Today I’d like to share a 65-year-old story that illustrates the power of a college degree, as well as the kindness of two priests, who recognized the intellectual potential of a poor Irish kid from St. Louis.
It’s a sweet story about my father, Vincent Patrick O’Shaughnessy, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. As I sit at his bedside, this is the story more than any others – and my dad has lots of stories – that I love to remember.
My dad was supposed to attend an archdiocese high school back in the 1940’s, which would have provided him with an adequate education. Father Redding, the pastor of my dad’s grade school at St. Cronan, however, asked my dad one day why he wasn’t going to attend St. Louis University High School, a Jesuit school for boys. At the time, SLUH was considered the finest high school in St. Louis and it still is today.
My dad explained that his parents couldn’t possibly afford SLUH’s tuition. My dad’s parents, grandparents and two siblings lived in a tiny three-room (not three bedroom) house with one electrical outlet on the wrong side of the tracks. Undeterred, the priest picked up the phone and got the principal of SLUH on the line. The principal agreed to give my dad a scholarship.
My dad was placed in the top honor’s track at SLUH and he managed to do well at the school even though he worked most nights at a grocery store to support his family since his father was disabled. My dad often couldn’t begin his homework until after midnight.
From his hospital bed this week, my dad chuckled that the Jesuits at SLUH “brainwashed” him into believing that a college degree was not negotiable. He had to go to college. (His parents hadn’t even graduated from grade school.)
After graduating from high school, my dad was prepared to work his way through St. Louis University by attending classes at night, but then the GI bill came along after he got out of the Navy. He earned his electrical engineering degree at St. Louis University, where he made life-long friends, and he eventually pursued an engineering master’s degree and an MBA at SLU and Washington University in St. Louis respectively.
I can’t help thinking about how a simple phone call and the kindness of two priests changed the course of my dad’s life and his children as well. My dad’s brother and sister, who didn’t get the chance to attend an extraordinary college prep high school, never made it to college. And none of their children went to college either. All five of my mom and dad’s children graduated from college with at least one degree.
I wish I could thank the priests who gave my dad that chance. I will never forget their kindness.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution.