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Bell-Jeff students get ‘Wisdom from Giants’

Bellarmine-Jefferson High School students looking to carve out a life path can now turn to the likes of Desmond Tutu and Jane Goodall for inspiration.

The Catholic high school recently published “Wisdom of Giants,” a collection of 100 letters addressed to the 300-member student body from some of the greatest world leaders and scholars.

“When you look at the compilation, there are some fantastic people represented,” said Bellarmine-Jefferson Principal Sister Cheryl Milner.

Glendale resident and Bellarmine-Jefferson economics teacher Dennis Ryan launched the project in 2001.


“We thought it might be interesting to post in the glass-enclosed wall case in the main hall letters from important people,” Ryan said.

Ryan, 75, a retired stock broker, began writing up requests on a typewriter at the public library next to Bellarmine-Jefferson at Olive Avenue and Glenoaks Boulevard. He asked each respondent to offer some life advice, and to make book recommendations.

The first letter came from his longtime personal friend, John Wooden. The second was from broadcaster Walter Cronkite. And during the next nine years, the letters poured in from around the world. Among the respondents are President George H.W. Bush, hockey star Wayne Gretzky and former EBay President Meg Whitman.

“I think the most important ingredient in success is getting a good, early education and developing the right habits,” wrote Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.


But there were also dozens of letters from people not instantly recognizable by young people, including historian Jacques Barzun, former-U.S. Atty. Gen. Griffin Bell and composer Dave Brubeck.

“We wanted people from all walks of life,” Ryan said.

Bellarmine-Jefferson received about 160 letters in total, Ryan said, a response rate of 21%. The 100 included in the book were selected based in part on the respondents’ ages — he wanted those who had lived long, fruitful lives. Nineteen of the writers have died since submitting their letters, Ryan noted.

Publishing costs for “Wisdom from Giants” were paid for by a benefactor, Ryan said.

Each letter is accompanied by biographical information that was researched and written up by faculty members and students. And the school has made available in its library nearly all of the books recommended by the letter writers.

“We are trying to make [the students] better people,” Ryan said. “We are trying to expand their education. How often would they have an opportunity to receive advice from some of the best minds in the nation or the world, the best doers, the best humanitarians?”

Copies of the book are being given to each student and faculty member at Bellarmine-Jefferson, Milner said. And they are available for sale to the public at the school for $19.99.

She described Ryan’s work on the project as a “wonderful example” for the students.


“The nice things about Mr. Ryan is, in a very quiet way, he has done this and given a great gift,” Milner said.