that time, the building on Washington Street had been torn down, and a new classroom wing accommodated the whole school on Delaware Avenue. Emily Jones suffered a disabling stroke in 1966, and Tom cared for her until her death in 1972. She died, he wrote to a friend, “gently and quietly as she had lived.” He lived on by himself—reading, taking long walks, watching television and keeping track of the 19 charities to which he sent part of his modest income. Five years ago, his infirmities obliged him to move to a nursing home. He was 88 when he died there last month during the first hour of Nov. 13. That was the feast day of St. Stanislas Kostka, who when he died as a Jesuit novice was 18, or about the age of a high school senior today.
Toward the end, great age had sadly diminished Tom Jones, but I had no direct knowledge of that. Although we exchanged Christmas cards and occasional notes, I never saw him again after I left Buffalo in June 1947. I remember him, therefore, as he was at the height of his powers, and one image stands for all the rest. At 4 o’clock on a winter afternoon, there is snow on the ground and the threat of more snow in the dark air. The school building is empty, but in the teachers’ room Tom Jones is still correcting that day’s quizzes. The results are good, and he looks up for a moment to ask with unselfconscious earnestness: “Isn’t it a privilege to teach these boys?”
Jesuit School Spotlight is a monthly feature focusing on Jesuit middle and secondary schools from around the country. It is underwritten in part by Jesuit high schools of the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus.