Learning about the Big 3: Facts, Ideas and Values

A Forty-Niner alumnus and former Fenwick teacher reflects on the heels of his 70th class reunion.

By Jack Spatafora, PhD. ’49

In addition to reforming curricula, Fenwick alumnus Jack Spatafora, PhD. was a White House speech writer.

Everyone agrees that a good education is good for the nation. It gets thornier when it comes to defining a ‘good education.’ For 90 years, Fenwick High School has been addressing this issue the best way it knows how: by graduating hundreds of students each year equipped with both the academic and moral gifts needed to become the kind of citizens our complex times’ need.

From Aristotle to Aquinas to Jefferson, the ideal citizen is one who knows not only what to think but also how to think: clearly, logically, passionately. I experienced this at Fenwick, first as a student and then as a teacher. The day General MacArthur was accepting the surrender of Japan in September 1945, I was entering the old Scoville Avenue entrance as a freshman. Seven years later, I returned to teach U.S. History. That is experiencing Fenwick from both ends of the classroom!

Jack Spatafora as a Fenwick junior in 1948.

Fenwick was much smaller and less equipped during the 1950s, and yet it was already sending some of the best and brightest into post-World War II America. Young men equipped and motivated with three of the academic tools most required for good citizenship: 1) facts, 2) ideas and 3) values:

  1. As a faculty, we had this funny notion that there were facts, not alternative facts, be it science, math or history. Facts are stubborn, objective things that the student needs to confront, process and use in reaching conclusions. 
  2. When properly assessed and connected, facts become the essence of ideas. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
  3. There is a third feature to good citizenship: values. If facts and ideas are essential as a foundation, values are the super-structure to the edifice — including respect for truth, honor, country and God. The ideal citizen embraces each, both profoundly and efficaciously. For as Alexander Hamilton put it: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
Mr. Spatafora’s Fenwick Faculty photo from 1957.

Gazing back over these last 70 years, this is some of what I proudly remember. Both as a member of the Fenwick student body and later the Fenwick faculty. You might say I was twice blessed. Frankly, I say it all the time.

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Alumni Spotlight: Steve Twomey ’69

With his 50th Fenwick Reunion one month away, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author reflects on his days as a Friar.

By Mark Vruno

(Photo by Steve Hockstein/ HarvardStudio.com.)

Friar alumnus Steve Twomey ’69 is busy researching and writing, again — this time, for another book about World War II. And, he’s thinking. Twomey thinks a lot about, well, thought. Blame all that insight and thoughtfulness on Fenwick, he says.

“I took a course in high school that I loved. I think it was a religion class. Its premise was logic and explaining the rational processes by which we think,” recalls Twomey, a retired reporter/journalist and present author/freelance writer who has taught journalism at New York University. “At Fenwick we discussed the fallacies of logic and the traps that people get into with their thinking,” he relates. “This information was imparted on my brain forever.” (He also remembers classmates throwing fetal pigs on Scoville Ave. from the top window of a science classroom, while young Biology Teacher John Polka tried to remain calm. However, that’s a story for another article!)

Twomey began his career in journalism as a weekend copyboy at the Chicago Tribune as a 16-year-old kid. An uncle worked in the business office there and helped him land the summer job. “I loved being in a newsroom where people were finding out things,” he admits. Young Steve was hooked.

“I’ve distributed words for 30 years,” Twomey declared 15 years ago, upon occasion of Fenwick’s 75th anniversary. “You might not like journalism — so many folks don’t, be they of the political Left or Right,” he added then, somewhat prophetically. “But ever since Fenwick, being a newspaper guy has seemed the perfect way to sate a lust to know stuff, to see my name in black-and-white and to get paid for both.” 

Over the course of a 27-year media career Twomey traveled extensively and:

  • shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II aboard her yacht;
  • drank tea with Polish labor activist/politician Lech Walesa in his Warsaw apartment;
  • took cover in the Sahara Desert from shellfire from Polisario rebels.

In 2016 he published Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The 12 Days to the Attack (365 pages; Simon & Schuster), which traces the miscommunications, faulty assumptions and foul-ups that led to the ill-fated “day which will live in infamy” 78 years ago this December.

A critical thinker

A sweet 16 years have passed since Fenwick inducted Twomey into the its Hall of Fame. His prestigious Pulitzer recognition in journalism (feature writing/reporting category for the Philadelphia Inquirer while in Paris, France) came in 1987 for his illuminating profile of life aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. America, which had launched planes that took part in a United States’ attack on Libya in mid-1986. Twomey, who was 35 years old when he won his Pulitzer Prize, wrote about daily life for the mega ship’s personnel. He also questioned the strategic value of the U.S. military/government spending $500,000 a day (at the time, 32 years ago) to operate the massive vessel.

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