If you are lucky, you will meet someone when you’re young who you are afraid to disappoint and who you are eager to please. In meeting Jim Connelly, who died yesterday, I was very lucky. That moment 23 years ago is special to me because I felt I had gotten on the good side of a person I respected, admired, and genuinely liked. I remember feeling very happy. I was not his best runner, nor was I his best student, but the affection he showed in that small gesture proved that he appreciated me. And it wasn’t just for whatever joke I had cracked a second earlier. He appreciated me—my effort, commitment, and budding discipline. That small, friendly gesture made me feel a foot taller.
Actually, in the four years that I ran for Mr. Connelly, I did grow a foot taller, so maybe there’s something to that statement. I first met him in August of 1988, when I was all of 4’7”, but his reputation preceded him. And man, what a reputation! He was the kind of short man a short kid turns into a role model.
In the hallways and in the classroom, Mr. Connelly handed out jugs for the slightest offense. (Jug was St. Ignatius slang for “detention.”) Untucked shirts, tardiness, talking in class (hypothetically; who would dare?)—all were met with either a quick jug or the order to “write a report.” Once, a student approached his desk during a test to ask him a question, but had not asked for permission. “You shouldn’t have left your desk,” he barked. “Write a 500-word report.” I remember wondering, About what?
Since I got to know him at cross country practice before school even started, I was never afraid of him as a disciplinarian. Sure, I was smart enough not to push it, but as one of his runners I had a chance to develop a rapport that most other students did not. Plus, he was funny and liked a good laugh. I first had him as a teacher during my sophomore year. I remember making a joke in class early in the semester, and Mr. Connelly laughed. The students in front of me glanced back in awe like I had just high-fived a grizzly. So no, I was not afraid of Mr. Connelly. In a way, I had it worse: I was afraid of disappointing him.
Mr. Connelly expected us to dig in class too. I had him for American History and for Political Theory, and I can attest that his expectations were just as high there as in practice.
In “The American Political Tradition,” Richard Hofstadter quotes a Democrat who called Abraham Lincoln “a Uriah Heep.” I raised my hand and asked what a Uriah Heep was.
Now, there is a certain amount of theater in good teaching. Did Mr. Connelly really expect us 15 year-olds to pick up all the 19th century pop culture references in some complicated political analysis? Probably not, but to act as if we should know every Dickens character was his way of showing us we are capable of knowing it. It showed he respected us enough to assume we already did know it. (A similar fate happened a few years later in Political Theory. While going over the work of Thomas Hobbes or Hugo Grotius or some such eminence, I saw the word “ochlocracy.” Not having learned my lesson yet, I raised my hand. “Really, Mr. O’Toole, you don’t know? Can anyone here illuminate things for Mr. O’Toole? [Pause.] What, none of you are familiar with the word ‘ochlocracy’? Well…” In college, I wrote a long paper for a 20th century Eastern European history course in which I dropped that ten-dollar word meaning “mob rule.” My professor, a brilliant man who spoke German and Polish fluently underlined it and put a question mark in the margin. In the comments at the end of the paper he wrote, “Well, at least you taught me a new word.”)
According to a blog post by Ed Ernst, the current St. Ignatius cross country coach, the actual number was fifteen kids biological and adopted, plus thirty-two foster children. So behind that supposed drill-instructor style was, we knew, a very, very good person. In 1994 he won the Dei Gloriam award from St. Ignatius, the school’s highest honor, and in 2002 the Family Exemplar Award from Notre Dame. (And while I am ticking off the honors, it turns out the boxing accolade was Outstanding Boxer of the 1956 Bengal Bouts.)