Wednesday, May 27, 2009



It sure looked and felt like Dallas.  A lot of concrete, few trees, and plenty of space.  The buildings looked somewhat lonely in the middle of this huge undeveloped tract.  It was the sprawling campus of the University of Texas at Dallas, North of Campbell Road in Dallas, Texas.  The plans were truly Texas when this enormous piece of land became the University in 1973.  The geo-planners of the time have not, however, accomplished their original goals – bigness, brashness, and perhaps even a football team.  Along the way, Texas oilmen got greedy, a state awash in oil cash fueled land speculation, Reagan taught us to trust unquestionably the entrepreneur and private markets, our tax base eroded, and you know the rest.  Nonetheless, over the past 17 years, 17,000 people have graduated from this place.

I attended the 17th graduation where my wife Caroline received a degree 29 years after she first stepped into a college classroom.  I didn't particularly want to go, the kids slept in, and the camera immediately malfunctioned.  It was a humid morning with huge thunderclouds and the constant threat of the prairie turning to mud at a moment's notice.  We gathered in a concrete courtyard surrounded by concrete buildings – there was no ivy in sight – but there were several thousand people filling the vast courtyard.  I was astonished and immediately moved.  It was one of those wonderful times for me when I seemed to be part of a place, to feel emotions through others that I deny myself.  (Maybe I can change that.)

The procession began.  A brass quartet of some sort struck up Pomp and Circumstance.  I was perhaps a hundred yards from the stage on the flat even concrete floor.  The stage was raised just four or five feet so there was little perspective and it was difficult to see.  While thoroughly enjoying the mood and emotion around me – people straining to look, shouting at a graduate in the procession, shoving for position for the right picture – I held back, concerned somehow of being like them.  I missed Caroline in the procession.

There were over 600 graduates in the class of 1990, the vast majority of which showed up.  The procession also included the 20% of the faculty – with impressive degrees from everywhere:  Oxford, Harvard, Berkeley – who were unlucky enough to have it be their lottery year to attend.  I suppose there were even a few who wanted to be there.

The speakers began.  The president, concerned about the rain, said something to the effect that he wanted to make it quick.  The commencement speaker was James Zumberge, the president of the University of Southern California and the former president of SMU.  He reigned at SMU during the 70's; as he was introduced I thought of football and scandals.  I sat back with the expectation of someone capturing the moment.  He didn't.  He talked about the growth of the school, the numbers, fundraising, the prospects for a 4-year undergraduate program beginning next fall, and honest-to-God, the possibility of a football team.  He talked of the "mature" student who attended UTD – the average age was over thirty, the average hours per semester were nine, many worked days and studied nights, and sort of suggested that with the coming of a four-year undergraduate curriculum, legitimacy was just around the corner.  To me, this comments completely missed the point.

There were 600 soon-to-be graduates sitting before the speaker.  Each of their lives had been touched by this experience and many had undergone profound change.  I wanted the speaker to recognize the depth of that educational experience which, through Caroline, I had personally witnessed.  The few students I knew – Caroline at the head of the list – examined the material assigned to them with a passion.  They studied and talked and worried about Kafka and Faulkner, Aristotle and Plato, Mann and Goethe, Nietchze and Freud as though they really existed and really wrote those things.  They brought a realism to their studies far removed from what I recall of my college days as a post-adolescent.  It seems to me this was education as it should be.  The speakers, however, missed it all in their futile search for a bigger and better university.

It was Caroline's turn to walk across the stage.  Although I learned long ago not to try to read her mind, I've known her for 24 years and on this day I imagined what she was thinking.  I suppose she first thought of walking steadily across the stage, shaking hands firmly with the dispenser of diplomas, looking him in the eye, and smiling.  Poise and dignity are important.  At another level, I bet she was experiencing this ritual conclusion on a more conceptual level, as I was.  The end to a significant chapter of a life.  The symbolism and tradition of the moment; the link to the millions of graduates who have gone before.  The work it took to get there.  Although on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis much of the study, writing, and thinking was drudgery, in this final scene, the ritual elevated the effort and accomplishment to a level of grandeur.

As I half stood in my chair to see, Caroline confidently walked across the stage, received her diploma, and exited.  There were still several hundred to go.  I wandered down the side of the crowd, much closer to the stage.  I enjoyed watching the expressions on the faces and again imposed my imagination to create their stories.  There were a sprinkling of Asians, Blacks and Hispanics.  Many had several friends and family members in the audience who would boisterously demonstrate as they walked across the stage.  A woman, perhaps in her mid-60's, sitting next to me in her Sunday best, accompanied by her husband dressed in clean cowboy, clanged a cowbell as her student received his diploma.

I actually felt a sense of hope and realized how crucial hope is.  A side of me wanted to say "so what"; this brief ceremony will pass, and all of their lives will have the complications, disappointments, hurts, and futilities familiar to us all.  I allowed myself, however, to resist the temptation and experience the emotion of the moment.  (Are these emotions eternal, am I being fooled one more time, do they have any reality?)

The ceremony was over, we quietly left.  I said little to Caroline about my intense experience of the morning.  UTD may grow and prosper, hell, it may even have a winning football team.  But to me it is a place that has already achieved its true goal of educating and expanding the world of its "mature" students who approach the task with such intensity and seriousness of purpose.  I don't know if the university will accomplish the promise of its leaders, as they see it, but I do know that education happened there.



The Curse of the WHAMMM!

The Curse of the WHAMMM!

A terrible scourge is loose upon our land.  It is responsible for virtually all of the ills of our civilization.  What is this wretched presence?  It's the curse of the White Heterosexual American Middle-aged Middle-class Male (the "WHAMMM"!).

The WHAMMM is easy to locate and identify.  He can often be found in his study, indiscriminately writing checks in a vain attempt to gain respect.  His M.O. is familiar.  He entered adolescence at a time when Ike was president, Ozzie and Harriet were on TV, Catholics couldn't eat meat on Friday, Protestants couldn't play much on Sunday, and the president of General Motors was considered successful.  He knowingly and maliciously studied in high school and college; he says because he thought hard work would lead to success.  Can't you sense the insidiousness of it all?  While in school, he even worked part-time; his first overt grab at economic domination.  As a young man (notice, not a young person), he feigned admiration for the civil rights efforts of the '60s; it was his way of trying to divide and coopt the movement.  He said he mistrusted communism; a hint of his attitude toward the working class.  He talked liberal politics, said he liked Jack Kennedy, wore a coat and tie to Church (he often went), and was a virgin for longer than he wanted to be; his first real efforts at dissembling.

As he grew older, he began to subtly discriminate against women by standing when they entered the room, opening doors for them – you know – generally being more polite than he had to be.  In college he studied economics and even enjoyed a course in Money and Banking.  otherwise, college had the typical pre-WHAMMM diversions; sports, Playboy, male only locker rooms, ROTC and the like.

He then entered the service.  He will tell you it was a chance to grow, mature, meet new people, see new places, serve his country.  Sure.  With the privilege of his commission – bestowed upon him by former WHAMMMs – his development accelerated.  He lived in a totally male world, trained in the use of force, learned to give orders, and was waited on by what amounted to indentured servants on the ships, in the clubs, and at the BOQ.  After the service, there was graduate school on the GI bill, the evening network news (male anchors only), late nights in the library, Saturday night drinking sprees, Sunday afternoon football, and a pliant wife who worked hard for a paycheck in order to finance this orgy of self-indulgence.  The pattern was now developing in earnest.

He completed graduate school, got a job, moved to a new town, and immediately impregnated his wife; several children quickly followed.  He promptly abandoned his family for his high-rise office and from time to time seemed to actually enjoy his work – a fact he was constantly required to deny.  At the office, he was able to bond with other WHAMMM s (and soon-to-be WHAMMMs) so that in conspiracy with WHAMMMs the country over, they could protect, preserve, and defend their privilege.  As time went on, WHAMMMs reluctantly allowed women to enter their domain at the office, but always in limited numbers, never giving up control.  His misogynism was always evident.  On the surface, he said that women too could become WHAMMMs, and then sabotaged this effort by insisting they do all the things that WHAMMMs required of each other.  Rampant heterosexuality began to surface as he clung to his fragile identity.

At first he supported public schools – he says for as long as he could.  As he and other WHAMMMs placed their children in the cushy comfort of private schools, he lamely asserted that the metal detectors and body searches scared his children and that the sale of condoms at the middle school field day was not quite right.  With this move, he was out of the closet.  He was now openly refusing to allow his children to mix with others who were simply different and was directly turning his back on the reproductive freedom of teenagers.

The rest of the story is familiar.  He moved from an apartment to the first house and then to the second.  As his income grew, he cleverly allowed his expenses to grow yet faster.  This had the merit of making those relying on him more reliant still; they were simply being trapped by his guile.  He continued to work six days a week.  He listened to the State of the Union address each year, paid his taxes virtually as owed, backed the blue, bought massive amounts of luxury goods, cigarettes, and liquor, and rarely ate a meal at home.  With his newfound stature, he maneuvered himself into a position where he was almost always able to pick up the check at dinner (in his pre- WHAMMM stage, others beat him to it; he now always seemed to be first).  He managed to pay the maximum amounts for social security, Medicare, real estate taxes, sales taxes, ad valorem taxes (of course he bought three cars) and virtually never ran a toll booth.  He borrowed heavily (other banking WHAMMMs made credit readily available), and made favored real estate investments in apartment projects with the prospect of huge returns.  In short, he had it all.

That's his M.O.  Identify him and stop him before it's too late.  Raise his taxes, increase his tolls, surcharge his liquor, increase his tuitions, send him additional unsolicited credit cards, impose sales taxes on his services, interrupt his cable TV reception; in short, anything and everything must be done to stop the curse of the WHAMMM.  It is for the good of us all.



Sam's Eulogy

Sam's Eulogy

I was Sam's friend and lawyer – in that order.  On the surface I suppose we seemed vastly different.  Sam – the quiet, thoughtful West Texan from a farming background and me – a quasi-sophisticated Bostonian from a proper Eastern law school.  In fact, at our core we were very much alike.  My Brooks Brothers suits masked the reality.  I was an Irish Catholic kid from an Irish working class neighborhood in Boston and – as Sam – an overachiever.  Sam and I both wanted to be successful.  We were willing to work hard and, although our wives might not agree, we were able to keep the insanity that we had to deal with in the business world in some perspective.  We both liked an occasional Lite beer, a good joke, and each other's company.

During our business relationship, a third person was added to the mix – we became an odd trio indeed.  Sam walked into my office one day about 12 or 13 years ago, and had with him a small bespectacled Chinese gentleman who was to become his partner and, as always seems the case with Sam, his dear friend, C.K. Yap.  C.K. was ethnic Chinese.  He lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, maintained offices in Hong Kong and had been educated in London.  This Texas farm boy of staunch Presbyterian stock was now being advised by a Boston Irishman and a Buddhist.

Sam and C.K. told me they had decided to buy a mortgage company, that they were trying to locate one, and that they needed my help.  While I was thinking of a north Dallas operation, perhaps with offices in Fort Worth, it wasn't long before I spent a month in Hawaii negotiating, along with Sam and C.K., for the purchase of Honolulu Mortgage Company from a Hong Kong conglomerate.

C.K. was very formal in his business relations with others, but that approach simply wasn't possible in his relationship with Sam.  Sam treated him as he did all others.  He told C.K. what he would do and he did it.  Before long, C.K. was ordering Lite beer, eating Mexican food and – idioms aside – telling a pretty good joke.  C.K. had become a Stewart convert, and, as was inevitable, came to fully trust Sam.  They were often doing business oceans apart and would spend months without seeing each other.  In this era of fine print, their relationship turned on a handshake and a promise.  Sam was bound and determined to deliver on these promises to his faraway partner and he did every time.  It was truly an extraordinary business and personal relationship.

Sam, of course, was an excellent businessman.  He used his incredible people skills – his insight – to judge the worth, integrity and credibility of his adversary.  If we decided to complete a deal, it was always Sam who would be called on to close the last gap or reconcile the last difference.  He could do it because by then everyone in the deal trusted him, even those on the other side.

What was important to me about Sam, however, was not his business success, but his success as a human being.  Having a Lite beer together came to us to be a metaphor for our abiding relationship.  We were able to tip a Lite beer together in numerous countries around the world.  But two of my beer-drinking experiences with Sam stand out in my mind.  First, several years ago, I was able to take Sam and Camey, his wife, to an Irish pub down by the wharf in Boston.  We truly stayed all night and sang 'em all.  If I didn't restrain him, I think Sam might have marched off with the Irish Republican Army that very night.  More importantly, we were also able to visit the house I grew up in Boston where members of my family still live.  I not only trusted Sam with all of this, I was delighted and honored to invite him into this, my other world.

The last beer drinking episode was just last week.  I came down to see Sam; we both understood it was to be our last visit together.  He was failing badly and was very uncomfortable.  After sitting together silently for a few moments, Sam turned to me and, to my surprise, said "Let's have a Lite beer."  His son, Dow, and I exchanged somewhat apprehensive glances.  But with a twinkle in his eye and a weak voice, Sam said to Dow, "You know, BEER" – pulling his earlobe – "It rhymes with EAR."  Dow being the dutiful son, brought beers to both of us.  We toasted each other, clinked glasses, and sipped slowly.  I was then able to tell him what his friendship meant to me.  I told him that his friendship was unique in my experience because he accepted me for who I was – flaws and all – and trusted me.  He somehow communicated this acceptance which helped me believe in myself.  I saw Sam give this gift to many others.  To me, this is his legacy.



The Judge

Judge Nelms

My name is Peter Tierney.  I am a partner at the law firm of Carrington, Coleman, Sloman, 7 Blumenthal in Dallas where I have had the privilege of practicing law with Russ Nelms for the past 20 years.  I am honored to have been asked by Russ to speak at his investiture as a federal bankruptcy judge  I number Russ among my very closet colleagues and friends.  I admire and respect him greatly and care for him deeply.

I want to tell you about the Russ Nelms I have come to know.  He is a unique and complex person – seen differently by different people.  I would like to try and capture the whole person.

On the surface it seems straight-forward enough.  Russ is an amiable looking, slightly balding – make that considerably balding – middle-aged man with a lovely family, and a pleasant personality, who, after a quiet and successful private law practice, has achieved the high honor of being appointed to the bench.

Russ was born in West Texas – a boy from Sweetwater.  His family moved to Roswell, New Mexico, where he attended high school.  It was in Roswell where Russ went through the maturation process – I don't really want to go there – I think it's mostly talk.  In any event, he tells me he participated fully in the life of the  student body.  He is particularly proud of his performance as a split end on the Robert Goddard High School football team – the Rockets.  Given his somewhat modest physique, he must have been awfully fast to have survived that experience.

As many of you know, Russ had quite a distinguished military career.  Yes, he went to airborne school in the Army, where he won his wings, attended law school at Texas Tech – on the Army's nickel – where he did quite well – honors, Order of the Coif, and so on – he became an officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps, and ultimately became the chief prosecutor for all branches of the military in Latin America.  His knack for matters military, however, was attained during his ROTC undergraduate days, drilling on the best parade grounds of Texas Tech – what Russ now calls the West Point of the West.

Russ likes to hunt, hike, and attend rattlesnake roundups.  the most famous roundup of them all is right there in Sweetwater, the town of his birth.  He attends that event regularly.  I am from Boston and I am not exactly sure what they do at these roundups, but Russ apparently enjoys them.  I am told by Russ that his son Hunter has also developed an enthusiasm for this event.

On the other end of the leisure spectrum, Russ enjoys bicycle racing.  Ask him to show you his cycling outfits and his extensive stores of cycling equipment – he has enough to open a cycling shop.  Russ can be seen very early each morning as he vigorously pedals the environs of White Rock Lake and Flagpole Hill in Dallas, resplendent in his cycling togs and perched on the seat of his state-of-the-art bike.  Fort Worth will soon have the pleasure of this vision.

His sense of a fun vacation is pedaling furiously up and down the hills of various European countries with his wife Lisa in tow.  Actually, Lisa has become quite an accomplished cyclist herself.  Incidentally, Russ got into cycling long before the Lance Armstrong craze.  Russ tells the story of participating in a race with Lance when Lance was a scrawny 16-year-old kid from Plano who could cycle like hell – believe it or not, it was the tour of Dallas.  Lance did not wait for Russ at the finish line.

Russ's latest interest in things on wheels is his new motorcycle.  I hope this is a passing fancy.

Russ also was our law firm's humorist-in-chief.  He solidified this position when as a young lawyer he first donned the chicken suit.  Most of you probably know of the San Diego Chicken that parades around at many professional sporting events.  Well, when Russ learned that the famous chicken was to attend a Rangers' game, he gathered together a substantially similar chicken suit and assumed his position in the stands.  Inevitably, the San Diego Chicken spotted him, ran into the stands, and commenced a beak-to-beak debate.  Russ tells me that as they carried on for the crowd, the chicken quietly said to him, "I do this for a living – what's your excuse?"

He is also remembered fondly at the firm for his stand-up comic routines at firm get-togethers.  His best performance may have been the Elvis persona he presented at a firm costume party.  I think he believed he actually was Elvis.

Now I'll tell you a big secret.  This fun-loving, risk-taking, sometimes irreverent, gregarious, intelligent man is one of the most grounded persons one could ever know.

As a lawyer he represents the very best of the profession.  He is ethical to the core.  He is serious about his scholarship and unrelenting in getting to the essence of legal issues.  In his practice, he systematically and objectively evaluated matters for clients.  He simply would not present a matter to a court that was not grounded in good sense and supported by legitimate authority – this, of course, did not prevent him from getting poured out from time to time.  He treated his legal adversaries with respect and candor, mixed with disarming one-liners.  Most adversaries would reciprocate.  He firmly believed that earning the trust and respect of his adversaries and the court was crucial to his role as a lawyer and to the integrity of the system.

Russ and I have talked for hours about the confusing world we live in and what it ultimately all means.  Not surprisingly, we came up with few answers.  What I did learn, however, from those conversations was that Russ believes strongly that civic, social, and religious institutions and their traditions are crucial factors to the stability, order, and ethics of a society.  Of course, Russ never put it just that way – but that is where he was coming from.

Russ participates fully in the religious institution of his choice.  He and Lisa attend Saint James Episcopal Church in Dallas.  They actually do far more than attend.  Lisa is the full-time director of education at the church, and I do mean full time.  Russ says she works harder than he does.  At church Russ is referred to as Lisa's husband – but Russ is always there – pot luck, Sunday School, lay reader, the works.

You also learn quickly when talking with Russ that the most important thing to him is his family and friends.  Some close friends that I know use a single word to describe their relationship with Russ:  loyalty.  If you know Russ, you know his mother, his brother, his sister, his wife Lisa, his children Hunter and Hillary, and many of his childhood friends, to boot.  They are a package – it is as simple as that.

Lisa knows and supports this complex man and Russ clearly loves her dearly.  It is wonderful to see them interact.  He has two great kids – Hunter, 16, and Hillary, 11 – I want them to know that their dad talks about them often and is proud of them both.  Hunter, he admires your creativity and uniqueness – I know because I listen to the way he talks of you.  He knows unique people accomplish unique things.  Hillary is daddy's little girl – that will never change.  Hillary, he is particularly proud of your spirit, your enthusiasm, your zest for life.  You both are fortunate to have such parents and, of course, they are fortunate to have you.

When Russ told me he was interested in being a judge I asked what I thought was an obvious question:  why the great sacrifice, with college for the kids yet to come, and a bright and lucrative legal career, still very much in front of you.  I was trying to selfishly convince him to stay with the firm.  He answered me simply – he said he felt that he had a calling, a vocation, to do this – he truly wanted to serve.  I never raised the question again.


Congratulations, Judge Russ Nelms!




The Corner

The Corner

It was 1954.  Pius the XII reigned.  Beatniks were unknown to me; we all had wiffles.  The Red Sox finished forty-two games out; Williams having returned from Korea, led the league in hitting.  Ike was in the second year of his presidency, Paul Dever was the governor of Massachusetts, and Cousy – a strange looking kid from faraway Long Island – after starring at the Cross was making people in Boston notice basketball.  Hockey still reigned supreme.  I was twelve years old.

The mile from Harvard Square to the corner of Huron Avenue and Appleton Street is one of the longest miles in the world.  Joe Agopian, an Armenian – I only recently realized Armenia was even then part of the USSR – ran the grocery store on that corner.  When I say "ran," I mean rented, operated and worked it, as best I could tell, at all times.  Nothing was done for Jerry's kids in Joe's convenience store.  The wood was dark, the room was dingy, there seemed to be little inventory but you could usually get what you needed – Wonder bread, Hoodmilk and tonic (it was never soft drinks or soda pop); I liked moxie.  Joe was a significant part of my life; he was always there, complaining, fussing, reading his paper, but permanent (that corner store is now a fish market, run by several bright well-spoken women wearing outfits that remind you of granola.  I wonder what will happen to them with the full realization that lobsters suffer pain when boiled alive).

I suppose Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Kissinger – all young professors – were nearby thinking big thoughts.  Samuelson was redefining Keynesian Economics at MIT and Archibald McLeash was doing the poetry thing.  They all were in my immediate presence; I of course knew nothing of them nor cared anything for them.  Rather, the corner was the central focus of my life.  How I performed and was perceived there formed for me a major sense of who I was.

In my revisionist recollection, I often say that the boys of the corner were from Irish, Italian, and central European families – I remember it as a great melting pot.  In fact, on careful reflection, they were virtually all Irish with one forceful member being Italian and at least one with no origin known to me, his name was Long and he looked like a bulldog.  McNamara's band had nothing on us – Murphy, Mahoney, Fitzgerald, Cody, Duffy Downey, Hickey, Tansey.  Ironically there were no "O's" among the gang, which always concerned me.  Were we authentic?

Fathers then were quiet, distant, unfeeling figures.  There were no practices at the Y to attend or Saturday games with referees, clocks, uniforms, and whistles and parents watching.   We played every sport every day on the lawns of the rich people up the hill, on the streets and in vacant schoolyards of nearby private schools for the privileged until asked to leave.  We always returned.

In retrospect, the corner seems so tribal and territorial.  As I count it off, every participant lived within two blocks of the corner.  If you do it by houses, the furthest was ten houses away, albeit in three different directions.  The fourth direction – up the hill – housed the "ritzier" with summer homes in Maine, VW bugs, no socks, and most important, an imagined connection with Harvard or Yale.  They were polite, entrenched and successful.  They had been there a long time, and as I saw it, did not experience life the way we did.  They were happy, self-assured and, most of all, secure.

There were other corners spread throughout the area.  The one immediately adjoining us down Huron Avenue toward Fresh Pond was only four blocks away – the two blocks in our territory and the two blocks in their territory.  The dividing line, however, was very real, it was palpable.  I honest to God didn't know those kids, although some of us attended the same school.  They were from the other corner, they were different and alien, although I suppose virtually all Irish.  Were they bigger, stronger, better athletes, better fighters?  I suspected yes in all categories.

The corner represented "our territory" – common turf, belonging, identity.  It was a male's world.  Where did we learn the codes, the ways of doing and belong?  No one told us, yet we knew.  Young warriors at puberty intuitively reconstructing an entire sociology.  There were leaders and followers, strong and weak.  Long and Lecesse – the Italian – were strong, could fight and, interestingly enough, were also smart.  I was smart, observant and avoided physical conflict at all costs.  I fully equated leadership with physical courage and prowess and therefore followed.  There, of course, were the tests:  would you light fire to the huge stack of leaves in early November, would you derail the trackless trolley from its wires, would you ridicule John O'Malley and taunt Joe Doherty?

John O'Malley was a slight, thin, ageless man – I suppose in actuality he was no more than 30.  He was intelligent, but apparently unemployable.  I can still see his slight, effeminate shuffling figure wandering almost aimlessly up and down Vassal Lane.  He lived with his mother in a triple-decker and talked constantly about the Catholic hierarchy.  God knows how modern psychology would classify him; he would have no place in a modern, affluent suburban neighborhood.  We, however, in our sometimes taunting, irreverent and callous way, took care of John.  I secretly felt empathy for him, always listened, and, when not observed, had a kind word.  I was told by many in later years that he idolized me.  I was the bright, thoughtful, sensitive boy among the gang.  This was my first inkling that I could use those traits to hide myself and yet gain respect.

The ritual required me to ridicule John in public, but he always knew how I felt.  He would rail about Monsignor Murphy, the Pastor at St. Peters with a Harvard education and a degree from the American College in Rome.  I can still hear John's cynical imitation of the Monsignor – "When I was a student in Rome" – delivered in a stylized Harvard accent.  The Monsignor, in John's view, was clearly putting on airs, he was lace curtain, he was better than all of us and he would never let anyone forget it.  I can still see the red ball atop his liturgical cap, his flowing cassock with red buttons and seams, and his statuesque figure.  His entry into our classroom would trigger a leaping of the class in unison to attention, and a strong and clear "Good Morning Monsignor."  In retrospect, we were like the brown shirts; that may be a little strong but you get the point.  John, I think, was onto something.

Joe Daugherty would also not exist in a modern neighborhood.  (People like Joe and John always existed then.  Where have they gone?)  Joe was probably a mongoloid; we thought of him simply as an idiot.  He would drag his left leg around, was phenomenally strong and would literally grunt in response to our taunts.  Because of his strength, however, we were all secretly afraid and in awe of him.  I still carry a scar on my right shoulder from the time he hit me with a rock.

"Ingle's is a penny pusher" was the taunt we used to make Ingles, the overweight Irish bus driver who drove the trackless trolley on the route through our neighborhood, furious.  He had the temerity to always insist upon the full fare.  Members of the corner would yank the wires from his bus sending sparks flying through the air, inevitably resulting in Ingle's storming from the bus, attempting to get at us.  We taunted, laughed, and ran.  I'm not sure I ever actually pulled the wires.

In the life of the corner, perceptions were crucial.  I learned to maintain facades and to suppress how I really felt.  I actually liked John, pitied Joe, and wanted Ingles to be relieved of his torment.  I abhorred violence, disliked destruction, and even wanted the Monsignor to admire me.  What did the corner mean?  My romantic view tells me it was the place of learning to belong, experiencing rights of initiation, developing bonds of friendship and moving toward manhood.  There was also a dark underside which I am just beginning to come in touch with.  Survival of the fittest comes to mind.  Deceit and deception were part of my game.  Those skills were honed and challenged each time I entered the corner community – virtually every day of my young life.  Despite the underside, the realty of that experience – contact with human nature as it was – is an experience that I have difficulty duplicating in my skyscraper world.  If I could again live the corner with the insights of a middle-age man, would the experience differ?  Would those insights help me achieve a sort of youthful Utopia?  I doubt it.  The corner was fulfilling and terrorizing – safe and confusing.  The corner had to be.


Monday, May 11, 2009



It happened in the late winter of 1958.  I was 16 and a junior at Cambridge Latin.  Eighteen kids who didn't know any better had just won the Massachusetts state hockey championship and, inexplicably, I was one of them.  It was a huge and defining moment in all of our lives.  Fourteen Irish kids -- mostly first or second generation Americans -- two Italians, a Saint George, two Quimbys (vaguely threatening English-sounding names), and a Remelka!  Many on the team were from my neighborhood corner or from menacing corners close by.

I was a back bencher, but I had made the team and felt a part of all that happened.  We had played together on ponds as kids and learned a lot about our relative abilities on the ice.  I was an eager participant, but had not the remotest idea of trying out for the high school team.  I was a scrawny kid with no confidence, living in my very private and troubled world.  One day on the corner in a spontaneous act of kindness -- rare in our world of survival and suppressed emotions ‑‑ Tucker Dooley told me that he thought I skated well and should try out for the team.  I was truly stunned.  Tucker was a gifted player, a leader, and someone to whom I listened.  I managed the courage to try, and, to my astonishment, made the team.

It was now nearly 50 years later and the team was coming back together.  Fifty years is a long time.  There have only been 40 such spans since Christ, 20 since Eric the Red invaded Greenland; 10 since Columbus discovered America (at least the nuns  told us he did), three since Lincoln died, two since the Wright Brothers lifted off, and one since us!  What lay in store?

We all met on Friday morning at the Fresh Pond municipal golf course parking lot to prepare for the day's activities -- a trip to see the mayor and a visit to the high school.  The worst was now over -- we had met, eyed each other, and survived the experience.  I recognized everyone.  The sizes and shapes were vastly different, but deep into the eyes I could see the same person.  Recall is an amazing thing!

The tone was immediately set when Bagger Higgins gave each of us a gimme cap emblazoned in the school colors.  On the front it said "Cambridge Latin Hockey;" on the side was "State Champs 1958."  Mike Sugrue then gave to each of us -- right there in the parking lot ‑‑ a reproduction of the picture of the team taken with the mayor in 1958.  I was moved.  It wasn't so much that the gifts were wonderful (which they were), but that Bagger and Mike were willing to show they cared.  Something had changed.

We then went by van to Cambridge City Hall.  While Harvard "owned" Cambridge, the city government seemed somehow to still be the turf of the Irish and Italians.  Walter Sullivan, the mayor, and a young councilman named Dellicui greeted us.  Hell, they were the grandchildren of the very same families who ruled the City when we were kids and they closely resembled their forebearers ‑‑ genes work.  It was truly surreal.  The mayor was gracious, gave us each a key to the City, a proclamation declaring something or other, and posed with us for an exact remake of the 1958 photo that Mike had given us earlier.  The Mayor seemed so young that I wanted to pat him on the head!

At the high school we met the hockey coach and some bewildered members of his team, who showed us around.  The highlight of the school visit was learning of the rediscovery of the plaque awarded the team in 1958.  The search, let the previous week by our own Bob Meehan, was of some magnitude and difficulty.  At last it was unearthed in the back of a trophy case in the basement of the building.  I had no idea of its previous existence, but in any event the plaque was now again available for true historians of the game.  We, of course, insisted that it accompany us for the balance of the weekend as our own Stanley Cup ‑‑ there was, however, no parade.

The next day it was off to Bob Meehan's for a cookout.  Bob had a place in Boxford ‑‑ or was it Oxford ‑‑ in any event, it was one of those towns invented since we left.  Bob's house was on a lovely lot, heavily wooded, with much grass to cut ‑‑ perfect for the event.  Again the generosity of spirit was overwhelming.  Bob had put together a suitably engraved puck for each of us, a sweat shirt that proclaimed in at least three different ways that we were the Champs, a booklet with stories and pictures of our team in action as shown on the Boston sport pages of the time, and a banner proclaiming our feat.

There was surprisingly little alcohol consumed that afternoon; we were not distracted by Saturday football as we might have been at home; we paused for a moment in memory of our two teammates who had died.  We talked eagerly with each other as dusk fell and we remembered.  What surprised me was the depth of caring and acceptance of each other that seemed to me to pervade the day.

The weekend was not an epiphany.  The stars did not align, lives weren't changed forever.  It was simply an important moment in time.  A small, but important, reprieve.  Perhaps the biological lowering of our collective testosterone levels created the appropriate environment.  In any event, there was no one else to impress, no person or thing to conquer.  We just were.  Happy to see each other,connecting, and listening.  Like many, I am not certain what I truly believe or what to make of this state of being called life.  Nonetheless, a number of things came into somewhat more focus that reunion weekend.  Most importantly, that my past really happened and it mattered.  I heard others talking of people and events that I, too, recalled.  Others who apparently cared for me back then ‑‑ but didn't realize it, or at least couldn't show it ‑‑ had suffered, failed, and succeeded along with me.  My past had been validated.

Who were we?  We were the insecure kids from the corners who were now grown men facing the last quarter of life (if we were lucky).  Most of us had in some manner been pushed out the door by our fathers, or perhaps more broadly our culture, and in one form or another were told to work hard, attain success, maintain integrity, and most of all earn respect.  I suppose nearly all of us followed those values with various levels of success. 

We, of course, all had now experienced the turmoil and triumphs of a life; that eternal struggle aptly named by the nuns as "this veil of tears."  In a small way the weekend suggested additional values to complete the message of our youth.  Add caring, empathy, understanding, acceptance ‑‑ all, I supposed, as insufficient ways of saying love ‑‑ and indeed you may have, after all, a minor epiphany.

A final reflection:  was this moment in any way connected to that moment nearly half a century ago when 20 kids participated in their own ways in a success they could never have dreamed of?  Did this formative experience give our psyches, our spirits, our collective souls a glimpse of hope?  Did the collective experience actually affect the way we lived our lives?  My guess is, it did.

Maybe this is an old fool doing what old fools have done forever ‑‑ view the past through the evasive and misleading cloud of time.  Nonetheless, these two moments in time led me to a conclusion expressed only as an Irishman can--it hadn't been so bad.



Peter Tierney

Ellis & Tierney, LLP

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