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Saint Ignatius High School

Goodbye, Mr. Cavoli

In "Goodbye, Mr. Cavoli," Jim Brennan '85 pays tribute to Dan Cavoli '76, a beloved teacher at Saint Ignatius High School. Through poignant anecdotes and reflections, he honors Cavoli's profound impact on generations of students, revealing a life dedicated to faith, teaching, and love for others.
Goodbye, Mr. Covoli

Saturday we said goodbye to Dan Cavoli '76. After struggling with a quick-acting illness, Dan went to his eternal reward. And after literally decades of teaching young men, not only Latin, but about faith and commitment and life, one can only marvel at what a reward that might be.

Readers of these pages might recall that I have a special fondness for the novel and subsequent film Goodbye, Mr Chips—author James Hilton’s story of a Latin teacher in an English prep school who becomes a legend for his skill in the classroom and care for his students. The title comes from the end of the film where an aging—and later dying—Mr. Chippings of Brookfield school is bid farewell by a devoted student.

As I reminisced on my time as Dan’s student in Latin III back in the mid-80s, my mind went to the fictional teacher and his struggles to teach his charges a “dead language.” Developing into a stern disciplinarian after a rough first year, Chips garnered a reputation as one who “turned out minor Latin scholars.” However, when he was set to be made housemaster—the coveted position for educators in the English public schools—he was passed over for a teacher whose rapport with his students was much stronger. Eventually, due to the prodding of his wife, Chips would come to take a more personal interest in his charges and eventually become housemaster and a beloved member of the faculty.

It took Chips time to cultivate what we in Jesuit schools call cura personalis, “care for the [whole] person.” Dan Cavoli seemed to have been born with it.

I entered Dan’s class in the fall of 1983. He was a relatively new teacher who bounded into the room Tasmanian devil-like, with an energy that never abated. Not for the class. Not for his 40+ year career. He breathed life into the Latin language for us. I can remember in December of junior year receiving a mimeographed packet of Christmas carols Dan had translated from English into Latin. Not Adeste Fidelis, mind you, but God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and Jingle Bells, among others. He had us memorize the beginning of Cicero’s “First Oration Against Catiline'' wherein Cicero attempted to convince the Roman Senate to censure Catiline who was plotting a rebellion against Rome:

Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? …
        
How long, Catiline, are you going to abuse our patience? How long is your madness going to mock us? …

Having asked us to recite the beginning of the diatribe as well as our translations, Dan got up on his desk and showed us how it was done—every bit the actor that great teachers need to be. Looking us all in the eye as he spoke, emphasizing certain phrases, and changing the tone of his voice as he went, Dan showed us the poetry in Cicero’s remarks, the genius of a well-crafted speech, and the power of the spoken word. He had a group of 17-year-olds ready to take on those rebellious Roman scoundrels and show them no quarter. When we finally came down to earth, we discussed concepts in Cicero like rhetorical tricolon, anaphora, climax, and crescendo in rhetoric, not in some dry clinical way, but as a means of swaying an audience. I’ve made a career of sorts trying to inspire athletes before they take the field. When asked how I do what I do, I say it’s Cicero.

In reality, it’s Dan Cavoli.

Dan loved language and he was fluent in many. One time, heavily concussed, he found himself in the emergency department of a local hospital. Coming into consciousness, he began speaking in Greek to confused members of staff. On another occasion, he was traveling the subway in New York when a young man tried to mug him. Choosing to ignore his assailant, Dan looked away only to discover that he also spoke Spanish. Thinking quickly he began to enthusiastically talk to the mugger in Middle English, frustrating the young man and thwarting the crime.

Here was Dan in a nutshell: brilliant enough to respond in a barely recognizable language, trusting enough in his fellow human being to think he wouldn’t get knifed in the process, but also enabling the other man to walk away. Lost in the story for me when he told it was the fact that the other man didn’t go through with his crime: Dan spared him, even if for just a moment, from sinning.

I’m not sure Dan in his humility would have considered that himself. But I do suspect that if he did, he would be pleased: because Dan loved people. He saw the best in them. Everyone.  

Dan Cavoli had a keen intellect and a retentive memory—both of which he put to the service of others. Having not seen him for years, people—myself included—were amazed at how much he remembered about us: our names, our families, our interests. After greeting a person with his energetic handshake and heart-felt smile, he would focus on him or her with the intensity which made one feel as though they were the only person in the room. And then he would do the same with the next person.  

I remember Dan referencing the Roman philosopher Seneca once (though the context eludes me). In later life, I came across the Stoic who said “If you want to be loved, love,” and I couldn’t help thinking about my Latin teacher who embodied that view. Dan loved his friends, his family, and his students with abandon. That there was a special visitor’s sign-in book at the Normandy where he spent his last days because of how many people came to visit him is testament to how loved he was. And is.  

He loved his friends and he loved his Lord. And he spent a lifetime bringing them together. 

He loved language, but he loved God more.

Others have spoken more eloquently about Dan’s vocation as a teacher, but he was an evangelist too. He helped create the Wilderness Retreat that students still claim as one of the most important formative experiences of their time at Saint Ignatius—or Saint Edward. He made time to drop in on his students while they were on retreat, letting them know they were being remembered in prayer. 

Our cousins down the street are claiming Dan Cavoli as their own, and well they should. He was a key part of their school for 30 years. But he was first an Ignatius man, and for those of us who had him as a teacher and friend, our lives have been enriched in ways that continue to show themselves.

Because at both schools Dan—like “Chippings of Brookfield”—created generations of “minor Latin scholars.” More importantly, he formed Christian men.

Goodbye, Mr Cavoli…or perhaps I should say, 

Requiescat in Pace.

A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.