Fondly Remembering Father Regan

The author’s first article about his beloved former Fenwick teacher first appeared in the Alumni Wick in 1985. Here are more of his recollections, 32 years later.

By James Loverde ’64, Guest Blogger

Fenwick Theology Teacher Father James Regan, O.P. (circa 1964).

Surely the sun was not always shining through Fenwick’s high windows during Father Regan’s Religion Class – the last one of the afternoon. But, in my recollections, that was the way it seemed. On afternoons today, notes and memories begin to stir one another like the reds and golds on medieval prints ….

“Candy Spots”

Candy Spots in 1963.

What was the name of a horse doing atop the first page of my newly found notebook from the spring quarter? Father Regan had written it on the blackboard to illustrate a point, as usual. Candy Spots was the recent winner of that year’s Preakness Stakes. The owner of this fine animal once said that he would rather be sick himself than have a sick horse.

We all knew what Father was getting at. He wanted to illustrate the dedication many people had to what was really important in their lives. He concluded by quoting the words of Christ: “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.”

There were many other moments that none of us need a notebook to remember. “What’s the toughest job in the world, Cahill?” he once asked a good fellow student in a charcoal pullover, “being a teenager on the West Side in 1963?” Father Regan paused for a second, with his fingers holding the yellow chalk like a plucked jonquil. Then he gave the answer himself. Plato had agreed with it many semesters before: “The most difficult task a man can undertake is to be a parent.”

Father Regan out and out said that he never met a layman who derived more satisfaction from his work than he did. And he was never shy about reminding us that married life was not all caresses by candlelight.

“Honey, can you take the baby, please?” a former student asked one Sunday afternoon, when Father Regan was a guest at his house for dinner. The little tyke had done his business in his diaper, and the gentleman felt that his beloved could do a better job of cleaning up matters than he could.

President Woodrow Wilson and Edith, the First Lady, in 1917.

But Father Regan also told us what President Woodrow Wilson wrote to his wife – that no one would ever know how happy they were when they were alone together. Sometimes Father Regan would drive his message home with a little brine tossed our way. Then he would quickly grab a handful of his white Dominican habit and make a whipping-off motion, while apologizing to the students seated directly in front of him. Once he informed us that Maurice Evans, the great Falstaffian actor, never thought he was enunciating his lines properly unless he sprayed the first three or four rows of his audience.

It was just at such times that the classroom door would mysteriously open. Our laughter echoed off the ceiling, Father Regan would glance over his shoulder at the empty doorway and smile back at us with his dignified gray brows raised in suspense. Perhaps he thought it was a celestial visitor – if not Falstaff seeking his lost mount, then St. John Bosco or the Curé of Ars looking for a spare printing press. Most of us were more likely to have thought of ghost Casper from the comics and his girlfriend, Wendy.

Generosity to others and a wide-eyed attitude toward the world were two of Father Regan’s favorite themes. “A truly great man is one who never ceases to be a child,” he said. He also stated that the best way to appreciate the things we like most is by being forced to do without them. I had written a small note about a girl rescued in Canada – perhaps from an avalanche. “Thank God I’m alive,” she said, “and the world is my home.”

He began chalking out what he called a test of character: “How do I treat persons who will never be in a position to do anything for me?” Now and then, a fellow student might interrupt class to ask, “Who said that, Father?”

“Lalash Pulvertaff,” he would reply. “Good friend of mine.” 

Appreciating Natural Wonders

The tickertape sound of his chalk moving over the catkin colored blackboard filled up not a small portion of the class. “Morton Arboretum,” he inscribed one day well before the Preakness. This was, and still is, an outdoor museum of trees and shrubs in the far west suburban Lisle, founded in 1922. Father Regan encouraged us to visit the Arboretum in order to appreciate better the world around us – and never to take nature’s gift for granted. Then he quoted from the Bible: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen – being understood in the things that have been made.”

I remember going to the Arboretum with my little sister on a misty, cloudy day – perhaps during the final days of winter. It would have been typical of me to wander among so many stark trees before their buds and leaves had begun to show themselves. Even in later years, I would enjoy traveling in the cooler, somber seasons, with Melancholy’s gentle hand on my shoulder and her muted dossals hanging overhead. In spite of the climate, that pilgrimage to the Arboretum was well worth the time, though it only confirmed my fondness for old water tanks and pagoda gas stations.

The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL.

Spring did arrive a short while later, and with it came Holy Week. With more devotion than I have now, I remember giving up reading the newspaper and going to the show for Lent. This was when I had already taken on a load of six subjects. The hops and joys of Gambrinus’ brews had yet to lather my gullet. And I had no secret whims involving a local Circe luring me into her parents’ garage by singing “He’s So Fine,” so she could dine me on milkweed and turn me into an antelope. Such eccentric mortification, as Thomas Merton named it, did not escape the notice and concern of some of Father Regan’s fellow priests during my four years at Fenwick.

But Father Regan told us the true meaning of Lent: death to sin by penance, and resurrection in Christ by Baptism and the Mass. He reminded us that no one could have invented the account in St. John’s Gospel off Christ washing the feet of his apostles, as an example of innocence, humility, and charity. We were also told about the Church’s divine office of Tenebrae, which lasted for three days during Holy Week. At this time, candles were put out to signify that the powers of darkness seemed on the verge of extinguishing the Light of the World.

Years later, I took comfort in renewing a healthy fear of those same infernal forces by shunning certain movies and images – and by never betting on the bedstead four of clubs. Then I sought to leaven my spirits by snickering at Old Scratch and his dreary band. I imagined them sweating over huge bellows in their Tarot tights, getting constantly stuck in mirrors, and stumbling into the Pontine Marshes while trying to poison the moon.

These days, I especially like reading what Father Regan said about the importance of small acts, “even a glass of water.” He stressed that the essential and important thing in a Christian’s life is to perform trivial daily tasks in accomplishing God’s will out of love. Then he quoted a priest, who could have come out of an old Book of Hours himself, saying that “bums” were a test of his charity and mercy.

Father Regan also mentioned a Carmelite nun in a concentration camp who said that she felt closer to God there than she had ever felt before. Last summer, over 40 years later, I happened upon a newspaper article about that Carmelite nun ….

Edith Stein was born in a former German city in 1891, the eleventh child in a Jewish family. After a brilliant university career, she converted to Catholicism, entered the Carmelite Order in 1933, and became Sister Benedicta. The article went on to relate how a survivor of the death camps described the joy she spread among the other inmates, as she moved about “like an angel.” In 1942, Sister Benedicta died with her sister at Auschwitz. In 1998, two years before Father Regan passed away, she was canonized Saint Edith Stein.

Father Regan spoke about Pope John XXIII’s indulgences. I was gratified to know that St. Francis of Assisi has superfluous graces which can be bestowed on the rest of us – I am grateful still.

Praying for a Rocket Man

“Pray always!” it is written in the Old Testament. “… many prayed for Cooper …” it was written in my margin. Now who was Cooper?

I finally found in an almanac that L. Gordon Cooper was the astronaut who made twenty-two orbits of the earth in over a day’s time, in May of 1963. “Marvelous!” he said of the view of our planet. John Glenn, his more famous but not more distinguished colleague, exclaimed earlier, “It’s really beautiful!”

Father Regan also admired contemporary world leaders, like French president Charles de Gaulle and Dag Hammarskjöld, then Secretary General of the United Nations. He also had great respect for the legendary American journalist Walter Lippmann, who said that de Gaulle had “the most prophetic mind of our generation.”

In his personal diary Markings, Hammarskjöld once wrote that forgiveness was the answer to a child’s dream, by which what was broken was made whole again. Father Regan liked to demonstrate forgiveness with a concrete example. There was a couple whose son had been killed in the Pacific in World War II. They donated money for a college scholarship, and specified that it go to a student who was Japanese.

“Not wanting things is better than having them,” he was also fond of telling us in word and script. Somehow, the first image that came to my mind on hearing this was Anita Ekberg in “Sign of the Gladiator.”

The author daydreamed of Swedish actress Anita Ekberg as a teen at Fenwick.

But later I reflected on how novel and refreshing this pronouncement sounded. In college, the same concept would be carried further in the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other Stoics. Today, it serves as a worthy lodestar as we try to proceed with sprightlier steps through late middle age ….

Much of what Father Regan taught us concerned the Sacraments and the Mystical Body of the Church, and I did well to reread them. He also told is what worldly honors meant to different people. Jean Kerr, who wrote the hit musical “Mary, Mary,” said that without her religious faith, life would be meaningless. Marlon Brando once talked about working hard for success and money, but, once one gets it, the dream falls flat.

And Father Regan reminded us several times what the very wealthy J. Paul Getty enjoyed most in life – walking along the shore and taking a swim. In one of my lost notebooks, there is another passage that will live forever. I never shared Saint Augustine’s views on dancing, but these words are among my favorites: “Thou hast made is for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”

Like Montaigne, Father Regan did not speak the minds of others except to speak his own mind better. He obviously shared with many of us that same enjoyment of memorable and meaningful quotations – though it can often get the better of me. But I am certainly not the only one among his former students to consider him, the conveyor of so many fine precepts and examples, just as venerable as those of dust and bones who first uttered them – whether canonized or not.

Ave atque vale, Father Regan.

Now deceased, Rev. James Regan, O.P. was a 2002 inductee into Fenwick’s Hall of Fame.

James Loverde in 1964.

Jim Loverde had Friars’ Hall of Fame teacher Fr. Regan for Religion Class his junior year (1962-63), after which he worked for construction companies and the railroad, then became a building engineer. Loverde, who was on the yearbook staff while at Fenwick, also is a published writer. His work has appeared in Chicago Magazine, Notre Dame magazine, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated.

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