Father Flynn was my priest at Saint Frances of Rome, the school I attended in the Bronx. As I look back upon our many entanglements, I realize the profound affect he had on me and the other kids who crossed his path. I have no doubt that he was a holy man. But I remember him mostly for his iron will, his piercing eyes, and the fear he’d convey in a moment’s stare. He once threatened to throw me off the roof of the school if I ever received another F in conduct. He wrote the book on tough love decades before it became a popular concept.
Father Flynn grew up in a tough Irish enclave on 11th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen and escaped to the 4th Marine Regiment serving with the fabled China Marines during the 1930s. He fought with Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone on Guadalcanal. His face carried the scars he earned on Bloody Ridge.
The rumor around the neighborhood was that he joined the priesthood to atone for his delinquency as a kid and the mayhem he inflicted upon the Japanese.
Father Flynn taught philosophy at Iona College and was known throughout the Archdioceses of New York for his brilliance and mastery of the classroom. He had a way about him; he commanded respect. He changed lives and touched the souls of his students, bringing reverence to the vocation of teaching. His reputation was iconic.
I remember attending a school outing at Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn. Each of us was given a pass for 15 rides and a dollar. I’d spend my dollar shooting clay ducks at the range at 10 cents for 10 shots. After I ran out of money, I’d search for Father Flynn at the local bars. I’d find him holding court in his black suit and Roman collar, kibitzing with the longshoremen. Father would reach into his pockets give me a couple bucks, a pat on the head, and say, “Get outa here, Joeyboy!” Men stood in line to buy Father Flynn a drink. Everyone knew he was a man of substance.
In those days, if you wore the Roman collar or were a soldier in uniform, people would buy you a drink. It was a show of respect, a way to honor someone for following a higher calling. We rarely do that any more.
I am old school and I live my life accordingly. It is imperative to extend acts of respect to those individuals whose work enhances the development of our community. There is no profession more worthy of this description than that of teaching. All dreams begin with a teacher because teachers affect eternity; thus their influence is infinite.
I remember every teacher I’ve ever had, from Sister Mary Patrick in first grade to Brother Raymond Landry, senior year in high school. Dealing with me was often an all-out war. But they never gave up; they believed in me, pushing me toward the next plateau.
We owe so much to our teachers. When I recognize a teacher in Starbucks, I insist that I buy them a drink. My dear reader, I want you to do likewise. Pull a few extra bucks from your pocket, just like Father Flynn did for me, and say, “You’re a teacher; it would be an honor to buy you a drink.”
Father Flynn became a great friend. I’d often attended his lectures at Iona. When I was in Vietnam, he wrote me consistently, sending words of inspiration and perspectives on leadership and tactics.
I remember being a young Marine in uniform, having dinner at Harvey’s bar and grill in Washington D.C. Some guy walked up to me, took the check and said, “It would be an honor to buy you dinner.” You don’t forget something like that.
Now pass on the love.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.