Two Jesuit grads who fought in Vietnam honor their classmate who protested it
In 1960, three young men graduated from Fordham Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school nestled on the historic Rose Hill campus in the Bronx alongside Fordham University, and set out on paths that would painfully clash as the Vietnam War unfolded. Jack Geraghty ventured south to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and Jack Bergen headed north to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Brendan Walsh enrolled at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., where he studied under a pacifist faculty member, Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J.
After leaving the seminary in 1967, Mr. Walsh relocated to Baltimore, where he worked with his former teacher’s brother, Philip Berrigan, who was then a Josephite priest, and became active in the antiwar movement. Mr. Walsh married Willa Bickham, a former nun, registered nurse and kindred spirit. It was Mr. Walsh who drove the Cantonsville Nine to the Selective Services Office on May 17, 1968, where they stole hundreds of draft files and burned them in the agency parking lot. They were all arrested for their antiwar activities.
In 1960, three young men graduated from Fordham Preparatory School and set out on paths that would painfully clash as the Vietnam War unfolded.
In 1968, Mr. Walsh and Ms. Bickham turned their house, an outpost of the antiwar movement, into a Catholic Worker house of hospitality called Viva House. Their very first visitor was reportedly Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Mr. Walsh embarked on a life focused on the plight of the marginalized in Baltimore.
By that time, Mr. Geraghty had become captain of a Swift Boat in the treacherous rivers of the Mekong Delta, while Mr. Bergen had joined a South Vietnamese battalion in the hills north of Danang as an Army Ranger. Both returned from the war with Bronze Stars.
After the war, their lives continued on different courses. Mr. Geraghty left the Navy and became a successful Wall Street executive. Mr. Bergen continued an Army career that ended in the Pentagon, where he was the speechwriter for Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Later, he became an executive at CBS and Alcoa.
In 1968, Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham turned their house, an outpost of the antiwar movement, into a Catholic Worker house of hospitality called Viva House.
More than a half century later, Mr. Walsh and Ms. Bickham are still working and living in Viva House, which has remained a beacon of hope in Baltimore. They have served millions of meals, provided temporary emergency shelter to countless individuals and families displaced by tragedy and violence, and distributed tons of groceries to local residents. Their home has been a focal point for residents, volunteers, and local and national leaders, who meet there to discuss and tackle the complex problems of poverty and violence.
In their 2017 book, The Long Loneliness in Baltimore: Stories Along the Way, Mr. Walsh and Ms. Bickham describe the steady destructiveness of urban poverty and hunger. Describing its impact on families, they observe: “At one time, Viva House served mostly older men with drug or drinking problems; now we see young families with children.” They admit their work has become more challenging of late: “[T]he soup pots and canned goods feel heavier, while the lines for the kitchen and pantry seem endless.”
Notwithstanding their differences, in 2021, Mr. Bergen and Mr. Geraghty nominated Mr. Walsh for a coveted award at Fordham Prep for Mr. Walsh’s 50-year effort to combat poverty in the city of Baltimore. Their Jesuit high school periodically recognizes in its Hall of Honor those “men and women for others” selected from the school’s community who deploy their talents to make a difference in the world. Past inductees include a governor of New York; the founder of Operation Smile; the founder of a middle school for girls in the inner city of Hartford; a fireman felled on Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center; and a general who served in the Civil War.
Recognizing the value of Mr. Walsh’s service, Mr. Geraghty and Mr. Bergen seeded an endowment in Mr. Walsh’s name.
In Mr. Bergen’s speech at the Hall of Honor induction ceremony in 2022, he acknowledged the incongruity “of those who fought in Vietnam supporting a classmate who was burning draft cards and spilling blood on the steps of the Pentagon.” He and Mr. Geraghty never wavered from their decision to serve in the Vietnam War despite the withering antiwar criticism from groups with which Mr. Walsh was associated. Yet they found peace in the healing power of the passage of time and in a visceral respect for Mr. Walsh’s selfless service.
“Most of us,” Mr. Bergen noted, “think we’ve lived a good life and give credit to Fordham Prep for our success…and have been given frequent credit and recognition from family and peers for that success. Despite Brendan showing a dedication, persistence and courage that exceeds anything I can claim in my own life, I’ll bet he got far less encouragement or recognition.”
Recognizing the value of Mr. Walsh’s service, Mr. Geraghty and Mr. Bergen seeded an endowment in Mr. Walsh’s name to support the school’s numerous service program initiatives. Many of their classmates and other alumni have pledged to support the endowment.
Earlier this year, eight students and two staffers traveled to Viva House to meet Mr. Walsh and hear his story. They also hand-delivered more than 150 bags of food collected by the student body during the school’s annual Hunger Awareness Month. And the Prep’s 2023 graduating class voted to donate their class gift to the Brendan Walsh Service Endowment.
Fifty-five years ago, three men were willing to die or go to prison for their vastly opposing views. Today, one remains a pacifist; the other two continue to honor friends and academy classmates who died in Vietnam (and a Prep classmate, Eugene Pabst, who remains missing in action). While Mr. Geraghty and Mr. Bergen remain proud of their military service, by honoring Walsh’s contributions to a different life of service, they have found a way to heal old wounds and join him in a cause important to their alma mater and vital to the community.