March madness: The man who was a fan

One of the most gratifying things about writing Called to Serve, my biography of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, was being able to document his friendship and spiritual influence on the writers Thomas Merton and Robert Lax. The man who had been a high-school drop-out and shipyard worker from Camden, NJ, became a great scholar and historian in his own right. But he was also a crazy, almost fanatic, college basketball fan, which I think is one of the most endearing, and human, things about him.

You would not think a man who created a 43-volume bibliography of the Franciscan Order would have much time to follow basketball, but I remember seeing him at the games, when I was a student. He would be standing by the either the front or back entrance of St. Bonaventure’s Reilly Center, close to the court, dressed in his brown Franciscan robes, his arms tightly folded, watching the game with intense, almost grim interest. When he got older, he would leave at the half, and listen to the rest of the game on the radio, claiming a too-close game was hard on his heart. I didn’t realize how much the team meant to him until I went through his letters and a small diary he kept, when he traveled through Europe for several months in the 1960’s—during the basketball season. The diary is filled with events both charming and moving (Visiting Rome and the Vatican, his birthplace in Alsace, then cold-war Berlin) but through the whole thing, he frets about not being able to “get the scores” of his college’s team. The diary actually closes–after a rather poetic description of riding the night train through the darkness of rural Pennsylvania–with this aside: “Finally got the score on that Niagara game from Joe Magnano.”

His letters to the poet Lax, living on an isle in Greece, are peppered with references to the Bonnie’s team, rivals and games: In one of his responses, Lax writes as a postscript: “Too bad about the ECAC,” which refers to the old East Coast Athletic Conference, perhaps a tournament game that was lost badly.  To Merton, Father restrains himself and doesn’t mention the team much until one letter, written in the 1960s, when he describes in considerable detail the construction of the new gym and basketball court to be named Reilly Center, something he was obviously quite excited about. Merton graciously replies that he might no longer recognize the campus if he were to return.

I think the most poignant story was from at the very end of his life: He worked every day until the day he died, showing up at his office in the library to work on his vast correspondence. In a letter he wrote to a friend and library philanthropist, Samuel Lasser, on January 27, 1981—written the day before he died, and perhaps the last letter he ever wrote—he joyfully mentions, after a discussion of a lost invoice, the Bonnie’s triumphant victory at home the night before over long-time upstate New York rival Syracuse.

As I was writing this part of the book in late 2017, the Bonnies had just defeated Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and the commentators made much of the fact that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had once vowed never to return and play the Bonnies at Reilly Center, after a particularly humiliating loss. I looked up the date of the game, and sure enough…it was the very game Father Irenaeus had been talking  about in his final letter to Sam Lasser.  Hmmmm….coincidence? Or as Father himself would say, the Divine Hand of Providence? (the deity, not the city or college basketball team)  Still, I can’t help but imagine his spirit imbuing the Bonnie’s rather meteoric season this year, which Father must be utterly thrilled about, wherever in the cosmos he is now. Should the Bonnie make the Final Four, perhaps we can post it as Father’s first miracle toward canonization…

Postscript, 3/11/17: Well, the Bonnies did get into the Big Dance this year, just barely, and somewhere Father Irenaeus is smiling. A little: he’s not really happy about the play-in nonsense or the seeding…





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