An Ignatian Partner

            Ignatian Partners. John would have loved it. The sheer ring of the phrase would delight his well-tuned PR ear, and he would have promoted the tag with panache and conviction. It’s just that he would not have wanted anyone to use it on him. A tad too pretentious; maybe too risky. Take on a name like that and you could begin to take yourself too seriously.

We all know people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, and if we are very lucky in life, we may be privileged enough to share this earth with someone who does both.

John Gavigan ‘42 is one of those extremely rare individuals who just walked the walk without needing to talk at all. Almost embarrassed by it, really.

John’s brother, Tom, was the Maryland Province novice master for many years and provided spiritual support for many influential lay folk in his extended tenure as pastor of Holy Trinity parish in Washington, D.C.

John spent the better part of 30 years working for the University of Scranton — if one may be permitted such an unworthy description of a dedicated life. The jobs he held along the way carried all the standard titles of bureaucratic and academic America: director of public relations, director of development, director of student personnel, probably others I have forgotten along the way. Perhaps the sexiest was "Special Assistant to the President." (The one title they didn’t really have to confer, because every president used him that way.)

The title at any given time didn’t really matter, anyway, because he always did the same thing. He helped hundreds of young men and women to grow up and take their place as caring adults in our society, all the while being the most well-known and respected presence of the University to anyone who was anyone up and down the Lackawanna Valley.

Students sensed in him an acceptance and care that disarmed their adolescent pretensions. They let him into their personal lives and entrusted him with personal confidences they would not have shared with stuffy church folk. In return, they were rewarded with an honesty that played no cute games but treated them as adults. He called the work-scholarship students assigned to his office "slaves." He would come whooshing into his office like a dervish and call out, "Where are the slaves?" And they loved it.

In the Maryland Province you’ll get a knowing smile by referring to someone as an "area native." It’s our affectionate way of teasing men from Scranton, where the daily newspaper tends to carry headlines like "Eisenhower Launches Invasion of Normandy; Area Native in Back-up Role."

John is a life-long Scrantonian, one of the best-known figures in the Lackawamia Valley, but I never thought of him as an "area native." Too big in his outlook on life to be parochial, he had a unique ability to spoof the whole scene while loving every tiny nook and local character. One spring evening, John was walking home with me and two other scholastics after a student beer blast at one of the many small Scranton hangouts. Our conversation revolved around Jesuits and what the Society is really like.

After some good belly laughs about different Jesuit faculty members, John characteristically cut to the core: "I spend a lot of time around you Jesuits. And I like you, but one thing I’ll never understand is how you can allow guys to drink themselves to death in the haustus room every night and nobody cares enough or gets mad enough to do something about it."

This was 1954, long before AA had changed our consciousness. A devastatingly accurate mirror held up in the face of a carefree (read: irresponsible) young Jesuit. Tough love, before the term was invented.

Soon after being elected to the board of the Lackawanna County Temperance Society, John was walking past the cathedral rectory that sat next to the University’s Old Main building on one of the city’s downtown streets. Out of the rectory came one of the monsignori, high on the local totem pole. He saw John coming toward him and said, "Well, I saw your picture in the paper the other night with some of your Protestant do-gooder friends.”

John responded, "Listen, my Protestant do-gooder friends do a hell of a lot more good than you b------sitting on your asses in the chancery. "

After some huffing and shaking of the clerical wattle, the monsignor sputtered, "You can’t talk to me like that."

"I’ll talk to you like that until you start acting like a Christian." John continued walking, and they remained colleagues.

Eight or nine years ago, a stroke on Christmas eve brought this non-stop galaxy to a shuddering halt. His right side was almost totally immobilized; and his still lightning-fast mind was frustrated by his inability to communicate more than small snatches of intelligible speech.

John lived alone, so the Society’s men took up the task of fmding a place where he could be cared for. Calls to every nursing-home facility for miles around discovered long waiting lists. As a last resort, some suggested the Jewish Nursing Home, but it was in the same situation.

Just before the administrator hung up, she asked who the party was they were trying to place.

"Mr. Gavigan? You mean John Gavigan? Bring him right over, we’ll find a place for him. He’s done more for the Jewish community in this city than anyone. We owe it to him."

A lifetime of unassuming caring came full turn.

And so he pushes his wheelchair up and down the fourth-floor corridor. To the solarium, over to the TV room, back to his own room. Past all the old Jewish ladies, who love him. With only a slight slur in his voice he talks, as much to himself as to me, "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday."

Laughter bubbles up from a spring of deep joy at the ironies of life. We wheel over to the window from which we can see the top of the University’s Gavigan Hall. To have done less than name a student residence after him would have been criminal. Again the bubbling laughter.

I go through all the names of the old colleagues and cronies, or as many as I can remember at the distance of 41 years, to keep the visit going and refresh our happier memories.

"What ever happened to so-and-so?"

The response is always the same; always new and always funny: “Dead. Dead, dead. All dead. Gone, gone.” A wave of the hand and a chuckle. Not sadness, much less bitterness: simply life. I visit not out of sympathy but to get my fix of joy, of life.

Ignatian partner? You bet. John tauglit me more about being Ignatian and being a Jesuit — starting with being human and Christian than most people. No rhetoric, please. Walk the walk.


[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the June 1997 issue of National Jesuit News. It is reprinted here with permission.]