Don Edwards Literary Memorial

September 16, 2007

In Memoriam…Brother Sixtus Robert Smith, F.S.C. 1910-2006

Your tribute to Sister Maria, LeRoy, prompted me to complete something similar to my mentor and friend, Brother Robert. I started it right after his death, but for some reason I kept putting it off. I think, in retrospect, it was my speculation about his long term relationship with St. Johns College that gave me trouble, not wanting to impute something to him that wasn’t true or that he would violently disagree with and could not defend now. In any case, here is my effort.

I first met Brother Robert as a high school boarding student at Mont la Salle. High in the Napa, California hills, the Mont, a series of loosely connected buildings, colonial Spanish architecture, was the residence for three groups. A Roman Catholic boarding high school called the Junior Novitiate or “Juniorate” for short…children who thought they might want to become Christian Brothers; a training boot camp for young men who really thought they wanted to be Christian Brothers, called the Novitiate; and the final resting place for old monks and those who ran the winery, we affectionately called “The Ancients.”

To understate it, he was not formidable in stature. I always thought of him as round. Five foot two, round in all respects: round, bald head atop a round body, round little fingers. I imagined his feet….round little toes. He had a ready, almost giddy laugh when amused. While visiting the Mont, he decided to attend a rare showing of a movie, a happening granted by the institutional director and dictator, Brother Michael Quinn, only on special feast days.

I didn’t say much to him that evening. He was busy talking to one of the older students who knew him. I remember one thing, though. When asked about my reading interest, I proudly told him I was currently reading Frank Norris’ novel, “The Octopus,” a story about the west, the railroad barons. He looked at me with an amused smile. “Why don’t you read a real novel?” he asked.

Soon I was reading “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was a “real” novel, alright. And way more real than my sixteen year old brain could manage at the time, but I read the whole damn, indecipherable tome from beginning to end. And I made sure it was resting squarely on my desk during study periods to impress the cretans who were my classmates.

The next time I remember seeing Brother Robert was by pure accident. By now I knew he was a highly respected, if comically constructed, tutor at St. Mary’s College. By this time, having graduated from the high school and joined the ranks of Brothers under the name of Steven Noel, I was taking courses at St. Marys College as a student brother. Brother Robert was trying to initiate a program paralleling that of the “great books” curriculum of St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland. I was required to attend a seminar which read and discussed ancient Greek texts like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the historian Tacitus, the playwright Sophocles and, of course, Plato’s Dialogues. I was shy and didn’t talk much but somehow I got a B+ in his seminar. A friend who talked a lot, got a C. As I remember it, he was upset, thought a mistake had been made. Not so, Brother Robert said. He apparently thought I asked better questions or something of the sort. Very good for my ego at the time.

I asked him once what one should do to become a good teacher. I admired his technique in seminars and watched him free wheel around the classroom in his history of religion. He gave me his delighted smile.

“It is very easy to be a good teacher,” he said with a straight face. “Show students how to learn and then make sure they like learning. Then they will be life long learners.”

Many years later I accosted him with his comment. “The first part is easy,” I said. “The second part is impossible.”

“Not so,” he replied. “How about Jaime Escalante?”

“Yeah, “ I retorted, “but he’s a genius.”

“The defense rests,” he said with a smile.

Shortly afterward I left the Brothers. I was 20 years old and didn’t have any idea what I was going to do. It is not an exaggeration to say that what Brother Robert did for me changed my life forever. He showed me catalogues of St. Johns College, their curriculum, their style of education. He said I would be an ideal student there. I bought his sales pitch, but said my parents couldn’t afford to pay tuition and room and board. So he used his connections, asked me to write an essay saying why I wanted to go to St. Johns (it was a damn good essay, he told me), got one of our teachers, George Elliott, to send St. Johns a letter of recommendation, and made sure everything was taken care of before I left. He was right. St. Johns was the ideal detox station, a transition for me on the way to the rest of my life.

I kept in touch with Brother over the years, but didn’t see him again for some time. I heard that he had left St. Marys to become a tutor at his beloved St. Johns College. I never had an opportunity to ask him point blank why he decided to leave the western province of the Christian Brothers and St. Marys, perhaps the blunt question would have been our of order anyway….but I wouldn’t be surprised if St. Johns College was his way of achieving an amicable separation without divorce. To put it in the context of your essay, Brother Misfit, LeRoy, and your own story, he was a scholar; the pedestrian view of education afforded by St. Marys likely bored him to death. St. Johns would have been his equivalent of the vision, the new mission….perhaps similar to your view when you embarked on the Farmworker’s quest for fairness. Even so, the one time I asked about the lack of novices, intimating that the days of the Christian Brother order might be numbered, he replied that it was quality that was needed, not quantity. Loyal to the end. At least publicly he would never badmouth the Brothers.

Certainly his long standing friendship with the legendary Dean Klein, Mortimer Adler and other distinguished scholars was a major influence in his decision. But this is what reinforced my original thoughts about his “real” motives. You remember he was personally responsible for birthing the “Integral Program” at St. Marys, a seminar based St. Johns-like curriculum, started when we were student brothers in the 1950s. In a memorial service on November, 11, 2006 shortly after Robert’s death, his program was mentioned in a eulogy by Brother Donald Mansir, then the director of the St. Marys monastic community. So I looked for the program on the St. Marys web page. No attribution…in fact, absolutely no mention of Brother Robert at all. And his program is buried at the bottom of a list of curriculum options under “Liberal Arts,” with this remark at the end of a descriptive paragraph: “The program attracts talented and committed students from any and all backgrounds, but is not and has never been an honors program.”

So much for loyalties going both ways.

Years later I moved to Paris in a new job capacity with IBM. I rented an apartment near the Duroc Metro station in the 7th Arrondissement, the area containing the Eiffel Tower and the home of the legendary sculptor, Rodan. One day I was walking my dog around the our cul de sac and thought I heard Gregorian Chant. I put my ear to the wall of the building and, sure enough, Gregorian singing. Just to check it out, I walked our dog around to Rue de Sèvres, just around the corner. To my astonishment, a small street called Rue Jean-Baptiste de la Salle greeted me, and just across from that was the Christian Brother mother house of Paris…where some monks were probably singing Gregorian. I looked skyward. “Come on! Give me a break,” I pleaded to the ether. “We had this out years ago.”

Guess who was coming to dinner? The next thing we knew, Brother Robert was a guest. He was a Francophile of the highest order, spoke French fluently, and visited Paris whenever he could. With the Christian Brother house around the corner, he could visit when he pleased, hang out with his Russian Orthodox priest friends and have easy access to transportation anywhere in Europe. He liked my wife, Valerie, gave my daughters large, round hugs. He was so knowledgeable about so many things, his company was as unusual as it was entertaining.

He loved my youngest daughter, Leslie. They always compared heights when they met, she demanding they stand back to back for the obligatory measurement. Some years later, she won. “A-ha!” she triumphed. “I’m taller.” To which he replied with dignity, “Being taller than me, Leslie, does not constitute tallness.” She fell on the floor laughing.

We sent her to stay for a time with Brother in Annapolis, so she attended some of his seminars at the tender age of 16. When I asked her later what she thought of it, she said, “The book they were reading was Plato’s dialogue, “The Phaedo”. Fifteen people sat around a table for two hours arguing over a paragraph I thought had little or no meaning.” Needless to say Leslie did not go to St. Johns in spite of her affection for Brother Robert.

I worked for a time in Baltimore after I retired from IBM. I saw Brother Robert infrequently, but it was always a pleasure. He recommended books for me to read. We would talk about the Church occasionally. When I said I thought it was in serious need of reform, as with his defense of the Brothers, he replied, “The reforms have already taken place in Vatican Council II. It takes time.” When I pointed out the obvious pedophilia among American priests, he said, “There have always been bad priests.” I thought he missed my point, but I had no desire to hurt his feelings. So I dropped the matter for the time being. I wonder what he would make of Benedict’s latest pronouncements which seem to be antithetical to the spirit of Vatican II and of the enormous sums of money awarded the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ victims?

He was still active at St. Johns, a tutor emeritus, still giving lectures and leading seminars and about to publish a book on Russian iconography, a subject in which he was an acknowledged expert. He now hobbled around Annapolis with the aid of a cane, but still very able, keen mind, waving to everyone. He was an established feature of Annapolis, an affable icon in his own right. I saw him one more time with Valerie. We had lunch and chatted, at ease in each other’s company.

A year later I heard he was ill and was taken back to California. To die, it turned out, of prostate cancer. I called him at the home of the Ancients. At 96, he was one now. I said I wanted him to know what an important role he had played in my development and my life… and how much I cherished his friendship. He replied with a rasping voice, obviously in pain, “And you in mine, my friend.” Two days later he was gone.

In my lifetime there have been a few people who were there for me when I most needed help and direction. Brother Robert was one of them. Bless you wherever you are.

Oh, by the way. I recently read The Grand Inquisitor from The Brother’s Karamazov….probably for the sixth time overall. I’m pretty sure I get it now. Brother was right. It is a real novel.

Filed under: DON POSTS — Don @ 3:53 pm

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