Last Thursday evening was this year’s Back to School Night for the parents of juniors and seniors, and so I had a chance to meet with the people whose children I am entrusted with each day this semester and maybe next. I always really enjoy this particular event, and not least of which is because I get to see a number of people whose paths and mine have crossed before.
One of the unexpected visitors to my classroom was a man who wanted to stop by to say hello and to let me know that I will have his son in class next semester. It was one of the highlights of the evening because the visitor was Jim Schmitt ’77, with whom I spent innumerable hours in class during our time at Ignatius, especially freshman year in Homeroom 1B. Jim actually reminded me that my classroom is where we had Algebra I with Miss Anne O’Donnell and Latin I with Fr. Arthur Walters, S.J. He also pointed out that Loyola Hall is probably the one place where I have spent more time than any other during my sixty-two years on this planet.
So much a part of my life is the former St. Mary’s Grade School that it has been the setting for numerous dreams over the years, and always in its older, pre-renovation form. There are transoms above every classroom door. There is the old checkerboard tile floor. There is even the old side door that today would lead into the Sullivan Atrium, but you’d first have to walk through a trophy case.
After Saint Ignaitus took over the old grade school, the building was simply called The Annex, and that is the name that I grew up with because of the many stories my father told me about his time here. There was a fourth floor where students ate lunch and where they played basketball after school. The Annex also originally had a fifth floor which was probably gone by the time my father showed up in the fall of 1948.
When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1973 there were only three floors and The Annex had been renamed Loyola Hall. The back of the building was connected to the foyer of the relatively new Student Center as well as the Science Building that had recently been built on the ground where St. Mary’s Church used to stand. As a way of showing that science had not taken over where religion once held sway a chapel was housed on the ground floor. The crucifix from that chapel now adorns, fittingly, the second floor of Loyola Hall.
The first floor also played a role in my freshman year education with Fr. Jim Lewis, S.J. teaching theology in what is now the Styles Room and Tom Pasko Hon. ’96 holding court across the hall in what is now the Companions Center. Energy emanated from both rooms as two enthralling teachers did their best to impart knowledge and wisdom to young minds often, but not always, eager to be taught.
Up on the third floor we were witness to another living legend, Mr. Joe Thomas of the English Department. Of all the teachers I had freshman year, only Mr. Thomas taught my dad, but for French and not for English. I’m not sure why, but Mr. Thomas always called me Sam - always. To this day I have absolutely no idea why he did so, but it never seemed to be a derogatory thing so I never questioned it.
Mr. Thomas was also the one teacher we had that year who smoked in class. Yes, you read that correctly. He would sit on a desk, put his feet on the seat of the desk, light up a Lucky Strike, and talk to us about life. He had grown up in French-speaking Canada and had a number of stories about the life that led him to West 30th Street.
Looking back, I can’t believe how much of an influence that my freshman year experience in The Annex had on me. Those teachers helped shape me in ways they could never have imagined. To this day I have a love of history and literature. Math classes drew me to wanting to become an engineer, and I left engineering only to end up majoring in classical languages and philosophy. And, thanks to Fr. Lewis, I was given my first taste of real theology.
No building on earth has given more to me than Loyola Hall - all the way back to the 1973-74 school year, and special thanks to Jim Schmitt for helping me to recall those first awesome experiences without which our encounter last Thursday could never have happened.