I attended the University of Scranton for my undergraduate studies. This was probably an odd choice given my circumstance as it is a Catholic, Jesuit University. I chose it for a few reasons, some of which were more personal than academic. The school was located about an hour’s drive from my family home in the Poconos. If it were necessary, I would be able to get home quickly if the need arose. I had promised myself that I would not be too far away if my younger sisters or brother needed back-up in a house that was sometimes unpredictable and volatile.The school also had (and still has) a tremendous academic reputation. I was interested in the pre-law track, and I was accepted based on a solid B+ high school average.
I was instantly comfortable on the campus. I was happy to be back in an urban environment and enjoyed my ability to get anywhere I needed to go either by walking or using public transportation. If I needed to get home, I could catch a Trailways bus from downtown and be home in a couple of hours. During my freshman year, I did have to dodge cars barreling down Linden Street between St. Thomas Hall and the Gunster Memorial Student Center. For those familiar with the current campus of the U, my class was the last to enter “The U” before the “Z” bricks were laid on Linden Street and traffic diverted onto Mulberry.
It was during my freshman year that I met a Jesuit named Edward Gannon. He was a little annoying at first. He would walk into the cafeteria during breakfast and lunch and invite himself to sit at any table that piqued his curiosity. Given my aversion to those wearing Roman collars, I did not welcome the intrusions. He was notorious for asking some deep philosophical question at the breakfast table. Since I was barely able to cope with runny eggs, I let my table mates deal with the crazy Jesuit. The discussions sometimes seemed to come out of left field. He would ask questions about classes, relationships, religion, the world and the universe. I was very much on my guard around him initially.
Father Gannon was a campus legend. He was much bigger than his diminutive frame, and he had a commanding, reassuring presence where ever he went. Outside or in his office, he usually had a cloud around him from the ever-present cigarette in his hand. This was the only vice he allowed himself. When not in his roman collar he was usually in a turtleneck and a cardigan. He was like a weird hybrid of Albert Einstein and Mr. Rogers. To say that he was intelligent would be a gross understatement. Father Gannon was granted the title of University Professor which meant he could teach in any department in the University. His classes were impossible to schedule because upperclassmen would take every available space. Given what I just said, you should not assume that class with Gannon was an easy A. You had to work to meet his incredibly high standards. He was not willing to accept anything less than what he thought you were capable of giving. He was not just teaching us philosophy or theology, he was teaching us to think, to question, to challenge. If we learned philosophy or theology along the way, so much the better. After the movie, “The Empire Strikes Back” hit the streets at the end of my sophomore year, many of us were convinced that Yoda was channeling Gannon.
He was also the genius behind the Fall Review, an annual talent show that packed the Gunster Auditorium every October. Despite the fact that I can not sing and I have two left feet, he saw fit to put me in the chorus for the shows in 1980 and 1981, I’m sure it was penance for something I had done wrong. He also enlisted me to be one of his student managers for Campus Bowl, a scholastic competition that filled the cafeteria every week during the spring semester. I have no idea what this man saw in me. He was always giving me a chance to work on something, usually something out of my comfort zone.
He took an interest in me. It became apparent that he knew much more about me than I had revealed. I guess you could say that he saw right through me. Against everything that experience had taught me to that point, I trusted this man. He picked up pretty quickly that I was the son of an alcoholic. He was himself a friend of Bill. We had many long conversations about alcoholism and my father in his office on the first floor of the library. My father stopped drinking and completed a residential program to get him on his way to sobriety during my freshman year at Scranton. I was not supportive of my father’s sobriety at first. I questioned his motives and I had doubts as to my father’s sincerity and commitment. You may have deduced that I have trust issues that are deeply seeded. I suspected that there were ulterior motives at work here and I was not going to set myself up for another disappointment. Father Gannon spent a lot of time helping me to get to a point where I could have a relationship with my own father.
Money was always an issue for me in college. I had always been pretty self-sufficient, so I was always looking for a way to make a few bucks to support my Asteroids habit in the basement of Gunster. I had a work-study job in Dean Parente’s office and later in the Counseling Center on the top floor of St. Thomas Hall working for Professor Cannon. I ran the soda machine concession in the basement of Montgomery House (we knew it by its nickname “The Grad House”). I proctored tests (GMAT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc…) on weekends when they were given at the “U.” Tuition and room and board were supplemented by waiting tables and tending bar at an establishment called “The Upper Crust” downtown. I was usually there 4-5 nights a week.
One night a group of priests came into the Upper Crust for dinner. Among them was Father Gibson. Needless to say, I was immediately on edge. I did not have their table. Because business was kind of slow that night, I convinced my boss to let me leave early. While he was usually pretty unreasonable, I think he saw how agitated I was and decided it was better to just let me go. As I was gathering up my coat and heading for the door, I ran into Gibson. He started some small talk, I put my shoulder down and blew through him on the way to the door. That was the last time I saw Father Gibson in person.
Scranton was my safe zone. It was the first place that I ever felt comfortable in my own skin. I had friends, was developing confidence and letting my guard down a little bit. The sight of Gibson in “my world” freaked me out. I went back to the Grad House and tripped off the line. I blew off classes for a few days and didn’t go to work. I was thinking about emptying my bank account and heading to the bus station and just disappearing. I contemplated ending it all. At that point, I did not think that I had options.
One of the things I blew off during this descent into depression was Campus Bowl. BIG MISTAKE! Father Gannon summoned me to his office in the library. When I did not show up, he sent someone for me. He sent a member of the school’s club hockey team with orders to drag me to the library if necessary. In his typical, no-nonsense style he demanded to know what was going on. Despite my protestations that nothing was wrong, he was determined to get to the bottom of the crisis. He was not going to tolerate my “thousand mile stare” for another moment. I decided to tell him everything about Gibson, on the condition it was within the context of confession. He listened for about 2 hours in the cluttered office. When I had said everything I was willing to say, we both sat in silence for a while. He looked at me and apologized. This time he did not offer me absolution, he declared me blameless for what had happened. The strain was evident in his eyes. To this day he has been the only priest to offer me an apology for what happened. Given the state I was in and the helplessness I was feeling, I knew I was not acting rationally. Those hours spent with Father Gannon kept me in school and probably saved my life. For that, and many other things, I will be eternally grateful to him.
Father Gannon was my last confessor. He asked me several times after my last confession for permission to do something on my behalf. I politely refused. Given that he was a man of his word, I am certain he carried my secret to the end.
When I attended my 25th class reunion in 2007, I walked up to Gannon Hall, as if to pay my respects to the man who talked me off the ledge. I wonder if the students living in that building now have any idea of the lasting impact that man had on generations of students?