Recalling Walter Reger
From Scriptorium*, vol. 22, no. 2, 1980, p. 1-32
RECALLING WALTER REGER
by Alfred Deutsch O.S.B.
These are recollections from many hours of living with and listening to Father Walter. In no sense is it to be a biography: it is rather an attempt to re-create what he used to emphasize as the professor of medieval history--"To get the feel of the period by using an important person or an important date, and hang on to him or the date facts, like clothes on a rack, which somehow manage to coalesce and form a unity." Quotations, like this last one, will hardly be accurate conversations because there were no tape recorders around on which to freeze the conversation.
Alfred Deutsch O.S.B.
One of the many things wrong with the old gymnasium, any gymnasium for that matter, is that it does not allow the expansiveness of movement afforded to coaches also to spectators. The ideal spectator is supposed to expend as much energy as any player on the field. And another fault is the "no smoking" signs posted in obvious places. Until the administration succumbed to the pressure of creating what euphemistically could be called a press-box, Father Walter was a frustrated basketball fan. He squirmed in his seat, sucked on a dead cigar, and spilled forth his endless stream of commentary on how basketball should be played.
The press box was easy to construct once the need for it was accepted. Another wall knocked out, a simple frame, a mini-garage door and a press box was finished. Naturally Father Walter, member of the administration, instructor of all coaches, faculty representative to the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, took it as his right to share the view afforded by the press box. Here finally was space to walk around, the absence of "no smoking" signs allowed a man to light a pipe or a cigar and participate with real energy in the game.
With the coming of Buster Hiller basketball became a more sophisticated game with style and technique. Fans like Father Walter had to learn about screens and blocks and zones. The revolving offense made its appearance on the court. At first Father Walter was fascinated with the ballet of the performance. The left forward came out of his slot and passed the ball to his center while he moved to the slot of the right forward; and the right forward came out of his slot and crossed paths with the left forward on the road to the left forward slot. The two guards became intrigued with the motion and began their circular movement. The center was busy fielding the ball and passing it off according to the signal given by the right guard. The theory behind the circle was brilliant: when it was well-executed the five defensive players would all run into each other in the free-throw circle, and while they were extricating themselves one of the forwards would slip in for the basket.
Naturally Father Walter was engrossed with the formation and stopped pacing the press box to admire the smoothness of the rhythmic swirl. Round and round they went in ever-tightening gyres and a faster pace until the swirl was broken by an opponent who picked off one of the passes and danced down to an easy basket; or until the left forward bumped into the right forward and left the ball loose for one of the opponents. None of this looked right to Father Walter. He began to smoke the cigar furiously. Soon the pacing back and forth by the half dozen people sitting at the opening of the press box began, ashes from the cigar fell on shoulders huddled over the writing shelf, and the commentary began.
"How come we're doing all the work and the other team gets all the baskets? Look at those idiots running around that court getting into a sweat for nothing. Doesn't the coach tell them that the purpose of the game is to put the ball through that hoop? Look at them Gervase, do they think this is practice or a ballet class? Those guys are so intent on executing their maneuvers correctly that not one of them is thinking about that basket. Did we have to hire an expensive basketball coach to teach them to run in circles? We've been running in circles just as well with our other coaches and lost just as adequately. If I were the coach, I would teach them only one thing: Move forward, move forward. Get that ball into the basket. We could have hired a dancing teacher more cheaply. Hell's bells! Another basket. So will they learn? Nope. There they go again. What's the purpose of going back and forth? There are no baskets on the side of the court. You dummy, can't you learn to stay on your feet? Gervase, how much are we paying Hiller? Who taught him his basketball? Who recommended that we hire him? So what if he did once play big-time basketball. Does that make him a coach? Shoot, you idiot, shoot! How come, Gervase, I can see all these things and Hiller can't see them? I could coach at half his salary and get just as many points out of a basketball team as he does. Another basket."
Occasionally one of the huddled figures on the bench futilely answered one of the questions. Generally it was Father Gervase, who sat in the press box by virtue of the fact that he was an official in the business office and was later to deposit the few dollars the paying customers brought in. Or it was Father Walbert--big Red to Father Walter. Often Father Arno, dean of the college, sat among this selected group. Experience had taught them that the questions were not asking for answers. Nor did they mind that they had to brush cigar ashes or pipe ashes from their shoulders. When the game got dull, Father Walter provided the entertainment for them and they could later chatter about his comments when the boredom of the game had been forgotten.
"Gervase, are you old enough to remember what this press box used to be? You didn't know Porky Flynn did you--Flynntown is named after him? Porky had a good program of phy ed back in the twenties and boxing was one of the things that he taught. Many a grudge fight got settled in this room with the gloves on. Later on Johnny Kehoe when he was a student built a boxing team that put on exhibition at half-time at basketball games. One of his teams later went on to win the golden gloves heavyweight championship. Johnny was quite a fellow, poor as a church mouse, but Abbot Alcuin somehow sensed he would be a good investment and footed his bill through college. The Abbot had a pretty good instinct about some of those fellows. Especially when widows with large families brought a promising lad to his office, he got pretty free with handouts."
Gervase and big Red did not mind listening to the story they had heard before and served as prompt boys. "Walter, what is up in that tower above this room?" They knew of course that it was nothing but an attic, a space at the top of the stairs now used for storage of discarded athletic equipment. Besides there was not much else to talk about between halves of the basketball game.
As if he had never told the story before, Walter reminisced about the uses that students had once put it to. "That was one of the few hiding places students had back in the twenties. The preps used to sneak up into it for their smoke without worrying about Father Mark--you know, the man who later was made Abbot of St. Gregory's Monastery. Some of the older students managed to wriggle a table through the trap door and some stools from the dormitory. Here they could play poker without being sneaked up on by any of the jiggers (the priests were called jiggers then.) Once they pulled the rope up after them, no one was there but invited members.
"The best use this room got was in the late forties when we were jammed with more college students than we could possibly house." Here he became quite passionate in his eloquence, for the one thing that he firmly believed was that no student who wanted a Catholic education should be turned away because there was no room. "We'll make room, we'll put beds in any fourteen-foot space, even in the corridors and elevator shafts if we have to. But as long as I have some influence in this college we won't turn away men. "
"We went down to army surplus and came back with dozens of bunk beds and desks and chairs and lockers and set up residence allover campus. This room was one of the most desirable on campus. Four students lived here quite free from the rules that governed the rest of the student body. Who of the prefects was going to walk over there and see that the lights were out by eleven o’clock or to check whether they got up for Mass or whether they were in at night? They didn't complain that they had to walk to the basement for a shower or that their room smelled like a locker room or that the heat was sometimes skimpy in the winter. They had slept in worse places while they were in service and smelled worse smells."
The crowd began to assemble again in the basketball arena and a cloud of blue smoke from the cigarettes of those who had jammed into the coach's office and the foyers hung under the curved rafters. Joe Hutton brought his Hamline team on the floor and he quietly stood among them while they took some warm-up shots. In the first seconds after tip-off Hamline made a basket and the Johnnies began the criss-cross ballet.
"Oh, Lord, What does the coach tell his team during the half? There they go around again, and again. Can't they see that clock ticking away? Now, why does a Catholic want to go to a Methodist school? That Joe Hutton is smart; he doesn't look at the religious status of boys who want to play basketball. All he wants to know is the height and the size of the hands. You know, Red, if we could afford to give our athletes some help, they wouldn't go to Hamline. How can we compete with that? Joe takes his boys on road trips during Christmas vacation while our boys are working for the post-office. Joe wins championships and takes his team to play-offs. Does any basketball player want to play on a rinky-dink team like this? There goes Haskins again. We'll have to set up some kind of athletic scholarships so the Catholic boys can come here and get a Catholic education with their basketball. I'll bet that if we asked some of our former letter winners to begin building a scholarship pot, we could pick up enough money to get a couple players a year and start winning some basketball games."
Occasionally the shout of the crowd or a chorus of boos or an over-the- shoulder-comment from Big Red or Gervase would halt the monologue temporarily. The game moved along while Buster Hiller shouted and gesticulated at his players and Joe Hutton sat on the next bench with fingers laced over his crossed leg and thought about the next NAIA tournament.
"64 to 30. What kind of score is that? Somebody better tell Hiller that the first purpose of basketball is to put the ball through the hoop. If I couldn't coach any better than that, I'd go into some other business." Mumbling audibly he walked down the circular wooden staircase built into the gymnasium tower and went over to the science hall where he knew that Father Matthew would offer some comfort.
Before the era of cocktail parties and social meetings, the chemistry department understood the need of friendly fraternization as well as the need for chemical research. Father Matthew's laboratory was equipped only for the latter, but many of the devices served a dual purpose. A Bunsen burner cooked popcorn as well as chemical solutions. And because research often needed freezing temperatures, the chemistry department had the only refrigerator apart from those in the kitchen. Raw alcohol was frequently needed for preservative and for chemical formulas. Tables and stools were standard equipment in any laboratory.
With no effort at all Father Matthew could transform the laboratory into a clumsy lounge where visitors would immediately feel at ease. Experience had taught him to keep out of harm's reach and curiosity, the important parts of his work, so that just as quickly the lounge could transform itself into a research laboratory. The comfort was rather crude, the decor was ill-advised. The haphazard arrangement of test tubes and decanters, of bottles labeled with exotic titles and containing a spectrum of colors, mason jars and stone jars had no plan except for Father Matthew. Bundles of corn with a variety of colors hung on the walls around framed portraits of former patriarchs of the monastery. A diploma hung slightly askew above a cluttered desk.
No one came to the chemistry department to study the artistry on the walls. They came to consult Father Matthew because of his knowledge of soil and water and corn. Or they came as Father Walter came, to feel the joviality that flowed from him, to listen to his stories, or to test ideas against his practicality. Few people in the monastery-university complex knew or appreciated that most of the ideas which subsequently affected the lives of the institution were first filtered through the minds of the habitues of the second story laboratory. The powers in university politics were regular visitors in the evening hours when most of the monks were practicing night silence in their monastery rooms.
Not that people did not know of these frequent nightly meetings in the science building. The majority of the monks in the monastery were aware that some of the monks were not in their proper places at night because of the meetings in the science hall. To some it was a scandal, and every three years, when the visitation of the abbey was made by abbots of other monasteries, the "carousings" and the "orgies" were related to the visitators. The visitators were forced to make their report to the ruling abbot, who in turn would be forced occasionally to diplomatically denounce unseemly conduct that took place during the sacred hours of night silence.
Father Matthew was pouring a mysterious liquid from a decanter into some test tubes when Father Walter walked in. "Ya, Tiny," he greeted Walter without looking up from the job of pouring liquids, "don't tell me. You went to the basketball game and we got trounced again. And you're mad. And you want to fire the coach. Get smart like me, and don't go to the game. Then you don't get yourself all worked up."
Walter stretched out in the only comfortable chair in the laboratory and lit a match to his pipe. When smoke came forth furiously, he tossed the match at the spittoon and rimmed his shot. Between matches and puffing he regaled Matthew with the details of criss-cross and circular patterns and people bumping into each other. In the midst of the conversation Father Arno walked in with Big Red. Father Martin came in with Gervase and the game was thoroughly analyzed while Father Matthew busied himself with the last details of his experiment in preparation for its next sequence. When Big George (the athletic director was George Durenburger, and when Matthew called him "Big George", George knew that the mood was congenial) walked in with a couple alumni the room was quite filled and the lab had been transformed into a social gathering.
One of the alumni had been provident enough to bring along a bottle of scotch so that all pretense and excuse of laboratory experiment had been shattered. Big Red knew where the ice was and the assortment of beakers in plain sight became cocktail glasses. Father Gervase pulled the popcorn maker from one of the drawers beneath the laboratory table and began the ritual of providing the snack.
In gatherings such as this Father Walter was generally content to fall into silence. Once the popcorn was finished he was too busy eating to offer much comment. Part of his desire for silence also came from his knowledge that he was not a great entertainer, not the story teller 8. that could compete with the experts in the room. His greatest contribution in these crowds came from his enthusiastic guffaw that followed the punch lines that he had already heard a hundred times.
After the first round of scotch and water someone inevitably asked Father Matthew about the "Schmmit." Matthew was not a reluctant story teller in these gatherings and he had endless tales about the blacksmith that had once worked for the monastery. There was always someone present who had never heard the anecdotes before or who pretended he had never heard them before, and the tales began. As often as he heard the punch line of one tale that ended with "a owl is lot fedders," Walter could still rock back and forth in his chair, slap his knee, and choke over his pipe. During the momentary pause after the story, he lit the pipe again and tossed the match at the spittoon already ringed with dead matches that had missed the hole.
By eleven-thirty the wound of the basketball game had already been forgotten, the old maids rested in the bottom of the popcorn can, and one little shot of scotch was politely left behind for the host. En masse the guests left the laboratory to Father Matthew.
Faithfully the following morning about 7:15, Father Walter walked into the church, where the student Mass was half finished. Soiled breviary in hand, he paraded back and forth across the rear of the church, intent on saying his breviary correctly, his lips pursed and audibly moving as he shaped everyone of the syllables he read. From his novitiate training he had remembered that there was a special demon who followed behind the monk and put into a basket all the syllables that had been dropped. Just as intently he swept his eyes over the mass of students and knew which one of his boys was not present at Mass that morning. He made a mental note that he would remind those students the next time they stopped in with a request for a late permit or a weekend away from campus.
When Mass was over and the students had left the chapel, he joined the one or two priests who had also stopped in the upper chapel, after their private Mass in the basement, and walked to the student dining room. When the three or four arrived at their table, the bell was tapped and grace was said.
What all his reasons were for eating breakfast with the students can only be surmised. Most of the priests who lived with the students preferred to eat breakfast at the monastery table, perhaps because it gave them a chance to see some of the other monks in the house, possibly because they took refuge in the silence which was the rule at the monastery table, perhaps because they were grateful for the occasional escape from the incessant chatter of the students, perhaps because their own grumpiness could be hid in the silence of the abbey table.
Walter never really loved silence and it was that part of the Holy Rule which caused him most embarrassment and most guilt. On the occasions when he ate in the monastery, during vacations, he inevitably became embroiled in conversation at the breakfast table and felt guilty. In the student dining room there was no rule of silence and rarely was Walter grumpy in the morning.
The conversation was rarely sparkling, mostly a recounting of trivial things that had happened in the night, remarks about the Mass attendance, remarks about the unusual presence of a student that morning at Mass and speculations about his reasons for coming, recapping the latest sports' event.
The personnel at the head table varied from year to year but among the regulars during their terms of office as deans were Father Martin and Father Boniface. Father Odo was regular. Father Walter had seen many generations of monks in the years he sat at the breakfast table. Among these were no exceptional raconteurs or dominating figures, so that conversation spread evenly among them. Yet when Father Boniface became the dean of men some change occurred--perhaps it was that they became more food conscious.
Father Boniface had returned within the year from the Philippines where he had been rector of San Beda University, conducted by the Benedictines in Manila. During World War II he and two other American monks had been interned by the invasion of the Japanese. Boniface could vividly recount some of the details of the months of interment and could become most vivid when food was discussed. As soon as the waiter put the breakfast food before him, he invariably folded his hands and said "God is good." For the first months after he had become a member of the breakfast club, the minutiae of interment came out between forkfuls of scrambled eggs. "Never will I complain about food again in my whole life." The saving and hoarding of food had become the pre-occupation of the prisoners. He confessed how he hated one of the fellow monks because he had become sick and the others were forced in charity to share some of the rations with him. "How often I wished that he would die so he wouldn't take all our food." He related the day when the American soldiers came to camp and released the prisoners, how one of them looked at the parcel of foodstuff Boniface was hugging in his arms and tore it from him. "I could have killed him."
Yet as months went by and the hunger of the Philippines grew sated, the quality of food became a part of the table talk. But most of all the coffee. The fact that it was called coffee was a great evolution from the days when it bore the undignified name of "sweat." Sweat was always the same and there were no further words to describe it--it never was good sweat, bad sweat, it was just plain sweat. Coffee had varieties of goodness and badness. After the opening prayer and the antiphon "God is good" they set to tasting the coffee and offering their profound judgments. Fairly quickly Walter and Boniface worked out a code which eliminated any need for words. Tips of thumb and little finger indicated the extreme of badness; tip of thumb and forefinger were sign of goodness. The two middle fingers allowed some variation in quality. On very rare occasions they put forefinger to thumb and made a quick forward motion of the hand. That was coffee fit for a high class restaurant.
Collectively they sensed it was their obligation to convey their expertise to Sister Jolanda whose chief role in the kitchen staff was making the coffee. Walter stood by the huge coffee urns, looking up to Sister Jolanda who had mounted her three-step platform in order to see over the top of the urns. He picked up an empty coffee sack, looked in vain for the brand name, leaned over to Boniface and said, "Prison coffee. The lowest kind of coffee. All the reject beans go into the making of this stuff we are buying. I don't know why the procurator won't spend a little more money on coffee. All the procurators are the same. They save in the wrong places. I bet that if we went into the basement we would find a ton of this stuff that he picked up. The salesman told me he [had] two outlets for this brand in this part of the state--the monastery and St. Cloud Prison."
He directed his conversation to Sister Jolanda. "Sister, one of the first rules for good coffee is to start with good coffee. You can't make a purse out of a sow's ear."
Sister Jolanda politely turned her head from gazing into the depths of the coffee urn and looked down from her height at him. Finally she replaced the lid on the huge urn, backed down the platform, wiped her hands in her apron and said to Father Walter, "Immer gleich." (Always the same.) Father Walter was not sure that she was commenting on the quality of his conversation or the quality of the coffee and continued talking English to her German ears.
By this time Sister Designata had edged herself into the group around the coffee urn; as superior of the kitchen servers she was highly protective of the group that worked there. Quite willingly Father Walter engaged her in the group and passed his knowledge about the art of coffee making to her, assuming that with her he might make headway he could not make with Sister Jolanda. "The first rule about making coffee, Sister, is to put some in." He laughed as he recalled a private joke about "put some in." "Then you have to measure the amount of coffee you put in. You can't just guess at the amount and hope that it will be good. And this coffee you buy"--he handed her an empty sack, "what can you hope to make out of it?" Even though Sister Designata had heard these stories many times, she twisted her hands in the apron around her waist and hunched her shoulders slightly in the approved way of showing humility. For the dozenth time she reminded him that she was not the buyer for the kitchen; she merely prepared what the procurator furnished for her. If the procurator furnished prison coffee, she would serve prison coffee in the most suitable way. Sister Jolanda stood passively through the conversation and interjected periodically her immer gleich.
Defeated Father Walter and Father Boniface walked away with words of consolation and commendation for each other, regretting the folly and tastelessness of procurators. "You know, Bonny, I have figured out that each time we get a new procurator it costs about fifty thousand dollars. That's the amount of mistakes they make before they catch on to their business. I would not be surprised that if we rummaged through the storage cellars we'd find a ton of this coffee stuffed into every corner of the cubicles, sacks torn and rats running around in loose coffee grounds. Remember that shipment of diced potatoes we bought after that train wreck in Sartell? The Sisters had to create new ways to make diced potatoes palatable. We ate them till they turned black. God knows how many cans of it we finally threw away when the stench of rotting potatoes was driving the Brothers out of their basement rooms. Then there was that romantic procurator who thought he could fight off the tractor and do our farm work with show horses. Sure they were pretty when they lumbered around the campus, 'specially when one of the mares brought along her foal to show off to the school. So how long did we keep tractors off the farm and the horses in the field. We built a horse barn that stands now as a play house for the kids in Flynntown. I'd like to be a proc for just one day."
Stripping the foil off the first cigar of the day, he admired the long green of the tobacco, sucked the blunt end for a moment--"I discovered that if you moisten the blunt end before you light, the moisture pulls through with the first suck on the cigar and makes a dry cigar pretty smokable. I used to lick them all over but that is so messy,"--pulled a lighter from his cassock pocket and spun the wheel a dozen times. “You got a match Bonny? This darn thing won’t work. I'll have to ask Adelard about it."
He headed to his room in Benet Hall and began to busy himself about preparation for his medieval history class. Before settling down, he remembered that he had not roused the students that morning and took a quick turn down the hall. He opened Riley's door and shook his bed. "Out of there, Riley, you got four minutes to make your first class. Do you think I want Father Polycarp badgering me again because you aren't in class? Up, up, get a move on.” Another stop at Schroeder's room for the same purpose. “Get out of there you lout. If you'd get to bed at night you could make your morning classes. Don't think I don't know you were out last night. Up, up, get a move on." Satisfied that he was in full command of the floor, he went back to his room to play a while with the cigarette lighter that couldn't even show a spark. He opened his drawer and dropped it in, noticing five other lighters there. He would for sure have to call Adelard. He knew he wasn't as helpless as Adelard thought he was, but he enjoyed the company of Adelard and enjoyed the constant gentle abuse that Adelard would give him. "Walter, these things are really quite simple and the principle behind them is quite simple. You must be smart enough to learn. Once more I try. Each one of these things has a reservoir of fluid, a wick, a flint, and a wheel. The wick brings the fluid up to the flint. You spin the wheel which scrapes the flint, which makes the spark which makes the fluid explode, and by jove you got a fire. Now you take the test."
With great amusement Walter diligently repeated the lesson he had just learned and humbly accepted Adelard's congratulations. "Now let's look at this lighter. Aha, just as I suspected. No flint. No flint, no fire, just that easy. Now let's look at this one. Just as I thought, no fluid. No fluid, no explosion, no fire."
An hour would go by in these semi-annual meetings, filled with little practical lessons as Adelard spun wheels and replaced flints and put in new wicks; and once more all the lighters would be in easy operation. Walter knew that he was never going to be bothered remembering all that technical data, not as long as Adelard was around. He enjoyed, however, the lectures and admired the teacher that Adelard was. He managed to make things come alive to an audience that only the eye to the microscope could usually see. He prodded Adelard no end of times at dinner table to describe the process of photosynthesis and never knew any more at the end of the lecture than at the beginning. But the art of the teaching, that was something else. He had become a firm believer in evolution under Adelard's tutelage; he remembered the names of forgotten animals that only zoologists knew about; he submitted patiently to the little tests which invariably followed these lectures, then promptly forgot what he had learned. Except for key words which he could use again as prompt for another lecture when the conversation at dinner table had exhausted the basketball team's difficulties and the latest escapades of students. "What are recessive genes, Adelard?" No further prompt was necessary and the dinner lecture began.
Walter was not a bad teacher himself in a period when a professor did not have to worry about his class sizes and their effect upon his tenure status, because they were all in classes that the dean had required they take. Even the dullest teachers were guaranteed their living and guaranteed an enrollment under a system which hardly knew the meaning of electives. When he found time to prepare remained a perpetual mystery. Books always lay on his desk and every new edition of medieval history stimulated his purpose to read it through from cover to cover. Like so many resolutions this one too was discarded as the collection of medieval histories grew.
Yet somewhere he had done an intense amount of preparation, perhaps in the university days at Columbia which carried him through a career and left a bit of Eastern accent with him. In his most learned moments in the classroom the relics of this would show. Stimulated by a question on Arnold of Brescia or Abelard, he would pace the front of the classroom and words tumbled out as if rehearsed. Hands in the trousers pockets would regularly hitch up his trousers as the pacing went on. The listening ear caught the occasional word not pronounced with the usual Mid-Western accent. The same accent intruded itself in conversations with learned people who occasionally came to the university at the invitation of Father Virgil Michel.
One grew to expect in these classrooms the pat lecture which remained in the memories of the students long after the details of wars and schisms had passed into oblivion. "The most important thing to get is the feel of the century. You'll never be able to remember the Henry's that fought with the popes for the right to govern Europe and you might memorize the dynasties for my next exam which isn't important. But remember a name like Canossa and hang the facts on it like clothes on a rack. Canossa brought the emperor literally to the feet of the popes. And then you'll remember that this was an age of power struggles, when popes and emperors made alliances of convenience. You'll remember that this was the age when the Church had made her power felt in the world and the hidden Church of the catacombs had grown to the point where she could make rulers grovel before her. That's what I mean by the feel of the century--the Church showing the bulge in her muscles and the emperors testing their muscles and putting a chip on their shoulders and daring the pope."
His gift to draw the right generalities from the trivia of fact was his greatness. He knew enough fact to hang things on and had much wisdom to flesh out the facts. He talked at facts, around them, through them, and over them. His most fruitful sayings, his best meditations trickled through an endless volume of words. Virgil Michel had recognized that talent of Walter's which Walter may never have recognized himself. Father Virgil tested his ideas against the voluminousness of Walter's conversation. He would bring a cigar to Walter and wait long enough for the ritual of lighting it, and then begin. "Walter, don't you think it would be a good idea if we as a Benedictine university interested ourselves in rural sociology?" No more was necessary. He knew that Walter would saturate the idea with a flood of words, would stray around it and through it, would trample on it, and bombard it, would cover it with nonsense and greatness. Virgil learned to listen as Walter rambled on, interrupting the conversation not even to relight the cigar, as Walter talked through a mouthful of smoke and inhaled. From all the harangue Virgil learned to sift the valuable, to forget and set aside the nonsense and irrelevance and to cull the useful and the great.
There is some evidence that Walter never really recognized that this was a ploy that Virgil used. Once in a moment of weakness, or was it humility, Walter said, "Virgil was really not a great thinker or great creator. He took his ideas from me. But Virgil was the administrator, the organizer, the man with the energy to fight resistance and put the ideas into operation. He had the courage to wrestle the Abbot and to wrestle the crowded depots and trains to push through some of my ideas. "
If this is true, there is no written record of such and Virgil went on to gain some international fame as a liturgist and sociologist while Walter stayed at home in the familiar haunt of Benet Hall and the prefects' room. To these haunts came the persons of renown and national fame who trickled onto the campus in the days of Virgil Michel, when the university was emerging from its insularity. No one brought a Mortimer Adler or a Dorothy Day or Peter Maurin to the campus without the visit to Walter, because Walter was a foremost intellectual on campus.
Only in later years did Walter begin to resent somewhat his virtue of availability. He began to sense that this office, now in the Quadrangle, was becoming the dumping ground for unwanted visitors. Particularly did the dean of the college shunt petty administrators or officials from other colleges with mild apology into Walter's office and then rush off to more important duties.
Even if he did not find much time to read, had he a desire to read, he kept abreast with the world through conversation. One of the intellectuals on the campus, he was on the private mailing list of liberal magazines which were seeping into the university. Eight to ten names were written on each issue of New Republic or Commonweal when it arrived on campus, and Walter's name was on the list. Browse over the headlines and captions, read a few paragraphs, look at the current book reviews and he was fortified for the next session of learned conversation. With Monsignor Ligutti he was vocal in his airing of the problems of the farmers in the country; with Dorothy Day he could sympathize with the plight of the poor in the cities and the problems of social justice; with Mortimer Adler and Virgil Michel he discussed the "Great Books" plan which might have become the fundament of the college curriculum at St. John's had Virgil Michel lived much longer. At dinner table he sat next to Father Ernest, eminent philosopher on the faculty, and ably entered discussions on neo-Scholasticism and the writings of Jacques Maritain.
Through these contacts he moved easily in the world of intellectuals, absorbing through his moments of silence the ideas that were stimulating the university campuses. One must not believe that his conversations were one way. He also knew how to listen. An eager undergraduate or aspiring young teacher was never afraid to wave his enthusiasm for an idea in the face of Father Walter. An alumnus could drop in and eagerly detail the lives of his children with never a shadow of boredom crossing Walter's face. He would leave the campus with a load of tot-sized tee-shirts with St. John's blazoned across the front. The shaky, tottering John Froehlingsdorfs told their frustrations and ailments.
Walter's ears were big, physically also. They had an importance to him for they occupied much of the attention of his hands. One of his most characteristic poses was the twirling of a huge church-match deep into the ear to clear away obstacles which may have prevented the messages from going through. Messages came from every assortment of persons--from the lonely night janitor who tramped through the corridors sniffing for smoke; the alumnus with a billfold load of children's pictures; to the mothers of students who were not doing well in classes; athletic coaches who always listened; to monks who happened in for the day to buy some clothes at the tailor shop; casual visitors with no attachment to St. John's; teachers and prefects who needed to know more about a particular student.
Sometimes this wealth of information got in the way of business. One of the things that Father Boniface had instituted during his career as dean of men was the year-end review of dubious college students. The annual meeting took place in the holy of holies--the prefects' room--enticed by duty and by the prospect of a bottle of beer and refreshments when the business had been finished. One by one the names would pass in review while the less knowledgeable paged through the latest issue of the Sagatagan to find the faces.
Those were long sessions, year-end evaluations before the academic world had heard the term evaluation. Boniface paraded before the assembly the names of the miscreants and the misfits, of the notable and the notorious--and somebody in the room rattled off his knowledge. The important and the irrelevant got tangled together and Boniface sorted out what he needed. Father Adelard knew all of them and Walter ran a close second in knowledge of students. Between then they took care of a good portion of the irrelevant.
"George Morvin," announced Father Boniface. Walter struck a match, attached the fire to the shortening butt of the cigar and punctuated his sentences with puffs of smoke. "Sure, he is the son of Charley Morvin who went to school in my day. Charley was quite an imp when he was in the junior program, always up to some mischief and had Father Method on the steady run. Charley couldn't talk English very well when he came here so he took a lot of ribbing from us native-born. But Father Isidore, our first English teacher, wasn't a lot better than Morvin. I remember the day that Charley was reading aloud and came across a word he did not recognize and spelled it according to the standard instructions: k ... n ... e ... a ... d. He looked up at Father Isidore and said, 'What does it mean to cuh-need?' Father Isidore answered patiently, 'Cuh-need. Werb, transitif. When your momma bakes brat, she takes it from the pan out after it raised all night, she puts it on the brat board, den she rolls it and she punches it (Walter balled his fists and punched down into the air) to cuh-nock the bubbles out. That is what it means to cuh-need.'"
Everyone in the room rocked with laughter except Father Boniface who wanted to get the meeting moving. But before he could begin, Adelard interrupted. That's a good story, Walter, but you got the wrong Morvin. George is the son of Louis Morvin, from Brookings, South Dakota. I know everybody here from South Dakota, and I met Louis last fall when he brought George to school. The fact is--" and he leaned forward to emphasize some secret knowledge--"the name is not originally Morvin. It was Morvine, the father officially dropped the final e because the name looked and sounded too Jewish. Did you notice, George has pretty dark features? I wonder is there isn't some Jewish blood in the family?"
Father Boniface managed to gain control again and asked whether any knew why George Morvin was having difficulties with mathematics. Once more Walter broke into the conversation, "Ask Emeric." Everyone in the room knew that Emeric could never pass Math 10 and was in sympathy with any student who couldn't pass Math 10. But just in case there was someone who did not know, Walter gave all the details of Emeric's bad experience with math.
In this way the final sessions of the prefects stretched their slow lengths along so that two meetings generally accomplished what one could have done. Later Father Boniface would privately rebuke Walter and Walter would profusely apologize and promise to withhold his information in future meetings.
Unless one had access to the prefects' room he was shut off from a big part of Walter's life. Here the business of the student body was done, and here was where the priest who lived with the students came for relaxation. A couple a times a year some special foods were smuggled in from the kitchen along devious routes so that the students would not know what the prefects were up to--a few pheasants, some grouse, rabbit or squirrel, which Sister Jordana had personally prepared. On St. Martin's Day a goose might have been expected, prepared by Leo Lauer.
Walter had mentioned on more than one occasion that he rarely remembered what it felt like to be hungry. Eating became more of a social occasion than a necessity. He never failed these social occasions. From watching him eat one would never suspect that he was not hungry. Best of all he loved the carcass of the fowl when most of the meat had been stripped away. He walked from table to one of the chairs with the dripping carcass in his hand, pulled the waste basket between his legs, with one hand pulled his cassock above his knees, and attacked the bird. Bone by bone the bird shriveled down as he sucked the meat away and dropped the discard into the waste basket. In the course of years this became a kind of ritual performance which the other prefects gazed upon with some awe. Once a prefect dared to capture the performance with a camera, blushed to see what he had frozen on the film, and destroyed the negative.
When the ritual was done and pipes had been lit, the floor show began. One by one the story-tellers rolled out their wares and the evening moved on to midnight. Story followed on story, and windows and transom were closed so that the students would never learn of these frivolous moments in the lives of their prefects. Some will remember that Father Othmar was great, that Leo Lauer was good, that Father Adelard held his own against most. But there was never the night like the one when Bishop Cowley and Father Dominic pitted themselves against each other in a friendly "can you top this?"
Walter rolled in his chair and tears streamed from his eyes and his cigar could not stay lit. Invariably when priests congregate the stories move to the point where the genital organs or biological functions emerge in the story in a humorous way. Walter would bowl himself over at Leo Lauer's moron jokes. "Walter, do you know why the moron cut the toilet seat in half? Because his half-ass cousin was coming for a visit." That Walter was a bit bothered by the biological stories became evident when he once made a fruitless New Year's resolution that he would not listen to dirty stories. The resolution itself became a joke, for Adelard would chide Walter after the laughter had died down: "January 1, Walter." The Walter would remember January 1 until the next story had been completed.
Walter's own contributions to these evenings were chiefly by appetite and rollicking laughter. On more quiet evenings he contributed bits of history that the prefects' room had witnessed. He remembered the days when Father Xavier had paced the floor with hands behind his back. He recalled with amusement the attempts of Fathers Mark Braun and Theodore Krebsbach to practice putting on the bumpy linoleum that still covered the floor; their secrecy in playing golf lest Abbot Alcuin reiterate his ban on the sport. He told with delight the anecdote of one evening, when all the fathers were gathered around Abbot Alcuin for common recreation on the south porch: into their midst Brother Ambrose shuffled, reached into his pocket, gave a golf ball to Father Mark; "I think you lost this."
Through these quiet anecdotes he recreated the student scene of the twenties and thirties in Benet Hall when he knew all of the students and most of their pranks. He had peered through the windows of the handball courts which were on ground floor and knew how good every student was at the game. For some strange reason one incident clung to his memory--the sight of an exhausted Father Pirmin hanging his wrist on the coat hanger while recovering his breath.
Of all the anecdotes, he liked best to tell of his detective work when the cow had been brought into Benet Hall. Since that night when a frantic cow had left her droppings all over the building, dozens of students have laid claim to the caper but Walter knew the truth. "I swore I wouldn't give up on that one till I had the culprit. I began to snoop as I had never snooped before. I lingered in front of closed doors and listened through open transoms. Whenever a group of students got together, I tried to sidle up to catch some careless words. I tried to trap students into accidental comments on the thing. Not a word and no luck, and weeks went by, and I couldn't catch a clue. I had my suspicions but the suspects were too clever to get trapped.
"Then one night I had a stroke of luck. I was poking around one night late, near the print shop, when it still occupied the basement of the main building just off the Devil's Tower. The Record staff had a section of it that they used whenever make-up was to be done. I heard voices and laughter coming from that section so I moved quietly to the door. I got there just in time to hear someone say, "so I slapped her across the ass and she shit all over the floor." I knew I had my men.
Even in later years when Walter gave up his home in Benet Hall and moved into the monastery, no one would have thought of throwing a party in the prefects' room without inviting Walter.
Given such an inestimable storehouse of knowledge it became inevitable that Walter was the man who should become the manager of alumni affairs. There had been some sort of alumni organization for decades back, but it was a good-natured organization which did not take itself seriously. On paper it looked good: it had special stationary, it had national officers, and it had an annual meeting on homecoming day when it elected its national officers for the next year. Dues were a dollar a year for the few hundred members, payable in cash or cigars to the national secretary who happened to be Walter.
As with coffee, Walter also considered himself an an expert in the knowledge of cigars. "Keep an ear open for the advertising. Any time you hear a pile of advertising about some brand, that's the time to buy that brand. Because while they are advertising they are putting their best tobacco into the cigar. Once they got the supply of buyers they want, they begin to slack off a bit in quality." He had a ritual for testing a cigar as elaborate as the ritual a wine taster has. He sniffed the cigar from one end to the other, he felt its firmness from end to end. He rolled it in his mouth to be sure the end was lighted evenly. Then he watched the accumulation of the ash. After the ash had reached the length of an inch, he was ready with a semi-final judgment of the goodness. "The good cigar holds a long ash, which indicates it is rolled from the long strands of tobacco. Poor cigars are made of tobacco clippings, pushed together like paper in a baler, so that the ash will split apart and crumble." While he was in the process of testing the quality of the cigar, he consciously aimed the long ash at a spittoon six feet away. Like the expert fly-caster, he knew at what precise moment to tap his forefinger on the body of cigar to release the ash with the proper parabola. More often he flung the ash unconsciously so that every wastebasket and spittoon was ringed around with cigar ash and matches. If he rimmed the spittoon, the cigar passed all tests.
Cigars became a kind of delicious torment and acknowledged guilt that he was willing and able to tolerate. Christmas was the time of accumulation, and rarely did the Christmas go by without ten to fifteen boxes gathering in his room. The very best he secreted in cool places, always willing to share with perceptive smokers. The lesser quality he turned over to the monastery procurator, and there salved a little bit of his conscience.
His love of cigars he accepted as a tolerable weakness and he cherished for the most part the banter and small talk that this weakness elicited. He managed to display a slight degree of embarrassment when chided about all the hiding places he had for cigars; or when twitted about giving the worst cigars to the community general fund for distribution after dinner; or when accused of taking alumni dues in cigars. Sometimes he responded with a favorite psalm phrase: "hi in curribus et hi equis, nos autem in nomine Domini." Literally translated, it meant that some put their faith in horses, and in chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord. But his implications may have been translated into: "could you be a bit envious?" Or sometimes it translated into, "it all depends on whose ox is being gored.”
Once, however, his brethren almost threw him into a panic. When the print shop was still in the basement of the main building--now converted into the Walter Reger dining room, a plot was hatched while the Record was running its weekly issue. Brother Ben and Julian Botz and Father Alfred doctored up the front page after the run had been completed. Two copies were printed with the biggest type Julian had on hand: the banner across the top read: "ALUMNI SECRETARY EXPOSED.” Beneath was the oldest picture of Walter that could be found in the proof morgue; a small box with the statement that Father Walter had been found guilty of accepting cigars in lieu of alumni dues. “Details in an inside story.”
Leo Lauer, at that time distributor of the Record in Benet Hall, willingly joined the hoax. He left the print shop with a stack of Records, marched to Walter's room on the first floor, gritted his teeth, unfolded the top copy before Walter, and said, “Look what those fools on the Record have done.” Leo later confessed that he had acted too well. Walter had blanched, fell back in his swivel chair, ran both hands through his hair, and was momentarily speechless. After he recovered he blurted into nearly unprintable language in such a stream that Leo had a hard time breaking in to announce that there were only two copies of this issue. Walter's historical sense of the future rose to the surface quickly, and he demanded that the two copies be left with him. Few people ever saw those copies, and Walter remained touchy on the subject for months to come. And alumni continued to send cigars at Christmas time.
The archives of the abbey should some day reveal just how much Walter contributed to the building of an alumni association. Without a secretary and without the ability to type, he carried on correspondence with alumni who had new babies or new wives or new jobs and slowly began to amass a respectable list of addresses. He fought with the editors of the Record to give him space in the paper for these life statistics. He constantly reminded the editors to read the small type under the banner: organ of the alumni. And because he had never learned to drive, he had constantly to find a monk willing to take an evening off for a drive to St. Cloud or Cold Spring or the Twin Cities, or to any place where an alumnus might have a few dollars to spare or knew someone who had money.
Finding the driver was only part of the difficulty. Walter was beginning--under the regime of Abbot Alcuin who had a rigid rule that no one left the grounds without the blessing of the superior---which meant the Abbot when he was home. God knows how many times Walter listened to quotations from the Holy Rule about monks who should not go from the monastery, about monks who missed the evening prayers, and about monks who dined at the table of seculars. Not only was he offending by these excursions but he was causing the absence of another, who had to drive him. Somehow he managed to bear the double burden of guilt without the loss of appetite.
All of this he bore without serious resentment to the Abbot. Walter knew the Holy Rule as well as Abbot Alcuin did, and he knew that Abbot Alcuin had to say those things to salve his abbatial conscience. The rebukes were worth the cause which Walter was promoting. The mission to Catholic education was so strong a concern that abbatial rebukes were hardly impediments. Detached as he was from money, his instinct to become a financial mogul made him aware that two dollars multiplied a hundred times was almost as solid as having ten thousand dollars in the bank. More than anyone at St. John's he was aware that no great donor was going to emerge from the alumni association to give ten thousand. St. John's was not graduating prospective millionaires in the forties; instead the graduates were moving into the priesthood, small accounting firms, taking jobs as teachers, or going back to the farm. However, two dollars was not beyond the reach of any of them, and Walter was intent on making contact with each of them.
Almost imperceptively the alumni association grew, and little chapters arose in many of the towns in the midwest. Bit by bit the annual meeting at homecoming became more than an informal affair for a few officers to re-elect each other.
After 1945 the college grew up. When Benet Hall and the dormitories in the Quadrangle had packed in every bed the spaces could hold, the need of a new dormitory became evident. Someone, most probably Walter, proposed that the abbey ask the alumni association to erect a new dormitory. To the Abbot the idea was horrendous, akin to blasphemy. The idea of asking for help was beneath contempt. Anyone who knew Abbot Alcuin can almost envisage the scorn he had for a monk who would beg. Had not the monastery always managed to sustain itself and provide for its own needs? Had not God always provided well for the monastery?
However his arguments from faith were also bolstered by his arguments from fear. He sensed that the independence of the monastery would crumble the day it asked for help outside its walls. Ultimately Walter's counter arguments were effective. "Father Abbot, you've no need to worry about the alumni. Not one of them is rich enough to buy us out. No one who gives us two dollars or ten dollars is going to try to run our house." And his arguments would continue to heap up. He had to convince the Abbot that most of the alumni were indebted to the monastery for their educations, that many of them were genuinely interested in the growth of the house, that many of them felt they belonged to the community. Because he talked best when he was walking, he paced up and down in the Abbot's office, hitching his trousers, and pouring out the eloquence that sprang from his enthusiasm for the cause.
There were many in the house who believed that Walter was too noncommittal about most things, too mugwumpish and indecisive. This was one of the causes where he definitely was not indecisive. He wheedled, he cajoled, he stormed the Abbot with words, he inveigled the Abbot to visit the president of the alumni. His importunity wore the Abbot down and reluctantly the Abbot consented to ask the alumni to build a dormitory.
Walter was in his glory, for it gave him the opportunity to show what he had always considered himself to be: an organization man. Better known alumni were drafted to set up committees, which set up other committees, and Walter bustled from town to town for meetings with them all. Fund raising grew to be a fire in his system which was never put out. He subscribed to journals which related the techniques of raising money; he studied the alumni magazines of Chicago and Harvard; he pulled information out of business men who were successful; he got interested in the stock market and began to glance at the Wall Street Journal. He compiled the first Alumni Directory.
By 1954 the university had come out of its teens and felt grown up, and the more grown up it was, the more money it needed. Walter began to talk with officials of the administration about "public relations" and a new term got born on administration row. In the summer of 1954 he enrolled in a short course at the University of Minnesota, sponsored by the North Central Accrediting Association, at which all participants were encouraged to undertake projects of most value to the participating schools. Walter was charged with the task of studying a "public relations' program for a private college." As a student he became a different person: he listened to lectures from members of the education department on the current topics of college education, rarely spoke, pulled his ears at certain stimuli, and often dozed through dull lectures. He came to listen and listen he did. After one lecture, he said to his fellow monk and fellow participant in the workshop: "Alfred, if you opened your ears and shut your mouth, you would learn more."
The talking came chiefly on the bus rides back and forth to St. Stephen's parish where he lived and worked with Father Alfred, or on the sun porch of the rectory, where he paced and talked knowingly and invidiously of Carleton College which for years had been drawing interest from endowment funds. "It takes time, you know, to build up the image of a school which will encourage donors to put in their money. Foundations and corporations' aren't backing losers. They keep their eyes on each other to see where money is being put. Convince one of the foundations that you got a winner and you got a toe-hold on another corporation. But you got to spend money to make money. You got to get on the road and sell your school to the public. They don't care if you got the largest monastery in the western hemisphere; they aren't interested in your being the center of a liturgical movement. Look at St. Olaf, their choir is known up and down this country and even abroad. Who would give money to Notre Dame if it didn't have a football team? You got to have a gimmick."
Meantime back at the monastery the heads of administration were concerned also about public relations. One day word came to St. Stephen's that Mr. Thomas McKeown had been appointed as director of public relations. That bit of information unleashed another stream of words which began somewhat like this: "Ye gods, here the university sends us to the university and urges us to study the public relations of a university, then it appoints a director without even consulting us." He took the appointment with his usual good graciousness and pumped the new appointee full of the ideas which he had spawned or culled from other sources.
The gimmick had haunted him for years. Is it believable that he spent a good deal of energy convincing the alumni that they should buy uniforms for a marching band; or that he promoted the interests of Father James Kelly and subsequently Gerhard Track, who brought some notice to the university through a touring men’s' chorus? Or that he worked hard for the survival of the university symphony orchestra because private colleges which had symphony orchestras were unique? In none of these areas was there any shilly-shally.
However, none of these was the right kind of gimmick. Besides none of these was really his own creation. None of these satisfied his secret longings to be a financial wizard or a great investment broker. Nor did any of these things bring independent money into the corporation treasury. The income for chorus tours and symphony concerts rarely covered the expenses of supporting such projects.
Sometime in the early fifties he found a project that could test his business sense. Perhaps it was the stimulus of the Marian year, perhaps the product of a Father Peyton rosary crusade, or perhaps private devotion--under the prodding of a business man from St. Louis and with the assistance of some of the sisters at St. Benedict's he built a rosary which could be attached to the steering wheel of a car. It was a small device, scarcely four inches long and two inches wide, built around a counting device like a tachometer. It counted to ten, then indicated the completion of the decade. If a busy driver were distracted by a hitch-hiker or an emergency on the road, the counter told the driver exactly at what bead he had left off.
Between his office and the convent of St. Benedict and St. Louis, there was a great deal of hope and a great deal of bustle. Officially the Queen of the Rosary Foundation was created and St. Benedict's convent was designated the recipient of all the profits. Trips to St. Ben's and to St. Cloud where the instrument was manufactured occupied a great deal of his energy. Initial money to produce the rosary had to be found, advertisers had to be solicited to cut their prices for this charitable enterprise, and volunteer workers had to be drafted.
Somehow this did not prove to be the right gimmick. Though the sisters were willing to work and Father Walter spilled out the usual amount of energy, the project never tested his capacity to be a corporation director. Some rosaries were sold, many were given away as gifts to small donors. But whether devotion to the rosary was already in the eclipse or business management was bad is not really known. The Queen of the Rosary Foundation now is a series of brown folders in the archives.
Father Walter looked upon this experience as only a practice run in the business world for his real project--the commercializing of St. John's bread. Here was a built-in gimmick. A loaf of bread which had a historical and nostalgic appeal--baked in the hearths of the monastery kitchen by German Franciscan sisters from a formula kept in the secrecy of the monastery, from a mixture of wheat and cracked rye known only to the monastery miller. A bread which generations of students had eaten. He dreamed of the advertising possible for the project: cowled monks against the familiar image of the twin towers; monastery bells ringing against the background of the pine trees. He knew well enough that alumni would have forgotten how much they had hated it, would have talked to their wives often of how great that blackbread was. He knew that most of them believed that nonsense about a secret formula that only the millers and Franciscans knew. He dreamed of a bread that sat in the special markets from New York to San Diego; and he had visions of the letters that would pour in from alumni in far-flung places remarking of the goodness of the bread.
Other things began to slip away. Periodic bursts of academic fervor would break out, and in his new office on the growing administration wing he would page through a new book of medieval history and dig a pencil into his ear in habitual fashion when he had a book in his hand. And young professors of history would stop in to stimulate his imagination and make him nostalgic for the days when he paced in front of the classroom and talked about Arnold of Brescia and Peter the Venerable. Yet the magic of the business world swallowed him and history books got buried under the Dunn and Bradstreet directory and phone books of all the major cities in the United States.
For the first time in his career he had a secretary. It seemed rather natural that Isabelle Durenburger, wife of George, should become involved in alumni affairs. Alumni affairs were bread affairs and bread affairs were rosary affairs, and Isabelle had to keep them separate. The business world was enticing, and Walter plunged into it with the fervor of a new career man. He had to learn about the world of advertising. On occasional moments when he lounged before the TV set he was more interested in the cost of the commercials than in the football plays.
Launching a business was not the easiest thing in his career. He met the opposition of the local miller who was not interested in the full time job of mixing flours. The Sisters in the kitchen voiced their opposition to baking more bread than the students and visiting alumni needed. So his world had to get bigger and brought him into contact with commercial bakeries, commercial flours. He began to visit vice-presidents and presidents of wholesale bakeries, and representatives of bakeries began to make visits to St. John's. He learned about markets and marketing, about the buying habits of housewives, about staple and variety breads.
There had probably never been a time in his previous life when he was so engaged and so excited. All the suppressed instincts of a successful businessman spilled out rapidly and he moved with apparent ease among the wielders of money power. He met and handled all the local opposition to commercializing the bread when he signed a contract with Zinmaster Bakery to handle the production of bread. He sold the "secret formula” for mixing the flour, threw into the contract the baking formula, and received in return the guarantee of one cent for every sack of the St. John's flour which was sold.
Somehow the penny seemed ridiculous. Yet when the corporation books were closed in June and the monastery heard the annual report, Walter glowed when a penny a sack had grown to as much as 12,000 dollars in the year. He accepted the congratulations of monks, most of whom had never taken the project seriously. Like so many of the projects with which the name of St. John's had been associated, it was mainly a one man effort, supported with official encouragement but little help, boosted by a few persons but chuckled at by most. It was a species of "doing your own thing" before that phrase became popular in religious circles after Vatican II. Yet it cost the monastery nothing, produced some income by a man whose productive years as a teacher had gone by, so that the banter Walter encountered was friendly.
Complaints began to come in--the loaf was too heavy, the loaf was too light; the crust was too thick, the crust was too thin, the bread was too expensive. It became confused with another St. John's bread. Alumni wrote that it could not be obtained in their local supermarket. And at the monastery also the grumbling began to arise. Before many months had gone by, the business office discovered that it was cheaper to buy the flour than to mix it locally. It was inevitable that the mill would close down when large sacks of St. John's mix began to emerge from delivery trucks that stopped at the rear door of the kitchen. Soon one pocket of the monastery purse was paying out the money, which would return diminished into another pocket. Even louder was the grumbling when there was a threat that the abbey bread would be baked in the ovens at St. Cloud.
The enthusiasm for bread lasted into Walter's retiring years. He signed thousands of post-cards mailed to wives of alumni, visited local supermarkets and supervised the advertising. When the inevitable drop in sales came, Walter had long been prepared with the answer. "One of the things you learn in this business of bread is that specialty breads have short lives. You hit the market hard with it, you saturate the public with advertising, you cream off the profit while you can. But the specialty market is a finicky market and soon another bread replaces yours."
Quietly the income from the bread dropped to about half its former figure, the phone books of large cities began to gather dust, and the Dunn and Bradstreet manual was rarely opened. The office on administration row became more and more a place where people of former generations gathered to stir memories of the past. Attempts were made to shape the office into a lounge. Furniture was purchased for the room, and for the first time in a long monastic career, Walter had new chairs to lounge in. Another generous donor provided the air-conditioning for the room. Unofficially Walter became the guestmaster of the abbey and the university. The door was always open and he became the confidant of anyone who chose to enter. Visitors who bored other monks were often dropped in Walter's office for him to dispose of. Visiting celebrities were still expected to pay court at Walter's office, and Walter still kept abreast of the world through conversation. Since he had long ago become a pillar of the community, monks in official positions continued to test their ideas and plans against his battery of words.
One of the most frequent visitors was the Abbot. What they talked about not many people know, but most monks assumed that Walter had become the man upon whom Abbot Baldwin leaned. Night after night, they could be seen walking the paths around the buildings, Walter still hitching his trousers and talking through the smoke of the evening cigar. A friendship which had formed when Abbot Baldwin was a green prefect in Benet Hall apparently had come to full bloom. One can be sure that the one topic omitted was their unwitting and unwanted rivalry for the office of abbot after Alcuin had died. Circumstance had thrown both their cowls into the ring when Alcuin had tendered his resignation. Father Baldwin had shown a good capacity for caring for the monastery during the illness of Abbot Alcuin. And Walter, who had long shown his knowledge and concern about the university, was the favorite candidate of the school people. In the weeks preceding the election Walter suffered the severest tortures of his life as the unofficial scrutiny of possible candidates proceeded. Whenever he saw two or three monks together he could be sure that in the course of the conversation his name would be dropped, his character would be searched, his faults would be magnified and his virtues amplified. The more brusque monks faced him head-on and scrutinized him.
History shows that his campaign for non-candidacy was successful. Though he never wrote a speech, this is the speech which he probably delivered dozens of times to monks and friends who boosted his person. "The monks who vote for me will make a big mistake. I don't know this monastery, and I know less about the kinds of work we do. Do you realize that two-thirds of our monks are in parishes and missions? I have never visited our missions. I have never been a parish priest. Why, I have not even lived within the cloister in all the years that I have been a priest. Sure I know something about the school but the school is only a small part of our operation."
"An abbot has to be in touch with a thousand different things at a time and I can't keep in touch with one thing at a time. I can't even remember that I am a member of the forgetter's club.” At this point the soliloquy broke up at the laughter of the listener. Walter had been one of the charter members of the forgetter's club, which had no officers and no charter and no meetings. One was nominated through the commission of an egregious act of forgetfulness--such as forgetting to wear the chasuble at Mass, or coming to the right meeting on the wrong day, or appearing at class an hour late. There is the story about the monk who stopped off at the toilet before class, set his books on the window ledge, and appeared in class a few minutes later with a roll of toilet tissue under his arm. Though Walter had gone through a long apprenticeship to qualify for the club, he gained sure entrance the morning when he and Father Martin met outside one of the classrooms a few moments before the class bell rang. When the bell rang both walked into the room and readied for the opening prayer. Walter turned to Martin and said: "This is my class." Martin answered: "You're wrong; this is my class in bonehead economics." The argument went back and forth quite furiously for some moments. Finally one of them had the presence of mind to turn to the class for a solution. "Economics," the students piped out, and Walter left the field in disgrace.
"No sir," Walter continued, "I just couldn't hack the detail that the abbot has to handle. I'd be climbing walls before a few months went by." He tugged at his ear to distract himself from the tear that wanted to form in his eye. "If this monastery wants to kill me quick, it will elect me abbot. If the monastery has the kind of charity I know it has, it'll pass me by."
The monastery exercised charity and passed him by. But as elder statesman he shared the problems of many men, listened to the woes of the abbot during the quiet evening walks, and thanked God at the end of the walk for His goodness.
The Abbot knew, as few others knew, that although Walter could spout out words like a broken water main, those words were not about other monks. It was virtually impossible to draw Walter into a conversation about the foibles and failings of other men. Early in his monastic formation someone had impressed upon him the seriousness of St. Benedict's cautions about revealing the faults of other men. Moreover, what was given to him in confidence he accepted in confidence.
December, 1970, the monks gather on the feast of the Innocents for the annual Christmas party in the Great Hall, where a huge Christmas tree obscures the angels veiling their faces before Christ the King, who gazes over everything from the apse. Already stuffed with unsmoked ham and trimmings, monks are filling in space that no longer exists with pie and egg nog.
For the occasion Abbot Baldwin requested that St. Cloud hospital release Walter for the evening. Heart worn out, legs gone, he was wheeled into the Great Hall. Someone coaxes Father Don LeMay to the piano. He sits with no show of reluctance and plays all songs at request, like the piano player in less classy eating places who for two dollars will scratch any melody out of memory and make it sound as it had been first written. The noisy songs rollout and Daniel and Simon and Godfrey vie with each other in sheer volume. "God rest you merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay." Finian does his tambourine routine through the twelve days of Christmas. A bit of reverence is restored with the singing of "O Holy Night."
Walter sits quietly in his wheelchair, a cigar burning untended in his hand and lets his eyes drift at the tree, where once stood the four pillared baldachin brooding over the marble altar. It was the baldachin which had sheltered him when he knelt before Abbot Peter and promised his vows of stability and obedience and conversion of life. The same baldachin hovered over him when he had his hands consecrated priest by the Bishop. The tree vanished in the reverie and in the rear arch of the baldachin appeared the Nativity scene, painted by Brother Clement which came out of the attic on the vigil of Christmas. His eyes moved to the iron grill which had separated choir from nave like a translucent iconostasis, and there hung the huge carved pendants portraying the "O antiphons," each lighted successively on the seven days before Christmas.
It had been a beautiful church. Even now the singing of "Silent Night," then "Stille Nacht" for those who knew German, fitted the atmosphere of reverence that this building evoked. A wee smile curled on Walter's face as he recalled how often he had wanted to genuflect here even after the church had been deconsecrated. The monks had always sung well in this church, and he mouthed a few words of "Stille Nacht." Brother Raphael next to him plucked the cigar from the lax fingers and put it into an ash tray.
The mood of "Stille Nacht" lingered as the last notes gently returned from the unused choir loft and Abbot Baldwin took the moment to greet Walter publicly. The Abbot repressed the desire to deliver a eulogy. The words became instead an apology spoken in the name of Walter that he had to leave the gathering, since the doctor had insisted that Walter return to St. Cloud hospital as soon as decency and convenience permitted. Walter shook off with a head gesture an invitation to talk to the community. After all, he had never been one to address the assembly of monks; his conversations had always been in small gatherings. Then the voice of Simon boomed out, "For he’s a jolly good fellow ... " The piano picked the key that Simon had chosen, but the piano was drowned in the volume of voices that expressed in this secular way the gratitude of fifty years of monks. Tears such as he had never shed rolled down Walter's cheeks, and embarrassed he signed Brother Raphael to wheel him from the hall. Monk by monk pressed his hand or his shoulder as the chair moved to the door.
A sense of ending had come upon this monastic Christmas party, and one by one the monks left who had to climb into cold vehicles and drive to their parishes. But around the piano there was one who always remembered that solemn moments of celebration in the community came to an end with song. The voice raised the
"Ultima in mortis hora
Filium pro nobis ora
Bonam mortem impetra
Virgo mater, domina.”
The piano stayed silent as the voices filled the vault of the old church with a prayer that the Blessed Mother entreat her Son for the happy death of those who called her. A faint thread of the song reached the generous ears of Walter as the wheel chair approached the garage, and he knew in that last goodbye the unique kind of love that monks generate for each other.
On January 18, he went Gently into that good night.
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* Scriptorium, containing articles written by the clerics of the Abbey, was published from 1940 to 1988 by and (for the most part) about St. John's Abbey. Print copies of the issues are available in the Abbey Archives, the University Archives, and Alcuin Library (BX 3001 .S73), and all of the issues are also available online. A basic title index is available (and, to see a complete title listing for all issues, choose Scriptorium from the drop-down menu and leave the search box blank).
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