Yesterday afternoon we at Saint Ignatius took part in what looked like a large outdoor screening of a 3-D movie. It was a blockbuster production to be sure, but the director wasn’t Cecil B. DeMille and the color wasn’t by Deluxe. Amidst the fun of watching the eclipse and watching others watch the eclipse I ran into Tom Beach, our Assistant Principal for Faculty Formation and long-time English teacher. Our conversation almost immediately turned from the solar events that brought us out onto Wasmer Field and focused instead on the loss of one of the greatest luminaries to ever grace these hallowed halls.
Four days before the moon darkened the skies, the lights at Saint Ignatius grew a little dimmer with news of the passing of Fr. Bernard J. Streicher, S.J. We knew that the time would eventually come, but Fr. Streicher appeared almost timeless and so his death at the age of 88 actually took us a bit by surprise. He seemed to have “matured” early and then stayed exactly the same age for the rest of his days.
The world’s view of him as the wise and elderly Jesuit English teacher was indeed deserved and well-earned. Stories are legion of his time spent practicing lectures in an empty classroom and of faculty who eschewed sending emails for fear of a response that corrected their grammar. Yet, his dedication to the correct use of the English language was countered by his humility and the twinkle that was in his eye, apparent to any who took the time to notice.
His greatest moment on campus had to have been his surprise appearance as the Wildcat at a sports rally midway through his second spell at Saint Ignatius. When the head of the Wildcat was removed to reveal the physiognomy of Fr. Streicher the roar from the student crowd was deafening. The ovation was certainly due to the surprise of seeing a Wildcat costume on a priest of Fr. Streicher’s revered status, but maybe even more so it was due to the realization that this most serious of teachers had a wonderfully self-effacing sense of humor. It would not have been lost on Fr. Streicher that, for the students, seeing him in that outfit would be an almost surreal experience.
Many of my personal recollections of Fr. Streicher have less to do with grammar or mascot suits and more to do with his love of the Fighting Irish fostered by his one year under the Dome in the 1946-47 school year. After his graduation from Campion High School, the Jesuit boarding school in Praire du Chien, Wisconsin, he moved to South Bend where he spent his freshman year before entering the Jesuits and continuing his education at Xavier University.
Fr. Streicher would often chat with me about the present day exploits of the Irish, but I always tried to – and with much success – draw him to a discussion of the undefeated national champions under Frank Leahy that he witnessed as an ND freshman. His eyes would light up as he would talk about Leahy and players like Heisman Trophy winners Leon Hart and Johnny Lujack, and wins against the likes of Pitt, Purdue and USC as well as the “game of the century” against #1 Army at Yankee Stadium that ended in a 0-0 tie.
But my last correspondence with Fr. Streicher was of a different sort. Those who knew Fr. Streicher were well aware that no one took more care than he when constructing homilies. These were masterpieces of style, form, and substance; they had the ebb and flow of great pieces of music, they seemed almost symphonic – quite fitting for a man whose master’s thesis was entitled The Effect of Music on Paradise Lost. So I was honored when at the beginning of Lent this year Fr. Streicher sent me an email that simply stated: “Tom, I came across this homily the other day. I thought you might be interested; it brings back memories.”
Attached was a copy of his Ash Wednesday homily from 2012. In it he referenced remarks that I had made at least a decade previous at an Ash Wednesday liturgy where I had mentioned my love of the season of Lent. The fact that he thought to send the homily to me was at least as much of an honor as was hearing my name mentioned ‘live’ back in 2012.
This was my Fr. Streicher, but there are others and anyone who got to know him would have similar stories. Several of the most important of those stories relate to his deceased mother and brothers. Fr. Streicher’s attention to detail and his striving for perfection, both in the classroom and at the pulpit, pale in comparison to his striving for perfection as a follower of Jesus in his role as a son and brother.
Few knew that he left Saint Ignatius and spent the 1970s at St. John’s Jesuit High School in his native Toledo so that he could care for his ailing mother and two handicapped brothers. Few knew that every summer he and his brothers would vacation together, fishing in Michigan. Few knew of his devotion to his family – often travelling to Toledo on a weekly basis once he came back to Cleveland, even as he maintained the highest standards in his work as one of the greatest teachers and homilists in the history of Saint Ignatius High School.
As a lark, last weekend I went on Amazon to see if you could still buy the “Brown Bomber,” known officially as the Writing Handbook, that Fr. Streicher authored earlier in his career. This staple of students in Jesuit high school English classes got its nickname from the color of its cover and its sheer girth – weighing in at almost three pounds.
Well, the Brown Bomber has been renamed and re-covered. The cover of the new From Word to Sentence: A Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Sentence Style is more caramel than brown, but the title page confirms that the author is still Bernard Streicher.
Yet what stood out most on the Amazon author page that listed the various editions of the new text was that the author is shown not as Bernard J. Streicher, S.J. but as S.J. Bernard J. Streicher. Ironically, a mistake that could be easily corrected by referencing From Word to Sentence: A Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Sentence Style, but more importantly a slip that tells more truth than it knows. By placing the S.J. ahead of his name Amazon seems to have hit upon the core of what made Bernard Streicher who he was: a humble, devout, and thoughtful member of the Society or Company of Jesus, and a man who always put Jesus before himself.
Fr. Streicher was first and foremost a teacher. He was a man who taught us all, both inside and outside the classroom, and he will most certainly spend eternity in the company of the One Teacher he so faithfully served.
Bernard J. Streicher, S.J., Requiescat in pace