Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Flashback: The Holy Yet Worldly-Wise Old Counselor Who Hadn’t Left the Monastery Since He was a Boy Gave Me the Key to Making a Career Decision. Although the Cuban Cigar was Awful.

[More reminiscences of fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren.]

When Minnesota opened for settlement in the 1850s, German farmers, mostly Catholic, flocked to the area. By 1854 there was only one priest in a 200-mile area. Thereupon the bishop of St. Paul called upon the Benedictines of Bavaria to send a detachment of monks to Minnesota. A handful of them came, opened a church and as an afterthought founded a school for young boys of the settlers (as well as such Indians who wished to be educated). What is now St. John’s University was founded in 1857 as a school for men. Located in the heart of a thick forest, 18 miles north of St. Cloud, side-by-side with two shining lakes, the unassuming university is tucked into what would become one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in the Middle West. A neighboring school for women, the College of St. Benedict, was built two years later, several miles down the road.

I graduated from St. John’s in 1950, returned to Chicago for three years and then returned as a newspaperman to St. Cloud in 1953. Occasionally when I ran out of money, I’d head for St. John’s to catch a meal and occasionally camp there gratis until my financial state improved. Now, in 1963, after we lost the gubernatorial recount by 91 votes I returned and tapped on the door of the retired Dean of Men, Fr. Walter Reger, OSB.

“Come in,” he said. “You smoke, don’t you? Try this cigar. Pure Havana, not obtainable now that Castro’s in power over there.”

All right.

He struck a wooden match. “Puff! Puff I said! You call that puffing? Draw it in! Inhale! Don’t you know how to inhale? That’s it. I never did buy what the surgeon-general said about smoking. There. How’s that?”

I’m not used to smoking cigars. I guess it’s all right.

“Guess? You will not smoke another cigar like that until Cuba is free. What can I do for you?”

So I told him about my three job offers and that we were going to be parents for the third time. And all the details including Michelson.

“Did you marry the Casalinda girl, the nurse from St. Cloud Hospital who was Miss Central Minnesota? A tall girl with raven black hair?”

No, Father. I remember her but you’re thinking of somebody else I guess.”

You went out with her?


“Only once? Good. Good. Good you didn’t marry her. She was supposed to have gone to Hollywood for a screen test that didn’t work out. The less said about her the better but her brother Joe, who went here, was a great quarterback here, however. I named him the `Italian Whippet.’ He tried out for the Chicago Bears but it didn’t take.”

Just for starters, Father: what would you have said if I had married her?

“I’d say pray to the Blessed Mother for her chastity and yours. Who did you marry, anyhow?”

Lillian Prescott of Chicago. Good Catholic girl. Solid.

“Didn’t go to St. Ben’s evidently. From Chicago. Good-good. Sounds like she’s English. Two children with another on the way, eh? Good-good. Why are you here?”

I told him about the three job offers. In detail.

“Easily decided.”

Easily decided?

“Knowing you were coming, I looked up your record. The first year you were here you were such a problem—campused twice and 10 days each—and such a bad student, in 1946-47 when you were eighteen that the Dean wrote your father suggesting that you not return because you were deriving such little academic or spiritual benefit from this place. Your grades in mathematics were failing. Do you remember that?”

Vividly. I had trouble adjusting since I had never been away from home.

“In addition, your character was questioned because you were caught cheating—copying answers from another guy’s math examination paper. That was when you were eighteen. Your father responded by saying that with God’s help he would see that you get a Catholic education even if you had shown a character flaw--if not here somewhere else. A good letter and it set us back on our heels. Our job is to not just educate but instill character. If we failed with you at first, we should have another try at it. Whereupon there was a faculty discussion about it and your English professor, Steve Humphrey [no relation to Hubert but an equally fervent Democrat, who ultimately became a Ronald Reagan Republican] vouched for you and urged that you come back and that he’d try to set you right. All this you know, of course.”

Not all this background but I’ve always been indebted to him.

“When you came back the next Fall as a sophomore, we were waiting for you. Steve became your mentor and steered you to the university newspaper where you improved and became associate editor. Not with mathematics—you never improved there. But after you decided what you like to do, you got fairly decent grades and when you became editor of the literary magazine you seemed to hit your stride. And after you got involved in extra-curricular writing, you improved noticeably in English, history, philosophy and theology. You were always good in history and civics. I taught you theology and I thought I saw a good deal of aptitude there. Although it was clear from your innate rebellious nature you were not interested in the priesthood. At least not the Benedictines. Ever think of being a priest?”

Not in the slightest, Father.

“And although Steve wasn’t awfully happy with your Republicanism, you got involved in political debates on campus because you were just about our only Republican. Aside of me, of course. And even Steve was proud of how you argued. Do you know why you improved?”


“Because you liked what you were doing: writing, weaving history and even theology and philosophy in your notion of politics. So the decision you should make should be in that general direction. Which means that you should strike the Josten company off the list right now. You’re not interested in it! Answer me: do you get up every morning wondering how to improve the manufacture of class rings or publication of school yearbooks?”

No. Although since I was offered the job I had tentatively decided it would be the most prudent course for me to take since our family is growing and I haven’t had much of a stable career—what with politics and all.

“You are wrong about the virtue of prudence. It shouldn’t be cited in that way. There are reasons why it is a Cardinal Virtue…with a capital C. The Cardinal Virtues are, as you supposedly learned here, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Prudence is the most important because it leads us to discern our true `good,’ meaning what we are supposed to do in life. Prudence leads the other Cardinal Virtues by shining a light on them, balancing options and discarding those that have no relevance.

“You have just said that the prudent course would be to work for a manufacturing company that makes class rings and publishes yearbooks because you would gain stability from it. But I will argue that this would be the most imprudent thing for you to do—because you are not interested in that work…just the fact that it would pay the most. That is not what you learned here: take the job that pays the most. You are interested in journalism and politics—particularly the politics of the Republican party in which you and I share an interest. So don’t try to wheedle out of the decision you must make by saying prudence dictates. Prudence does not dictate that you go to work for a company in whose products you have no interest simply because it pays well. If the other jobs paid next to nothing and your family would go hungry without the Josten’s job, yes, then prudence would apply. But here it doesn’t.”

That’s helpful; I never thought of it that way.

“Prudence should lead you to understand by almost having failed here that you are a person who can only work in a field in which you have a vital interest. It was like this for you at St. John’s. You had no interest whatsoever in mathematics at 18. All of us wished you had an interest but you had none. I daresay you have no interest in mathematics today. When you were eighteen, you resolved not to learn it and pass by attempting to cheat—and cheat ineptly, may I say—with your nose on your neighbor’s paper which should have got you bounced out of here—and would have had your father not written that compelling letter to us. Then Steve Humphrey picked you up as a total flop and steered you to writing. Your interest was great. You improved and graduated with a great interest in journalism and politics. Not a great scholar but a pretty good one when you got interested in something.

“Somehow when you went back to Chicago after graduation, you got de-railed. You went to grad school at night for creative writing—that’s okay—and you were an advertising copy-writer in Chicago making a reasonably adequate income. That was because your mother, a strong-willed woman whom I met and liked instantly, had been in advertising before she married. But you were unhappy. You wanted to please your mother but you didn’t like the work. Too materialistic. So you quit and moved to St., Cloud when you were 25 here so you could be in journalism at a much lower salary and be happier. I would see you once in a while around here when you ran out of money and wanted a few free meals. You were very happy, though.

“Now striking out from Chicago and coming to St. Cloud to take a job where you almost starved to death was a prudent decision for a single man. And you moved to the Minnesota Republican party because you were interested in politics and the job would enable you to learn and be more satisfying. And that was a prudent decision. So it is conceivable that the virtue of prudence would dictate that you consider the WTCN job as one option—not the graduation class ring job no matter what it pays. Your cigar went out.”

Father, I am not a cigar smoker.

“So I see. That was a prudent statement which I wish you had made earlier before you ruined a perfectly good cigar. Give it to me and I’ll gently stub it out for me to smoke it later. Now where are we?”

Prudence dictates that one option is WTCN television.

“Exactly. To start out with but not after full examination. Another Cardinal virtue is Temperance. It is more than just drinking or eating in moderation. It is to subordinate the appetite for pleasure which is unlimited, to exert will power over the instincts. As you describe the WTCN offer you are thrilled because it would provide you with more money but more importantly some attention…and a desire for attention can be a great vice with some people—at this point certainly you. For you want to use the attention to punish your enemies: Rolvaag, Hubert Humphrey among them. I wouldn’t mind your doing it but such a decision would not be based on either Prudence or Temperance. You don’t take a job either for the so-called notoriety or to punish people because you are sensually gratified by getting even. So by the rules of Prudence and Temperance as I have described them, your wish to go to the TV station is unworthy. You are making a face now. Why?”

Because I halfway wanted you to say that at least for prudence’s sake, I take the TV job.

“Well, let us examine it. You say that your friend, what’s his name, Michelson? I must say: as you describe him he is a mess. Real mess. You say you gave him a good many exclusive stories which enabled him to rise in the estimation of his television station. Who will give you such stories? Do you think Rolvaag’s press secretary will?”


“Do you think you will be able to gain such exclusive entry such as Michelson had through his friendship with you? As a matter of fact, won’t a liberal Democratic governor favor a liberal press corps over you? Can you think of any possible source of exclusive news for you in that environment, especially as you were the number one opponent of the DFL all these years? I cannot.”

No, I cannot.

“You might just hit it lucky. But I am dissuaded by your eagerness to go into TV journalism for which I doubt you have aptitude simply because you want to even the score. That is not prudent. And your great raging passion to even the score with the Democrats is not an indication of temperance. As a matter of fact, something you may not have considered, you might very well be let go or demoted when the stories that Michelson got from you on an exclusive basis are not duplicated by you—since your successor certainly does not want you to get such stories. Besides, the promulgation of such stories does not involve a lot of writing, but speaking. Writing is what you most enjoy and do best. You write better than you speak. You might think about that.”

I will.

“The third offer is to return to head the communications of the Republican party of Minnesota. This pays adequately and is the one I favor. For one thing, the third Cardinal virtue is Justice: the ability to give others their due. I would argue as a conservative that giving others their due—and not patronizing for votes —is a hallmark of some in the Republican party and conservatism today in contrast to the DFL: although assuredly I get many arguments in the monastery from my colleagues on that point. I would also argue that prudence would dictate that you have the passion to involve yourself fully in that enterprise since you have heretofore: so you can thereby make a living for your family. With that role comes some attention, of course, which you have had in the past and certainly not the attention you would have for possibly a short time at WTCN.

“Understand, I have seen you in some short bursts on TV and I am not impressed. You’re a better writer than speaker. Besides, you’re not a handsome chap. People don’t expect men who make personal appearances to be good looking but at least thin. You are putting on weight so you are neither. But it is necessary to satisfy the need that you evidently have for some attention…a need that exceeds pure monetary considerations…which is why you moved here to be a newspaperman with a byline in the first place. That does not mean that you have to be indentured to the Republican party in perpetuity—but only until something clearly better…and I mean by the Cardinal virtue yardstick I have spelled out…comes along. Perhaps down the field there could be a corporate job that could embrace your love of writing and politics put to good conservative use. Frankly a newspaper job would be okay at first but you cannot really politick there.

“Now this fellow Michelson whom you describe and whom I think has been a mess. He was a mess but not now—and it is the providence of God that he has changed. Now listen to this: he has exhibited at this stage more prudence than you have. He broke up with the girl; he came back to his wife who accepted him—a very fortunate occurrence. And even more impressive, he decided to quit his job with the station. Why? Oh, he wanted to move to Washington with his wife to start over, sure. But odds are he realized that without you parceling out the news to him—and with Rolvaag as governor and the Republicans out—his glory days as the recipient of exclusive news are about over. So he chose to move to another field. He chose to join Gene McCarthy who went here. He could have done better than Gene but I’ll leave it at that. Michelson showed prudence. More than you have shown by trying to move into his job to get TV exclusives when it appears you will have very little chance of doing so. That is why prudence dictates you take the Republican job. Temperance dictates it. Justice certainly does. And as you have displayed some Fortitude, it will serve you in good stead there. That pretty well completes the advice I have.”

Father, I should have been taking notes. Can you re-play it, please?


“Yes. I hope I earned my keep here this morning by having given you something to think about. Prudence, the first among equals of the Cardinal virtues, should be trusted where it pertains to your basic interest in communications and politics. Justice, the second, would seem to bind you to your other great interest, the Republicans. Temperance, the third, would serve you with the balanced passion or interest to get the job done that would not allow you to glory in self-notoriety as would the WTCN offer. And the fourth, is Fortitude. Firmness in the difficulties of pursuing good, which for you—and me, incidentally—would be to responsibly serve a political party which needs you. You have a good deal of fortitude in politics. But in no way…no way…are Prudence, Justice, Temperance or Fortitude going to serve you in the business of manufacturing class rings. In no way will a bigger salary compensate for these virtues.

“Now I’ve had my say and I would ask you to walk around here on the grounds. There is a monks’ Mass at noon. When I look over from the choir stall, I would like to see you there. Afterward, grab lunch with us in the monastery—a number of your old friends including your old mentor Steve Humphrey would like to say hello to you—and hike around in the afternoon and come to see me again before you head for home.”

By the time I finished lunch, hiked around the woods, walked by the lakes, went to Mass, grabbed lunch and come back to see him…I had decided. It would be the Minnesota Republican party—at least until something more attractive would come along where prudence would dictate a change. And I have used the Cardinal virtues test on many things from that time on. God love him and keep him supplied in eternity with many aromatic Havana cigars in return for what he did for me.

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