Words of Wisdom: John J. Delaney '50's 1985 Kohlmann Address

Over Gonzaga’s history, there have been countless graduation speeches--many of them inspiring and memorable. However, as we look back through Gonzaga’s archives, the Kohlmann Address delivered by the late John J. Delaney ‘50 on June 9, 1985 stands out as one of the most powerful and poignant. 

Mr. Delaney was the school’s first alumnus to be asked to deliver the Kohlmann address, and he did not disappoint. Printed on the following pages are his full remarks--remarks that continue to carry remarkable significance as Gonzaga looks ahead to its next 200 years.  

Graduation is a passage to be cherished and remembered. The graduation speech, on the other hand, is a sausage. It tends to be lengthy, lacking in meat, and above all, forgettable. The most memorable graduation speech that I ever heard was given by columnist Art Buchwald at Georgetown University in 1979. Speaking for his generation, Mr. Buchwald's simple message to the next generation was:

"We've got our oil.
You go find your own oil."

The message I bring you today as you graduate from Gonzaga is also a simple one, but unlike Mr. Buchwald's obviously facetious remark, it is a message of reconciliation. It is Gonzaga's message -- to be "men for others."

It was first presented to you when you entered these halls as freshmen four years ago. It is a challenge that has been set before Gonzaga students in one form or another since 1821. It finds its roots in the 16th Century prayer of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus: "Teach us, good Lord ... to give and not to count the cost ...". 
In order to understand that challenge, it is first necessary to understand Gonzaga and why it is singularly qualified to make such a demand upon her sons. So today I would also like to share with you some reflections about this school, its history and spirit, and about you, the Class of 1985, and your role in its past and future.

Thirty-five years ago, like you, I sat in this historic pre-Civil War church as a member of the graduating Class of 1950. I remember little about what was said that day. But I do recall that it was a time of mixed emotions--happiness and nostalgia mixed with a dab of anxiety as we prepared for "life after Zag." 

I specifically remember my mind wandering back to a few years before when as a freshman I took that first walk up the wind-swept alley by St. Aloysius; observing the grated windows; 
the smokestacks; the cat walks; the only school in the country it seemed where the 
"back door" was actually the "front door." 

It all contributed to an architectural style which perhaps could best be characterized as "Early American Alcatraz." Many times in those early days I would ask myself, "What is a nice little Chevy Chase boy like me doing here?" 

Gradually, however, like so many others, I was swept up in the Eye Street scene and the unique 
spirit that has always been "Gonzaga." And on that long-ago graduation day, as my 
wandering mind returned to the present, I was extremely grateful that my life had been 
touched by this place. 

But "wait" you say. "We know all of that. We, too, have lived the Gonzaga story. 
Indeed, for us, that story has been one of virtually unparalleled success. Why belabor us 
with these meanderings? 

It is a fair question. The Class of 1985 has not only lived the Gonzaga story, it has helped to bring this school to new thresholds of greatness. Its successes in academics, extra-curricular activities and athletics are a source of immense pride for the entire Gonzaga family. Yes, members of the Class of 1985, Gonzaga is indeed on a roll. Like a phoenix, it has literally risen from the ashes of this city and returned to its long held place of prominence. New and refurbished facilities abound. Applicants in unprecedented numbers seek admission. The Eagles fly high. 

Why then is it necessary to reflect on Gonzaga and its challenge to all of us to 
become “men for others”? What is the significance of such reflection when we look 
about us today and see what the school and the Class of 1985 have achieved? 

The answer, I submit, lies in another question--a question that is crucial. Is it 
possible that Gonzaga's successes will blur our vision of what this school has stood for? 
Are we in danger of forgetting the “men for others" theme that generations of Gonzagans have heard through the years? 

It is appropriate to ask these questions today, precisely because success does not often breed introspection. High tide covers over the shoals. Gonzaga's right to challenge us to be "men for others" does not spring from a background of prestige and wealth; from being an institution solely for the rich and powerful. Just as Christianity finds its credibility in Christ's suffering, just as steel is forged from fire, Gonzaga's challenge finds its legitimacy in a lineage of deprivation, born of a commitment to serve all segments of society.

As we bask today in the warm glow of success, we must not forget that there is and always has been another Gonzaga, a Gonzaga which struggles to survive. To be sure there have been triumphs along the way. But between these triumphs and even during them, Gonzaga's 164-year history is in essence a crucible. It was thus from the very earliest years of its existence as a small seminary on F Street. It was thus for decades following the relocation of the school to what is now Kohlman Hall in 1871. In that first year on Eye Street, only 70 students showed up for classes. The discouragement over the school's plight is revealed in the pages of the History of Gonzaga's First One Hundred Years, wherein it is stated that Eye Street in 1871 was "little more than a prairie." 

The writer goes on to observe: "There is the quiet of peace, and there is also the quiet of death; the tranquility of Gonzaga, during this, its first year in the new site, looked dangerously like the latter." 

But we need not return to prior generations or the last century to know and understand this other side of the Gonzaga story. We need only go back to 1968, the year in which many of you were born. It is a lifetime for you, but really only a brief stroke in history's broad brush. The tragic events of 1968 seared the very fabric of our country and have left their imprint even to this day. 

They were to present Gonzaga with perhaps the greatest crisis that it has ever faced. It has been said that this world is divided into "givers" and "takers." All good men and most great men are givers--willing to risk failure, to make sacrifices, to do what is right for their fellow man. Christ was such a giver. Gonzaga's leaders throughout the decades, beginning in 1821 with its founder, Father Anthony Kohlman, and continuing to the present day with our beloved president, Father Bernard Dooley, have been givers. Their spirit of giving has been reflected in the institution itself. 

To recall 1968 in the life of Gonzaga is also to recall the lives of two men, each of which in its own way is intertwined with that of Gonzaga. Each of these men was a "giver." Each was a "man for others." Each was to fulfill his destiny in 1968. 

One was Aloysius P. McGonigal, a humble Jesuit priest. Al McGonigal taught at Gonzaga as a scholastic in the late 1940's. He was a tough little man, barely 5½ feet tall. He ran the bookstore with an iron hand. He also used to conduct what was known as the "Volunteer Saturday Morning Latin Class." 

You didn't have to attend the Volunteer Saturday Morning Latin Class--unless of course you wanted to pass Latin. I remember how we used to complain about having to come down to school on Saturday mornings. We groused about Al McGonigal's hard-nosed attitude and insensitivity. 

Later, of course, following our years at Gonzaga, would come the realization that if 
anyone was insensitive, we were; that Al McGonigal did not have to give up his Saturday 
mornings for us, but that he did so--he made this sacrifice--in order to help us.I lost track of Al McGonigal after leaving Gonzaga, but nearly 20 years later in 1968, I had occasion to read about him again. The Vietnam War was raging and the terrible Tet offensive was underway, especially around the City of Hue. 

Father McGonigal was serving in the army as a chaplain at the time. His own unit was safely 
behind the lines, several miles from Hue. But he learned that the units under fire at 
Hue were without a chaplain. So Al McGonigal took the risk and went to Hue--a place 
where he didn't have to be. 

And it was there, as an unarmed chaplain, that Al McGonigal made the ultimate sacrifice in service to his fellow man. Today, if you visit that simple but haunting Vietnam Memorial on the mall next to the ellipse, you will find the name of Al McGonigal inscribed there: a small but fitting memorial to one who was truly a "man for others." 

The second man of whom I speak is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a humble minister 
who was also to encounter destiny in 1968, on an April evening in Memphis, Tennessee. 
Dr. King went to Memphis because the sanitation workers there were on strike for a decent wage and they needed help. They were among the forgotten people at the bottom of society's ladder. They were powerless. They had no voice. So Dr. King rearranged his schedule and went to Memphis--and from there to eternity. 

Martin Luther King's message was the message of what a "man for others" ought to be. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King said: "I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the 'oughtness' that forever confronts him." 

In a television interview a few weeks before he died, Dr. King again reminded us 
of what being a "man for others" is all about, when he said: "It's not the quantity of one's life that counts. It's the quality. It's not how long you live that matters, but how well you live."
Just as Christ did not have to go to Calvary, and Al McGonigal did not have to go 
to Hue, Martin Luther King did not have to go to Memphis. But each went because there was a need for him to go--a need to take a risk in order to serve his fellow man. They were "men for others." 
Few who were alive in 1968 will ever forget the impact of Dr. King's death. Doubt pierced the very soul of this nation. There was even doubt about the essential unity necessary for survival of a nation so beset by a widening gulf of misunderstanding between black and white, rich and poor, young and old. The cities--those vital core areas of America--were especially scarred, physically and psychologically. 

To analogize from Les Miserables, the cities are the conscience of a nation. They are where its people and problems come together and confront one another. But after the events of April 1968, people, businesses and institutions were departing the cities of America in a tidal wave, leaving wastelands of despair, ruin and poverty in their wake. Washington, D.C., the capital of our nation, was no exception. 

It was thus, with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and its terrible aftermath that the indescribable spirit of Gonzaga--that basic sense of decency that pervades here--was to undergo its severest test and emerge to enjoy its finest hour as an example for the nation. If the cities are the conscience of a nation, perhaps it is not overreaching to claim that Gonzaga is the conscience of the City of Washington, or at least the conscience of the Jesuits of the Maryland Province. 

For while America writhed in despair about its cities and the headlong rush to suburbia continued, Gonzaga--to its everlasting credit--stayed in the very heart of the nation's capital. The Jesuits took a risk, because they perceived that the need to continue to provide a 
quality education for young men from all over the metropolitan area was greater than ever.
That risk was not without its price. In the years following 1968, enrollment dropped precipitously. Deficits arose. The school's small endowment disappeared. In 1971, Gonzaga bravely celebrated its Sesquicentennial--the 150th year of its  existence. One of the highlights of that celebration was the Dramatic Association's memorable production of Camelot. But despite all the noble effort and the brave front, the tranquility of death once again hung over Gonzaga, as it had one hundred years before. Once again Gonzaga was standing alone on the prairie. Like Camelot, its days seemed numbered. That great shining experiment of the Jesuits--to operate a college preparatory school in the heart of the Nation's Capital, to which boys of all backgrounds could come and learn together--seemed doomed to failure. 

But somehow, Gonzaga persevered with its commitment. Few will ever fully understand the day-by-day sacrifices of the Jesuits and the Gonzaga family in living out that commitment. Some of those who lived it are among us today. They sit before you in this sanctuary. They sit behind you with your families and friends. They sit above you in the choir loft. But for their efforts and the efforts of hundreds of others, none of us would be here today to celebrate the achievements of the Class of 1985. 

Wolf Von Eckart, the noted urban planner, on the editorial page of the Washington Post in 1973, described Gonzaga's decision to stay in the City of Washington as "almost defiant." But stay Gonzaga did. Now in 1985 we begin to see fulfillment! Gonzaga's vision is at last being shared by others across the land. More and more people and institutions are beginning to understand that mankind's problems are not resolved by running away.


New office buildings and hotels have sprouted up around Gonzaga. Cities throughout the country are coming to life again. That, gentlemen, is why Gonzaga has earned the right to challenge each of us to be a "man for others." She has suffered and she has persevered. 

I truly believe that if Christ, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Al McGonigal were here today, they would say to Gonzaga, "Well done." But they would also say to the Gonzaga family that we cannot rest; that much work lies ahead. All we need do is look around us to see that this is true. Problems of social justice, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and housing, to name but a few, are still unresolved. 

It is really bizarre in a way. We live in Washington, D.C., the capital city of the United States and the Free World. Our daily lives are involved with perhaps the only high school in the country that is situated in the very shadow of the Capitol building itself. We can virtually reach out and touch it. How many times have we walked or driven down North Capitol Street and seen that magnificent dome glistening in the sun or the moonlight? How many times have we thought about it as the symbol of hope and justice for all freedom-loving people? And yet, a mere turn of the wheel into the driveway next to St. Aloysius confronts us with a different reality--the reality of hunger, addiction and hopelessness, embodied in the lines of men who daily seek help 
and solace at the Horace McKenna Center in this very building.
What must one do to be a "man for others"? Time does not permit an extended response here. But the time will come for all of you--and for some it may come often. It came many times for Horace McKenna, who walked these halls with us until just a few years ago. It came for Joe Kozik in the early 1950's when a young black student went out for Gonzaga's football team, and Joe had to decide whether to drop the player or be forced to cancel scheduled games with a number of D.C. public schools. 

The City's school system was segregated in those days and black and white kids were 
not permitted to play against one another. Although the young man offered to quit the 
team, Joe would have none of it. The games were canceled and Gonzaga made several 
trips to Pennsylvania to fill out its schedule that year. 

 While it is difficult to describe what one must do to be a "man for others," or to recognize the moment when it comes, it is safe to say that in a world where life has little value; where what a person possesses seems more important than what a person is; where today's fads are mistaken for tomorrow's foundations; where the grotesque is often adulated and virtue is often scorned; that being a "man for others" will likely not be an easy task. Yet Gonzaga still insists that we try. How is this relevant to the Class of 1985? It is relevant because in the long run you will decide whether Gonzaga will continue to exist; whether the education offered here is worth the commitment of effort and resources to pass on to future generations. 

In a compelling address delivered at the Father-Son Communion Breakfast a few weeks ago, Dr. Samuel Alston Banks, president of Dickinson College, reminded us that Gonzaga is a "markedly endangered species." Dr. Banks is correct. But Gonzaga has survived and will survive because it is an institution which has never lacked the courage to place its resources, its heart and indeed its soul on the line to attempt to do what is right.

In the final analysis, "Gonzaga" is people--the students, faculty and staff, alumni, parents and friends who have believed in it and supported it down through the years. Without the support of these people--your predecessors--there would be no Gonzaga. There would be no Class of 1985. 

In the second verse of the Alma Mater there is an exhortation to Gonzaga to march on through the centuries and to reach ever on unto eternity. Today Gonzaga asks for your help in fulfilling that mission. In a few moments when you receive your diplomas, will you be merely graduating from Gonzaga, or will you be leaving it for good? When you sing the Alma Mater for the last time as a student and walk out of this church, will you be walking away from the life of this school or will you be walking beside it on its long march into eternity?

Gonzaga waits hopefully for your answer.