Edward Gannon, SJ (one of the good guys)

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.

Fr Gannon and I, 1981
Fr Gannon and I, 1981

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?

20 thoughts on “Edward Gannon, SJ (one of the good guys)”

  1. I, too, had the privilege of knowing Father Gannon. He was an amazing man, a standout Jesuit. Thanks for sharing your story. This great tribute should be posted in Gannon Hall so that the residents might know him. I admit I didn’t have a clue who Hannan Hall’s namesake was when I lived there, just a vague idea of a bishop from Scranton. I suspect that the kids in Gannon Hall aren’t any more enlightened.

    He was an instigator, par excellence, of thought. I recall that he made a practice of seeking out the prettiest girl in the freshmen class. He’d walk up to the unsuspecting lass and tell her of her beauty supremacy. Invariably, she’d blurt, “Thank you Father.” He’d reply, “No. Thank God,” then walk away.

  2. I was in the Junior year at Wheeling (WV) Central Catholic High School in 1957. Father Gannon was teaching at the recently opened (Jesuit) Wheeling College. He invited me to visit him at the College and we met several times. I had excellent scores on my SAT and was planning on attending an Ivy League college. Fr. Gannon convinced me to attend Georgetown, which I did (B.S. Biology ’62). I received an excellent education in Biology as well as Theology/Philosophy, which served me welll for the rest of my life.
    Fr. Gannon was a great mentor and I owe much to his guidance.

  3. You captured the spirit and humanity of a great man and a great priest in your post. He really was one of the good ones. Our time in Scranton overlapped by a couple of years. Somewhere I am certain an old typewriter is banging out a note to you, complementing you on your website, pointing out in a crisp, sometimes off-putting way those opportunities for improvement and challenging you not to let evil divide you and your god. Such a note, of course, would be signed simply ‘e.g.SJ’

    Many best wishes and thanks for your service to our country.

    1. I have preserved my “Gannon-grams” as a reminder of someone who would only accept the best that anyone would be able to offer.

  4. Thank you for your insightful article on Fr. Gannon, One of the Good Guys. I attended Wheeling College when it opened in 1955 and Fr. Gannon soon became my mentor. I dropped out of WC after my first year and went into the Marine Corps for 3 years. I returned to WC in 1959 and graduated in 1962 — the last year that Fr. Gannon was at WC. I visited Fr. Gannon in Scranton not long before his death. There is no doubt that he was the most influential person in my life — a mentor, a true friend, and a spiritual inspiration. It always amazed me that his heart was so big that he could relate to hundreds, perhaps thousands, who came in contact with him, with the effect that he person thought he or she was the only one that Fr. Gannon was interested in and loved. I still think of him with warm affection as I did 50 years ago when I started W.C.
    You did a great job capturing the worth of the man. I sent you article to other WC alumni who like you and me thought the world of Fr. Gannon, truly one of the good guys.
    Jim Lyons

  5. Hi Michael:

    I so remember you.

    I stumbled across your blog as I was taking time from work to google “angry University of Scranton alumni” (because, indeed, I am, albeit for reasons other than yours). I’m very sorry to hear of what you went through. Horrified actually, though regrettably not surprised at either the conduct of the pedophile or the bishops. I wish for you nothing but peace and tranquility. Gannon was a rare and wonderful bird, and for the sake of re-meeting him alone I’d like to believe in the heaven hypothesis. Be well.

  6. Michael,
    I sat here and smiled when I found this blog entry. Just thinking about Gannon and here is the story that almost follows mine. No major life crises like yours, but I felt Gannon’s mentorship a few years before you. My first Philosophy class, he walked in, introduced himself, lit up a cigarette and said, ” I’m going out to the end of the universe. When I get back we can discuss what happened.” and he gracefully walked out.
    I had the rare privilege of performing once in the Fall Revue, and managing my senior year. After the show he gave me a hand written letter, merely said, ” you were unflappable” THe greatest honor anyone has ever bestowed upon me.

  7. I was saddened to discover that despite my ongoing links to the University, I’d not been aware of Fr. Gannon’s illness. In fact, I’d lost track of Fr. Gannon completely after a chance encounter on Eastern Airlines (dated, are we?) in the mid-1970’s. He was indeed extraordinary, a man who embodied the essence of the University of Scranton and it nurturing of the whole person. I cannot recite how often I have quoted him to my wife and family over the ensuing years, nor how often I’ve mentioned to them the extraordinary impact he had on my life and life choices. Intimidating? Absolutely, at least until he trusted you and relaxed just a tad. Inspiring? For sure. Insightful? Remarkably so. A paradigm of what should be the ideal in a university educator? You bet!

  8. I stumbled upon your blog and post, and am very sorry for the painful ,larger issues you are dealing with. But I was delighted with the mention of one of the most sterling educators, and men, I ever knew, Father Gannon. Like you, and so many others, he took and interest in me, that, while baffling, was tremendously empowering, and I strove to be worthy of his friendship.
    Brilliant, demanding, and endlessly entertaining, I think of him often, and with great admiration.

  9. This post is a wonderful tribute to Father Gannon. So well written. So spot on. There are so many of us that have been as deeply affected by him. For my part, my only son is named after him: Gannon Palmiter. Just this morning I was sharing stories about Father Gannon with my eldest daughter. I guess that is why I was prompted to Google Father Gannon tonight and came upon this post. Thank you for it Michael.

  10. I am yet another fan of Father Gannon and visited his grave two days ago at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville. That’s become a tradition for me anytime I visit the place. EGSJ was kind to me in so many ways and I, too, treasure some of those type written notes on Best Sellers stationary. He was wise, direct, disarming, and those of us who were blessed to know him will never forget the impact he left on our lives. Thanks for this posting.

  11. When it comes to the deepest parts about your pain, you have been to unfathomable places on your journey. Your blog makes me think of the book about Post Traumatic Stress that Dr. Judy Herman wrote — Trauma and Recovery. To reveal that others might be warned of the connection of trust and love, without compensation, is your own priestly act. I cannot recommend highly enough reading Trauma and Recovery. And I have written a couple pieces about what happens between a father and a son which addresses the crisis in biblical proportions.

    http://paperlessworld.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/days-of-awe/

    http://paperlessworld.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/the-amen-corner/

  12. Thank you for the fond remembrance of Father Gannon. He was instrumental In my life at the University of Scranton. He challenged me to do my best and seek out the education that was available at the University. He was a a stern but kind mentor when I need one.

    Michael T. Brown, MD. Class of ’82 U. Of S.

  13. Along with JL Lyons and 91 others I was in the first Class at Wheeling College (along with the Jebbies, called Co-Founders by Archbishop Swint, the real Founder). We knew all the Jebbies by their first names. We wondered if the Md Provence of Jesuits had scoured the bottom or top of the bucket to staff the new College. After 4 years we knew they were better than the top. My fondest memories were of Eddie Gannon (Philosophy) and Jerry Kernan (English)!

    You are right Eddie Gannon had a way of knowing everyone in a way they didn’t even know themselves! He was always in the Cafeteria with a halo of cigarette smoke. He was the only professor I ever had that actually smoked in class. I remember him trying to explain a technical philosophical point to my High School educated Uncle after my cousin told Eddie that his
    dad didn’t understand it either.

    At Wheeling the talent show was the “Gambol” another of Eddie’s creations along with the Alma Mater of his composing. He left an indelible mark on us all!!

    Bob Kammer ’59

  14. In 1974, spring semester at Wheeling College, my world became destabilized by this singular man, this powerful, incisive, intimating personality. He was about 60 at the time. His was a powerful presence, a man who looked without hesitation and with almost frightening clarity right into you, an encounter so intense you are at first taken aback, stunned by him, dominated by him, he commanded everything, it seemed, with an individual, unique, unsettling presence. For me this is not some peak college experience I simply remember. When I wrote the essays he assigned in Philosophy 101, the two page hand-written essay every week on such topics as, for example, “I have my body,” or, the next week, “I am my body.” These assignments I took on with such ferocity, it was all or nothing. Why? The mystery and psychological power of this man, who seemed to possess an unreachable and mysterious depth. I can’t imagine how many others have been so affected by him.

  15. Michael. My mom and dad knew Fr. Gannon back in the forties when my mom performed in some shows that he was producing/directing at St. Joe’s (I think). So when I arrived in 1974 at school he tracked me down and he was always a great person to talk to through good and different times in Scranton. I saw your article and you really bring back some good memories of him (and I am very sorry for what it appears you endured with the other priest). My mom also enjoyed hearing about him all these years later.
    All the best.

  16. I love all the great stories here about Fr. Ed Gannon. I never had him as a teacher. But, when I attended Wheeling College as a science major in the early 1970’s, he introduced himself after hearing me practicing the piano in Swint Hall. It turns out he was a darn good pianist himself! He had a way of flattering and showing interest in me that instantly made me feel very special and at ease with him. He agreed to accompany me on the piano for a school talent show. We spent many wonderful moments together smoking, discussing music, discussing my studies, my future aspirations, and so on. He made me feel like I was a special person, in a way that no other faculty member ever made me feel! . I still have a typewritten note he sent me, containing some positive comment that put me on top of the world. He was the most cultured, intelligent man I ever met in college. He knew I was dating a co-ed, and one day just before graduation he asked me, “Are you going to marry her?” Somewhat embarrassed and confused, I said I didn’t think so. He fixed me with a serious look, and said, “I think you ought to tell her that.” In hindsight, I understood that he had (correctly) assessed my personal situation and was trying to get me to communicate more openly and honestly with my girlfriend. He urged me to travel and study in Europe. I loved the man, and still do!

  17. Wow, I just happened onto this blog post after googling Father Gannon — for no particular reason other than I took one of his philosophy classes while a student at the University of Scranton in the mid-70’s.

    Yeah, he was indeed a good guy. In fact, he’s by far the most memorable teacher I had there. Many other good professors, but this guy was downright memorable.

    He took an interest in me, I think maybe because I was a bit of a rare bird: a very orthodox Catholic but also free-thinking in my own way and tolerant of other viewpoints even if I strongly felt they were wrong. Also, I had lost my Dad to cancer only a year or so before entering the university and was forced to become “the man” of my family, as it were. So all this made an impression on him.

    We talked on occasion at the library when I would walk into his office there to discuss heaven, earth, God, and all that good stuff. Then we corresponded after I entered the Marine Corps after graduation. In fact, he asked me to come back to the school and talk to his philosophy class about the Marine Corps and my unconventional decision to join it.

    Well, time passes, and we often lose touch, even with people whose friendship we really value. And I lost touch with Father Gannon in the 1980’s after I got out of the service and got a job working for the government. Next thing I heard, he had died. Geez, talk about the passing of an institution and a legend.

    Somehow I can picture him sitting at a heavenly table with a bunch of angels and (reformed) sinners — Father always had time for sinners — with that famous cigarette in his hand, discussing the mysteries of life and the universe. And I hope in that place he will have the peace he sought — and the rest of us in this veil of tears still seek.

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