The Life Of A Great Teacher

In the late spring of 1957, students in Frank O'Malley's senior English class at Notre Dame turned in their final exams and started to leave. But the professor motioned them back to their seats for a final comment, as he always did. He had learned much from them, O'Malley said, and hoped they had from him. "And now," he added, palpably unwilling to see them go, "let me tell you about the meaning of life." He then delivered a half-hour critique of modern culture from a Christian perspective that brought the applauding students to their feet.

Four decades of students heard O'Malley's message before his death in 1974, and last week 200 of them--doctors, lawyers and businessmen as well as university professors, politicians and writers-returned to Notre Dame to pay him homage. Throughout the weekend symposium-filled with tales, laughter and tears--one very large question loomed: where are O'Malley's faculty successors? The university is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year by dedicating three huge building complexes. But like other major universities, Notre Dame now faces the danger of slighting undergraduate education--once the school's proudest boast-as more and more professors pursue professional recognition and outside status. By recalling what O'Malley did and stood for, his dedicated students offered stunning testimony to the moral impact of a man who did nothing but show them how to read, write and care.

A shy bachelor whose bed was always lumpy with books, O'Malley never earned a doctorate, taught a graduate seminar or wrote a book himself. And never, after entering the university as a freshman in 1928, did he live anywhere other than in a campus dorm. But O'Malley was no Mr. Chips. His obligation as a teacher, he once wrote, was to assist "the unique working out to manhood of each soul," chiefly by demanding that each student wrestle with the meaning of literary texts. At the start every year he memorized each student's name and had each submit a brief autobiography so he could understand them better. Long after students' faces had fleshed into middle age O'Malley could recall their names and the quality of their work.

Freshman composition was his favorite class because of the opportunity it afforded to challenge minds before they became spoiled by conventional class assignments. He dared them to write something fresh about a tree, the feeling of alienation, their first kiss. He could be ruthless in his criticism of student papers as well as lavish in his praise-both of which were copiously spelled out in red ink on a composition's margins.

To be an English major, O'Malley insisted, "is a way of life." Deeply religious and contemptuous of specialists, he regarded literature and its criticism as cultural forms by which the imagination makes sense out of human existence. His own life was in his lectures, which electrified students as he swept through Milton, the Romantics and the moderns, reserving his greatest enthusiasm for prophetic spirits like William Blake who rebelled against "the mind-forged manacles" of rationalism and disbelief.

O'Malley's reputation was such that serious students in science, engineering and business signed up for his courses. For decades, his elective on Modern Catholic Writers was the university's most popular. Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and Virginia Woolf, no less than Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot and Graham Greene, were baptized as religious writers illustrative of O'Malley's pet themes: the brokenness of human nature and the redemptive value of human suffering. "O'Malley taught me more about patients and their needs," says Dr. William J. Cashore, a pediatrician in Providence, R.I., "than anything I learned in medical school."

O'Malley taught many of his lessons outside the classroom-in his room or over a procession of excruciatingly dry martinis at an assortment of hotel bars where he engaged in what he called "informal colloquia. " He disliked academic protocols, including grades. Once, when he gave out more A's than he had students, O'Malley told the dean to distribute the extras to those who needed them.

At the close of last week's tribute, a recent Notre Dame graduate asked why he had found no teacher like O'Malley in the 1980s. The answers were many. "The university wouldn't hire a man who just wanted to teach," said John Gilligan, former governor of Ohio, "and a man without a doctorate would never get tenure." "Frank survived on courage," said Samuel Hazo, a poet and teacher at Duquesne University. "He cared nothing about status or money."

What O'Malley cared about were his students. Indeed, when he died, all anyone could find in his room were old books, old essays and old checks. The books were volumes by his former students and so were the essays--some of them three decades old. The checks, equally ancient, were from students, too, in repayment of personal loans from the professor. Typically, O'Malley never cashed them.

Learn each student's name and background. Remember, you are assisting the growth of a unique mind and spirit.

Read each paper closely; cover with copious written comments. Relish concreteness.

Make students exceed their own expectations. Under prodding most will.

Give them a vision of great literature.

Accept anything but a tepid response.