As a Jesuit scholastic, I spent one year at America. In the summer of 1994, I returned to the United States from a two-year stint with the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Africa, and my provincial superior told me I needed another year of regency before applying for admission to study theology. At the time I saw it as a punishment.
Now I see it as a grace. For I was missioned to the place that I returned to after ordination and that has been my home for the past 16 years. That “punishment” led to the ministry that I so enjoy: working at America Media.
None of this would have been possible without the extraordinarily kind welcome of George W. Hunt, S.J., who served as editor in chief here from 1984 to 1998. Since my first incarnation, I’ve worked under four editors, all fine Jesuits, all very different. When I refer to our current editor, Matt Malone, S.J., sometimes I like to paraphrase the speaker of the Robert Browning poem and say, “That’s my fourth editor.”
George was my first editor, and what an editor! First, he was a brilliant writer, a former literary editor of America, whose sparkling prose never disappointed. He could dash off one of these Of Many Things columns in record time, in longhand, and have it fit perfectly to the space constraints. Second, he was immensely well read, with a doctorate in English, and had written widely on John Cheever and John Updike. It was a rare treat to be at America House in 1997, when we presented the latter with the Campion Award, and see George so at home with the master.
Charming, erudite, articulate, polite and always a gentleman, George was also unflappable. He presided serenely over even the most contentious editorial meetings, with his half glasses perched on a patrician nose (he reminded me of Franklin D. Roosevelt), saying calmly, “Oh yes, very good. Let’s go with that.”
But he was no pushover. A Jesuit once wrote to ask me if we’d consider a possible article. I gave him some guidelines, but cautioned him (as we do) that this was no guarantee of acceptance. A few weeks later, Father Hunt called me into his office and said, “What’s this?” holding out a piece of paper like smelly cheese.
The article had been rejected, and the author had written George an intemperate letter saying, in essence: How dare you reject my piece? I explained that I had given him advice but cautioned him not to presume acceptance of his article. George raised his eyebrows, crumpled the paper and tossed it into the trash can. “Nor any future articles.”
George was also exceedingly kind to me. One Friday he asked if I’d like to visit the old Jesuit novitiate and the philosophy school, both north of New York. Very much, I said. The next day we piled into the community car and drove to Poughkeepsie. At the novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson, which had become the Culinary Institute of America, George delighted in telling me how he used candlewax to polish the old linoleum floor in the entranceway, where the seal “AMDG” still shines. At Shrub Oak, the former philosophate, then a halfway house for recovering addicts, George approached the front desk, said he used to live there and was asked, “Were you a patient?” He threw his head back and laughed (not unlike F.D.R.).
The day was all the more impressive because George was essentially an introvert. It made this Jesuit feel very welcome at America and in New York.
It’s entirely appropriate that we now have a literary award named after Father Hunt. It has been given to Philip Metres, a professor at John Carroll University, whose lecture at the awards ceremony we welcome into our pages (p. 16). I can easily imagine George reading Mr. Metres’s poetry, peering down through his half glasses and saying, “Oh yes, very good, very good.”