My father was a huge proponent of “milestones.” When he turned 50, he threw a party for himself that was attended by approxitmately150 people. If he were alive today, he would have surely been delighted with the three-day celebration of my 50th high school reunion this past weekend.
I graduated from Notre Dame High School of West Haven, Conn. in 1966. There were around 270 of us (all boys) who proudly received our degrees. This past weekend, I was elated to renew friendships with some of the 75 classmates in attendance—some of whom I had not seen in half a century. We shared some wonderful and some not so wonderful memories.
Back in the ‘60s, the teachers at the school were predominately members of the Brothers of Holy Cross (today, it is a lay faculty but for one brother). We remembered with great vividness the violence of one Brother Brandan Dinan, who was known to slap, punch or even slam heads into glass doors given the slightest provocation.
Brother John Manning was a fine algebra teacher when he wasn’t slapping the face of a student for no apparent reason. But we also recalled the brilliance of Brother Joseph Zutelism, who was responsible for the creation of hundreds of writers during his 72 years of teaching English. I still can recall clearly Professor Leonard Ceruzzi talking gravely about the prospects of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And who could forget that fateful Friday afternoon pep rally during our sophomore year, when Principal Eldred Reisenweber interrupted our festivities to tell us that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium that day. As we were released from school early, the parking lot was full of tearful parents as we hurried home to watch the news on black and white television sets.
On the third day of our weekend celebration, we marched with the present graduating class of 2016 and received a 50th year commemorative gold diploma. The award was chronologically commemorative but not really indicative of any substantive achievement. Thirty-five of us (some close high school buddies) had not survived the last five decades. Even as recently as April, we learned that one of our ranks had a brain tumor and another lung cancer and although they planned on attending they could not. On the positive side, my best buddy Peter had survived 100 percent blockage in his heart and attended the weekend as fit as a fiddle.
As I spent hours over the three fun-filled days talking to my classmates about their careers—engineers, architects, lawyers, salesmen, surgeons, some retired, some not—I couldn’t help but wonder where all the years had gone. A second question on my mind was how do we measure what we have accomplished in our lifetime?
Amy Purdy in her amazing book, “On My Own Two Feet: The Journey from Losing My Legs to Learning the Dance of Life,” traces her journey from the day she lost her legs to bacterial meningitis to the moment that she finally felt triumphant again. She went from wondering if she would ever walk again to being a finalist on “Dancing with the Stars.” She measures her life’s heroic path by how she is able to positively affect others: “Positive energy has gotten bigger as my dreams have evolved. But I don’t need a grand stage from which to share my passions, my inspirations, and my talents. None of us do. In the smallest interactions-a kind word to a friend, a smile to a passerby, a gesture of compassion to even a stranger-we have many opportunities to care for one another, as well as our lives and our gifts to the fullest extent.”
Diana Nyad, in her inspirational work, “Find A Way,” talks about her own struggle with emotional, physical and mental barriers when, after losing her mother, she (at 60) rededicated herself to accomplishing a goal that had alluded her: Swimming 103 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. Twice before she had tried and failed but finally on Sept. 2, 2013, after 53 hours in the water, she finally made it. She measured her life’s achievements by focusing on the journey more than the destination: “The destination was always my vision. The journey that took me several years was thrilling. The discovery, the people, the looking inside at what you’re made of made reaching my destination-euphoric.”
One of my classmates, David Canepari, wrote to us a week before the reunion expressing regrets that due to four recent deaths in his family and his diagnosis of being in the thralls of the final stages of lung cancer that he wouldn’t be able to attend. But he assesses his life this way: “My life has been supremely blessed so I am prepared for any outcome. A significant impact on my life and my achievements were directly due to lessons I learned at N.D. It was and is one of the defining periods of my career and the values learned have remained with me throughout my life.”
While at Notre Dame, my classmates and I were forced to memorize word for word the “Notre Dame Code.” Although not recalling all of it today, I do remember this directive: “The Notre Dame man is sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate than he, and he transforms this concern into action. He is generous with his time and his possessions.” For me, this has been the yardstick by which I have measured my life. I have tried in my own small way to improve the lives of as many people as possible.
As for milestones, aside from the past weekend, one other stands out in my memory. When I turned 50, my father was four days away from passing. He knew the significance of my “milestone birthday” (as he called it) and I believe with my whole heart that, despite possessing a body riddled with cancer, he willed himself to stay alive for our celebration. On that day, I did not have 150 people joining me, but only one. He and I wore birthday hats and I had to liquefy the birthday cake and feed it to him through an eyedropper, as he whispered in a barely audible tone “happy birthday, Son.” This was by far the greatest birthday celebration of my life.