An Alley in Chicago

“I Think the Only Thing I Was Good At Was Working”

Although he came when the whistle blew, Jack Egan hearkened to other calls than the voice of rote obedience. In that part of himself he’d kept protected from his father’s domination, Jack made a life-career decision against his father’s express wishes in 1935. Instead of continuing at DePaul University where he had just completed his first year and going on to law school, Jack made up his mind to enter the seminary. He’d decided to be a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

This decision was harder than learning the Australian crawl at the YMCA. When Jack boarded the Chicago Motor Coach bus for the minor seminary, his father’s disappointment rode with him. “I’d fallen out of my father’s favor. That made a very severe mark on me. It was the first time I went against any authority.”

Considering how urgently most Irish parents geared their sons for God’s service, it’s surprising how determinedly Jack’s father fought to keep him out of the religious life. Why was Mr. Egan different from the norm? When Jack had first been attracted to the life of an Oblate of Mary as an eighth grader, his father’s arguments against the decision to rush off to Texas made sense. Jack was young and untried. Texas was very distant for a young teen. As much as the Oblate life appealed to Jack, his father “put his foot down. `You don’t know your own mind. Wait until you are old enough.’ Of course I didn’t go,” Jack recalls now. In 1930 Jack accepted instead the scholarship to DePaul Academy offered to a youngster from one of the North Side parishes.

Five years later, however, Jack disregarded his father’s ultimatum. After four good years at DePaul Academy and a year at the university following his father’s blueprint for a career as a lawyer, Jack wasn’t happy with himself. He always felt the need to be someone else, someone more competent, smarter, better at athletics, better at speaking, better looking. Although he made good friends among the students and faculty, he never felt in solid with a group. “Remember that line from Death of a Salesman,” he says, “`He was liked, but not well liked.’ I think that was me. I had only a few friends growing up. I didn’t think people would like me. I didn’t think I had enough stuff for people to like me.”

It wasn’t that Jack didn’t make the effort. He worked for acceptance. Looking back, he sees that as both a strength and a weakness, because “you do things in life when you want people to like you that you probably shouldn’t do, that can be vicious and dangerous.” Psychiatrist Anthony Storr explains in Solitude that children not certain that their parents’ love for them is unconditional feel that they have to be compliant. They have to partially deny or repress their true natures because they are relying on external sources for the maintenance of their self esteem. Such children are vulnerable. They develop into adults who continue to feel that they have to be successful, or good, or approved of by everyone to retain their sense of value.

Jack was stymied by his father’s devaluation. Because he couldn’t please his father, Jack thought he didn’t please anyone. That made him compliant, in Storr’s sense. Typically, he feared rejection. Untypically, he recognized that he had a strong point. He was an excellent worker. “I think the only thing I was good at was working,” Jack laments ruefully. “What I remember about my youth is that I was working all the time.”

For Mr. Egan that very quality was Jack’s ticket to the law career he’d mapped out for his son. “A lot of damned nonsense. Somebody has twisted your mind,” he announced impatiently when Jack crossed his father and announced he was going to study for the priesthood in August 1935.

Mr. Egan persisted in treating Jack’s notion as an idle fancy past the day after Labor Day when Jack boarded the bus for what would be a daily trip to Quigley Preparatory Seminary at Rush and Chestnut Streets. At this Gothic minor seminary, its chapel copied after Sainte Chapelle in Paris (renowned worldwide for its beauty) and paid for by the pennies of Chicago’s Catholic schoolchildren, Jack was to learn the Greek and Latin he needed to enter the major seminary at Mundelein. In the third year Latin class and first year Greek class he was assigned to, Jack found that his student strategy of rote memorizing was not nearly as useful in the seminary as his filial virtue of rote obedience. At first he “didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

What supported Jack was the strong pull of the priesthood. He didn’t want to fail. “A lot of things came together for me that summer after my freshman year at DePaul. That black man I saw pushed from the streetcar. Working with people. Having the Depression behind us. Seeing people suffer. Observing how the priests in the parish operated, especially a group of young priests at Our Lady of Lourdes for the summer. When I saw what they were doing, I thought the priesthood was just a wonderful way to be a help to people and to serve people.”

Jack had developed some autonomy through his own diligent industry, his mother’s unflagging support, and that father-inculcated loyalty. He’d learned to swim when he saw it as necessary for his development. Now he caught that bus with his books under his arm every morning in spite of the fact that his father would not speak to him. “To stand up against my father allowed me not to accept authority without question, even as I continued obedient to authority.”

His father’s intransigence was not Jack’s only trial as he walked five days a week into the buildings Cardinal Mundelein considered “unquestionably the most beautiful here in Chicago, not excluding the University of Chicago.” Even in this inspiring environment, Jack Egan found the study of classical languages very intimidating. “That study knocked a lot of conceit out of me. However, standing up to my father strengthened me and, in a sense, enabled me to get through. I was determined. Nothing was going to stop me from getting through Quigley except my own inability.” They were tough years, some of the hardest Jack would experience in his life.

For six months Mr. Egan did not address a word to his son. “What a tension there was at the dinner table with five children there and my dear mother trying to keep the peace and my father absolutely ignoring me.” Years later his mother recalled how she had laid in bed and asked her husband, “Why are you so hard on Jack? It’s so difficult for him.”

Jack would not know the answer to his mother’s poignant question—“I don’t want the same thing to happen to him that happened to me”—until the night his father was buried. Even then it was an inadvertent query that revealed the wound in Mr. Egan’s spirit that made him fight his son’s vocation. As the family gathered to mourn, to console, and to reflect on family concerns after Mr. Egan’s funeral, Jack put an idle question to his Uncle Mike. He had no advance notion of the jolt he was about to receive. Reminded by the funeral notice that his father’s middle name was Gerard, inclined to focus on family questions by the nature of the occasion, Jack idly inquired where his father got his middle name. “Was that from Confirmation?”

His Uncle Mike laughed as if to pass off the importance of the revelation he was about to make to his priest-nephew. “That was your father’s name when he was a Christian Brother.”

Jack was totally taken aback at this incredible disclosure of a paternal past he had never suspected. “I was just shocked. I had been a priest for eight years.” This was the first time Jack had heard that he wasn’t the first in the family to choose the religious life. He began rapidly sorting out the cues he might have picked up on. Pieces of the family puzzle fell together for him: his father’s unusually accurate knowledge of Gander, Newfoundland, at the time Charles Lindbergh took off for Paris; his father’s fierce resistance to Jack’s vocation, and his father’s puzzling attachment to a little black box he often riffled through in the basement.

Now that Jack thought about it, he could picture his father kneeling on a kitchen chair, saying his prayers for as much as ten minutes at a stretch, unaware of his young son watching from the bedroom door. Only when he started going to work with his father did Jack observe that part of his father’s daily routine was a climb up the stairs of the baroquely elegant St. Hyacinth Church for six o’clock Mass every day of the week.

Over tea, after the family had left, Jack probed with his mother this stunning gap in the family story, this catalyst for Mr. Egan’s strenuous opposition to Jack’s career choice. “Now, Mom, you better tell me the whole story,” he gently begged his mother. At last she was willing. “I promised your father that I would never tell a living soul. But now that he’s dead. . . .”

She told Jack she’d always thought he should know how his father had trained to be an Irish Christian Brother, but changed his mind before he took any vows. His father hadn’t agreed with her view. “I don’t want to be kidded by the boys,” he would say. His father’s resistance, she admitted to Jack, was fueled by a panic that his son would fail as he had done. The other factor was Mr. Egan’s Irish phobia about “spoiled priests” (men who left the seminary before being ordained).

Jack could remember times when his father had lingered in the basement after helping his mother with the laundry. When the kids would ask what was going on downstairs, she’d put them off with excuses. Some strain in her voice and tenseness in her manner alerted the kids to the significance of the little black box their father pored over. Now that they could investigate family mysteries without causing pain, Jack and his brother Jim broke into their father’s talisman and found the pathetic remnants of his novitiate days at Gander, Newfoundland, the links that connected him to a life he’d aspired to: some compositions, letters from Brothers, a picture of Mr. Egan in the Christian Brothers habit, memorial cards for former companions who had died. They were only shadows of a dream deferred, but they could have blocked a less determined son than Jack Egan and changed the history of the Church in Chicago.

Had Jack understood in 1935 when he opened the books on two of the hardest years of his life that his father’s silence flowed from his father’s pain, he could have lived more peacefully with his own decision. As it was, he resolutely applied himself to learning the Latin and Greek requisite for the major seminary burdened by the knowledge he was creating disquiet in his home.

He didn’t need that additional burden. Quigley Preparatory Seminary was hard enough. What with the necessity of earning his tuition and expenses from the time he was ten, Jack had never learned good study habits. He knew “the value of a dollar, and not to waste, and to work hard,” as he likes to say. But these skills didn’t transfer to translating Virgil. What kept him going was his determination to be a priest, not his success at his studies. Jack pored over the texts, but he couldn’t get his grades up. He remembers the kindness of his third-year Latin professor, particularly on a day when Father Peter Cameron had his prefect hand out the corrected papers to the class. He kept Jack’s. He personally carried it down the aisle to the struggling seminarian. “He put the paper on my desk and on top of it was the test score, a 16.”

Then, as Jack says, “In the understatement of my life, Father Cameron suggested hesitantly, `Johnny, I think you’ll have to do better.’”

Father Cameron was only one of the priests at Quigley convinced that the talents of this young seminarian were not for dead languages but for live people. Another was Father George Beemsterboer, a professor at Quigley for twenty-two years who remembered Jack from Our Lady of Lourdes. Jack describes Beemsterboer as the “final filter. If you didn’t get through him, you didn’t get to Mundelein.”

Knowing how hard Jack was trying, Father Beemsterboer called him in a few days before the end of school. “Egan,” he said to Jack, “you didn’t quite make it, but I am going to give you a few points.” He was giving him a chance, he told Jack, “because we need priests who are kind more than we need priests who know Latin.” Lest Jack be overly hopeful, Father Beemsterboer added a caveat. Five times before he had taken this chance on a young seminarian, “but never did any man to whom I gave points become ordained.”

The rector at Quigley, Monsignor Malachy Foley, wasn’t any more sanguine, “Egan,” he said to Jack, “we’re giving you a chance. We’re letting you go to Mundelein, but we don’t think you’ll make it.”

“So I got through Quigley,” Jack says, “not by the skin of my teeth but by the kindness of other people.”

Next Chapter . . .