Monday, November 23, 2009

Personal Aside: This Morning’s Remarks at the Haymarket Breakfast Benefit.


This morning, at 8 a.m. 150 or so gathered at Maggiano’s to launch the first annual “Father Mac” breakfast, honoring the co-founder of Haymarket Center, one of the nation’s finest refuges for those afflicted with addiction…of drugs, alcohol, gambling and other vices that wound and petrify the human spirit. He was, as many Chicagoans know, Msgr. Ignatius D. McDermott who died on New Year’s Eve, the date of so much alcoholic revelry, 2004. This year is his centennial (1909-2009) and the organization he founded gives the poor the highest level of treatment, equivalent to what multi-millionaires pay at the Bette Ford Center in California. Although, thank God, not afflicted with the disease of alcoholism, I’m proud to be vice chairman of Haymarket Center.

Here are my remarks:

There’s only one reason I’m here today…and that’s because when I retired from Quaker Oats, my wife sat me down and said this:

“You’ve had a grand and glorious time lobbying for Quaker Oats…and it was fun. But you’re retired now and it’s time you thought of doing something for others…and I mean others who can’t do things for themselves. You know what I mean? You’re in the last chapter of life now and when you show up to stand before the Just Judge, you better have something more in your repertoire than having lobbied for Oatmeal, Cap’n Crunch, Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice.”

Well, I said to myself, she’s right as usual. But what shall I do? Though in retirement, I was doing a regular radio talk show on WLS between 10 pm and 2 a.m. Before I went to the studio one night, I grabbed dinner at the Chicago Athletic Club. And afterwards…after visiting the Men’s Room and washing my hands…a guy came up to me and said:

“Pardon me, but Father Mac and I were having dinner upstairs where you were and Father said `That’s Roeser, isn’t it?’ I said yes. `Well,’ said Father Mac, `he looks like he doesn’t have much to do. I hear he’s retired. Why don’t we ask him if he’d like top help us out at Haymarket?’ Father Mac is outside now. Would you want to meet him?”

That man was Jack Whalen. And that’s the way it worked out. From that day on and for some years after I worked with one of the most fascinating men I ever met. Hobbled by age, well in his `80s, walking with difficulty, with wisps of hair that stood carelessly on his bald pate…long overdue for retirement himself…with a voice that came out as a rasp…he was a stirring anomaly of virtue and human frailties…with a South Side Irishman’s grit…a passion for sports…a lineage that went back generations in the Democratic party…he had all these things rolled up into one: a blowtorch temper which he would assuage by immediately running out and bringing chocolate candy for those whom he had earlier berated…and at the same time a magnificent toleration for humans with faults—all this wrapped up with a gift of excellent humor and storytelling.

I signed up as a volunteer, joined the board and agreed to do a book of his life…a book that took years—because whenever I was ready to send it to the printer’s …he told me more stories—including the story of an Irish priest named Malloy whose Bingo games were the most successful in the archdiocese because they were heavily patronized by the Outfit. One day Malloy was having breakfast with the Cardinal when the Vicar General rushed in and said, “You know what? Our new car has been stolen! The one we just bought! Right out here in front of this building1! Vanished in thin air! I think we’ve got to report it to the police right away!”

Malloy said; “Not so hasty now. What kind of car was it?”

A brand new Packard.

“What color was it?”

Gray but it needed a washing so it looked black.

“What year was it?”

This year!

“A four door?”

Four door, yes.

Father Malloy went to the phone in another room and the Vicar General said to the Cardinal:

“Well, at least I can pray to Saint Anthony, the patron of lost articles.”

The Cardinal said that would be a good idea.

That afternoon, the Vicar General looked out the window and there it was…his gray Packard…freshly washed…full of gas. He burst in on the Cardinal in his office and said “A miracle! My prayer to Saint Anthony has been answered! The Packard has been returned! Don’t you think it’s a miracle?”

The Cardinal said: Yes, indeed. And now if you’d do me a favor and see if you can get Father Malloy to stop in here, will you?”

This story and many more are contained in the book I wrote as told me by Father Mac. And to paraphrase a more distinguished author named John “There are many other things he did which if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain them.”

Did I do right in deciding to spend much of my retirement in service to Father Mac and Haymarket? I found the answer some years ago at a City Club of Chicago Christmas party hosted by Jay Doherty in his office. I came to it with Father Mac. He was then ninety. A piano was there and a guy was fooling around on it, playing chords…and suddenly he swung softly into a rendition of a song which was originally known as Londonderry Air…but which since 1913 has been considered by all the Irish—including my own mother—as their unofficial signature song…Danny Boy—the song of a young woman to her love.

As Father Mac and I sat there enjoying the music, he began to recite it…not sing it…from memory:

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling/

From glen to glen and down the mountain side/

The summer’s gone and all the roses falling/

`Tis you, `tis you must go and I must bide/

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow/

Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow/

`Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow/

Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

Days later when he was at his desk, I asked him if he could recite the last verse that caused my mother often to weep. He put his head in his hands to think…a common gesture…and then raised his head and said:

But when ye come and all the flowers are dying/

If I am dead as dead I well may be/

You’ll come and find the place where I am lying/

And kneel and say an `Ave’ there for me/

And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be/

For ye shall bend and tell me that you love me/

And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

It was then I knew I had made the right decision to spend the last chapter of my life following him and serving Haymarket as he would wish me to. Now…as I am myself in my `80s…I am sure of it.

Well, here this morning we have celebrated his near-100 years of life…a life that resembles the one described by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet:

“When he shall die, take him and cut him out into the stars…and he shall make the face of heaven so fine…that all the world will be in love with night…and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

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