Prep Reunion 2006
Gerard J. Brault ’46
On April 7, 1942, I was one of 230 Franco-American eighth-graders who traveled to Greendale to compete for a scholarship to Assumption High School.
It was the first contest of the sort, one of several over the years but a historic first, and I really distinguished myself that day. No, I did not win a scholarship… I have always had a severe allergic reaction to tree nuts and I accidentally ate one that day. On my first visit to Assumption, I threw up!
After that little episode in the guest restroom just inside the main entrance to the College, my situation at Assumption had to improve. It did get better, of course, but not right away.
When I entered Assumption the following September, there must have been a welcoming ceremony of some sort. I don't remember, I was only 12. But I do recall quite vividly the first time I climbed the stairs to Swede’s dorm – in ranks and in silence – for what would become a nightly routine after evening chapel. With each step up my resolve was eroding bit by bit. Then, in a corner, opposite the doorway to that barracks-like room with its long rows of little cots with white coverlets – the cold-water lavabos and the cabinets were way down the other end – I found my particular area. Like everyone else, my semi-private space was created when I opened my stand-up steamer trunk next to my bed. In the drawers and on hangers I found my clothes all neatly packed by my mother. This tiny place and others like it would be my home away from home for years to come.
That emblematic scene was just one of the reasons why I was very homesick at first. In the days and weeks that followed, another was no doubt the shock and humiliation of reading crétin, sot, and other choice epithets written in red ink by a certain Latin teacher on early assignment that I submitted. However, I had one big advantage: Dick DesLauriers, my St. George’s School buddy from Chicopee Falls had entered Assumption with me. Eventually, each of us made many other friends at the High School, but it was Dick who bolstered my spirits early on when I needed it most.
We often say – and it’s true! – that we learned discipline at Assumption. But the process had begun years earlier in parochial school: moving about in close order, keeping silence, respecting authority. This daily regimen continued at Assumption High except that the discipline was now more intense, more pervasive. Some of us took it all in stride; others resisted in little ways, giving the profs nicknames, making an occasional joke in class, whispering a word or two in study hall. It was, I suppose, a way of coping. But there were unpleasant consequences for getting caught committing an offense of the sort, for example the dreaded page of dictionary to copy or a public dressing down. Many of my classmates managed to get through eight years at Assumption without a single demerit. Unfortunately, I was not part of that charmed circle.
In time, however, I did adjust to Assumption’s environment and high school certainly turned out to be a rewarding experience. Most teachers were reasonable and very professional. Some, I felt, took a genuine interest in me, encouraging, for instance, my first attempts at writing and my budding interest in history and literature. Among them, I remember in particular and with gratitude Fathers Edward, Louis-Robert, Oliver, and Ulrich, and lay teachers LaCroix and Loubert. And, having endured six years of Latin (including two in college), I discovered to my amazement when I took a graduate course in Romance philology at the University of Pennsylvania that I had managed to acquire a pretty good knowledge of that language. In fact, it eventually helped me decide to become a medievalist.
We studied hard at Assumption High but our lives did include quite a bit of free time. This was when friendships were formed: before and after class, at meals, during recreation, playing games, and participating in other extra-curricular activities. We learned a great deal from each other about how to behave in groups, how to be good sports, how to get along in school and in life. After a while, I eventually got to know very well and to value the friendship of several classmates most of whom would go on to Assumption College with me. Several are here this evening: my roommate for four years, Al Bouley; also Norm Babineau, Joe Cournoyer, Dick DesLauriers, Chuck Martel, Norm Meiklejohn, Norm Laflamme, and Norm Petit. (When we started college, several others joined us, including Dick Miller, Class of ’45, who returned to school after a brief stint in the U.S. Navy.)
By the 1940s, Assumption High was clearly doing a fine job of preparing students for successful business or professional careers or for the priesthood. Over and over, we were told – and I remain convinced – that a liberal arts education not only laid a solid foundation for more specialized training later on but also enhanced our prospects of gaining an appreciation of higher cultural values and of leading a full life.
So far as the bilingual aspect of Assumption High’s program is concerned, it was, I believe, very well conceived and balanced. We were immersed in French all day long, a kind of Surround Sound in and out of the classroom, but, by the 1940s, there was ample instruction in English, too. Also, among us students, English ruled. Included in the many books we were required to purchase on arrival, two – symbolically one in French and one in English – would become our vade mecums for four/eight years: the Petit Larousse and Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.
In 2004, Ken Moynihan published an elegant centennial history of Assumption College in which much space is devoted to the High School. Meticulously researched and totally devoid of the puffery that often characterizes such accounts, it takes us behind the scenes, names names, and tells how the good Fathers debated among themselves as they struggled over the years to define the school’s mission and to keep the institution solvent. As students, we knew very little about these encounters and, to their credit, individual religious and lay faculty members eschewed discussing personalities and campus politics with us.
It was therefore a revelation to get Moynihan’s take on the early evolution of the school from an alumnate or seminary to a high school/college; on the demands that rival Franco-American factions in New England made on Assumption; and, in particular, on the opposing educational views of the French versus the American-born Assumptionists, differences that came to a head as we were nearing the end of our four years of high school.
Religion was an integral part of our studies and our daily lives at Assumption. I have always been very thankful that we explored Catholicism in such depth and, thank you, Father Emile, that we were given rationalizations for our beliefs if we were ever to need them. At Assumption High, the faith that my parents and the sisters at St. George’s School fostered in me grew deeper and more resilient. And that has been no small thing in my life.
Quite a number of Assumption High students dropped out or transferred to other schools for a variety of reasons. Even though a few newcomers joined the cohort along the way, the fact remains that we were 87 in our freshman class but only a little over half that number at graduation.
One of the reasons for the attrition in the Class of ’46 was that several members were drafted or volunteered for military duty. While we were in high school, World War II was raging in Europe and in the Pacific. No fewer than 597 Assumption students served in that great conflict. On one of the back pages of “Memini”, our yearbook, there are snapshots of 16 classmates who were currently serving in the Armed Forces. And, for the same reason, during our four years of high school there were only a handful of students on the college side of the building in Greendale.
Forty-six in ’46, we used to say, and it had a nice ring. The only problem is that it was not accurate. One individual joined us well after our senior year had begun, after the class photo was taken, and after “Memini” went to press. Nevertheless he does figure in the printed commencement program; in fact he graduated cum laude.
Drafted in 1943 while attending another school, he was, in April 1945 – one month before V-E Day – seriously wounded near Dusseldorf, Germany. After convalescing in military hospitals for several months, he was discharged from the Army and he promptly enrolled in our class in October 1945. In 1950, Dick Miller and he were elected co-presidents of our college class. He enjoyed a long career teaching French and today Alfred LeBlanc lives quietly in retirement…across the street from me in State College, PA.
I like to think that I did all right at Assumption, especially in my favorite subjects English and history, but, full disclosure, overall academic distinction eluded me in both high school and college, and I only decided to specialize in French toward the end of my senior year in college. But then, in graduate school at Laval University and at the University of Pennsylvania, suddenly – magically, it seemed – things came together. In between, living a year in France at precisely the right moment courtesy of the U.S. Army also helped bring my career plans into sharper focus. Des fois c’est comme ça!
However, in retrospect, it is obvious that the exceptional exposure I had to French language and culture growing up Franco-American at home and at Assumption; the solid Catholic and classical education I received, the study habits…and yes, the discipline… I learned at Assumption have stood me in good stead. In different ways, all this preparation, coupled with the research orientation and the excellent guidance I received from my mentor Bill Roach at Penn, bore fruit in my 40 years as a French professor at Bowdoin, Penn, and Penn State. But I sincerely believe that it was Assumption that laid the foundation, that Assumption was the key to everything that followed.
Finally, whatever success I may have achieved in life is also due in large measure to a chance meeting in Chicopee Falls on August 31, 1946. On the last Saturday of the summer between high school and college, I met a lovely young lady named Jeanne Pepin. We corresponded and, during vacations, began seeing each other with increasing frequency. She was my senior prom date in college and we were married shortly after I was separated from the Service. My dear wife of 52 years (and counting!)…and my official food taster (she can spot a tree nut at 50 feet!)…is sitting right over there.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. Benedicamus Domino…(Deo gratias)!
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