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Prep Reunion 2003
Guest Speaker - Ed Powers

Former English teacher Ed Powers spoke during the dinner at
Prep Reunion 2003. He was accompanied by his wife, Marie.

Speech given by Ed Powers at Prep Reunion dinner, September 13, 2003

First let me offer my congratulations to members of the Class of 1953 who are celebrating a half-century of loyalty to Assumption Prep. Next let me say to all you alumni that is it a genuine joy for me to be here addressing you tonight. For one thing I find it much harder now to find an audience. More importantly, it is an occasion, now far too rare, for me to meet again with former students and colleagues for whom my fondness, my respect and my admiration have never diminished in all the years since I left the prep school.

My association with your school began in 1955, so I cannot say I had the privilege of knowing any of you from the Class of 1953. The Class of 1958, however, another of this year’s anniversary classes, remains vivid in memory because as sophomores some of them were among my earliest victims, sorry students. In fact, three of them – Dr. David Connors, Dr. Peter Deckers, and Officer John Foley – are mentioned prominently in this year’s reunion brochure. All three were once student-athletes, implying, I believe, that there are other types of athletes in schools, not necessarily that those two terms are mutually exclusive and in need of forceable conjoining with a hyphen. They were also court athletes, in their case, basketball, not the variety appearing before some judge. And risk takers too, willing to go up against the big guys, going for the difficult move, the improbable shot. But alas, time and age have left their mark; caution has set in deeply. Dr. Connors, I understand, is a plastic surgeon, which may mean one who accepts only credit cards. Dr. Deckers had settled into an administrative chair, somewhat more removed from the malpractice wars. Officer Foley has retreated from the danger zone of high school teaching and is now a whistleblower in the bustling community of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, a town bursting with its 4,000 souls and with no crime statistics on record, a clear evidence of what a sterling job he’s doing protecting its border against the forces of evil in such nearby centers of sin as Williamsville and Westminster. But enough of levity for now; it is time for some gravity.

As alumni of a remarkable institution, which regrettably disappeared from the educational landscape in 1970, you have lost the tangible connections, which most other alumni enjoy. Instead of the usual nostalgic pilgrimage to a shrine of our youth, you have only a tour of a place where you all once worked and many of you lived, can only speculate on the location of the once familiar, and in the end come away with, if nothing else, the awareness that for sure the old place is indeed under a new and very different management. If then you can no longer visit your old school, never offer your children or grandchildren the same fine educational experience you had, why gather at all? Two years ago, my former colleague, Al Palaima, suggested that some of you are here for that “last look at your old teachers.” As I recall, he did not ask for a show of hands on that point; he’s always been a prudent man. What caught my attention was his last phrase “last look.” Which of us is going somewhere? Surely not we. You know that old teachers never die; they just lose their class. Which of course is why old teachers have always been in a class by themselves.

But to return to the question, why gather, why meet? If you will allow me respectfully to speak for you, I believe you are here out of gratitude. Time and experience have made you ever more aware not only of what you once had but also of how that has affected what and who you are now. If so, then your gratitude must extend in many directions. To your families who had the foresight to send you to the Assumption Prep and the sacrificial will to sustain you there. To the Assumptionists who, true to their d’Alzonian ideal, in 1953, turned adversity into opportunity, opportunity into success, and success into even greater service, thereby insuring that even more of the best and the brightest might avail themselves of an Assumptionist Christian education. You should be grateful too for those dedicated laymen who choose to bring their training, talent and conviction to bear on your formation; and yes, for your friends – those classmates, roommates, teammates, who shared and perhaps even cheered your successes but also helped you through those moments of self-doubt, discouragement, confusion and loneliness which inevitably accompany adolescence.

But gratitude is not a one-time thing, not something to be hauled out once a year or every five or 10, like the seasonal decorations in the attic or the family photo album. We have two phrases in English: saying thanks and giving thanks. Saying thanks is what we teach kids to do when someone at the bank hands them a lollipop, what we do when someone holds the door open for us. Giving thanks echoes the psalms. We reserve it for prayers and ceremony, those solemn, often solitary moments when we can or should or must acknowledge just how truly fortunate we are. Some years ago a write to Ann Landers, while lamenting the growing modern trend of not acknowledging gifts by note, card or even a phone call, characterized gifts to grandchildren as space shots into black holes. Sad indeed to think of a generation so callous and indifferent to generosity. Evidently you remained free of that taint; you can still say thanks. But what about the giving part?

You have not been telephoned to death, asked to help support needy students – except within your own family circle perhaps – or contribute to capital campaigns. You’ve been asked to do something more difficult, more important: to keep alive and pass on the ideas and ideals of your mentors. No doubt many of you have had the challenge of inculcating in your children or diplomatically coaxing your grandchildren toward a healthy respect for tradition, religion, learning, discipline, rigor and service. If, as Henry Adams believed, teachers can affect eternity, that none of us can say where our influence stops, then as first teachers, you have had a unique opportunity to shape next generations.

But perhaps you’re thinking now that your giving days should be over, that the accomplishments and scarifies of your personal and professional lives merit some time to wind down, kick back, do some fishing, cash in some of life’s winning and treat yourself. Don’t even think about it. We need you – desperately. You have resources, influences, education. You are gifted, disciplined, articulate, informed, successful and respected citizens who now more then ever need your accumulated collective wisdom, your verve, your voice, your vision.

Why us, why me, you ask. To discharge a very large debt, one barely payable at all. The 17th-century genius Isaac Newton, acknowledging his extraordinarily mathematical and scientific successes, once wrote, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” So it is with us all. The difference between us and Newton is one of scale only, not situation. We all owe much to those now anonymous giants of dedication, conviction and sacrifice who have created, defended and bequeathed to us much of whatever we now enjoy. Whatever we now enjoy. Whatever vision we have, whatever vantage point we now command, in large part, we owe to the towering stature of many before us.

Last May I attended a performance by the Flying Wollendas, that legendary aerial act family now in a comeback mode, as they executed their breathtaking 7-man pyramid on the high wire. What struck me was how utterly dependent is the person who ultimately achieves the apex of their pyramid. The skill to reach that point is undeniable; but useless without athleticism, discipline and concentration, not to mention stout shoulders, of troupe members at the base. Do you doubt, I don’t, that the individual on the top says thanks at the end of any performance? And gives thanks too for being conscious, whole and standing for the thunderous ovation from an appreciative crowd. The metaphor of that act is apt here. If you’re on top, you need to say and give thanks, and not always just by opening your wallets, more often by opening your eyes, your minds, your hearts.

Most of us, I suspect, at times see the enormity of today’s problems and issues as so daunting as to be not just intimidating but almost paralyzing. Fortunately we have the love of Mother Teresa as our beacon; her courage, a benchmark; her words, a rallying banner. “None of us,” she once said, can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love.” And so she did. Her efforts to bring some comfort and dignity to the worm-infested dying in Calcutta’s storm drains evoked such an outpouring of compassion worldwide that by the end of the last century the Missionaries of Charity, her order, comprised 1,800 dedicated women, 250 equally dedicated brothers, literally thousands of inspired workers, all ministering to the sick and dying in 30 countries. A small women with a big idea borrowed from God, toiling tirelessly in a strange country in her chosen habit, the native sari, so moved the world that it found recognition of her work irresistible. So she addressed smug Harvard graduates and self-important Oslo dignitaries; and before both those audiences and others like them, in her halting, broken but ever-right English reaffirmed publicly for them and us too the sanctity of human life from beginning to end. She was never so naïve as to deny that there are acts the world considers great. What she knew is that greatness is not a matter merely for earthly measure, and neither is charity. So she amended her conviction about the value of small things, adding that “God doesn’t ask us to succeed, only to trust.” Success, she understood, us ultimately not to be judged by statistics or cost effectiveness or even days and years but by its place in a far larger plan.

True, few of us can or will abandon our comfortable lives to trek off to any of what appear to he truly God-forsaken places, they are so in need of help. Yet perhaps we need not.

Here for a moment allow an aging, garrulous pedagogue to digress. Before boxing fell under the ever watchful eyes of today’s self-appointed social police and literary meanders like Joyce Carol Oates, those of us who grew up with that, yes I’ll use THE WORD, MANLY sport also knew that advice of managers and trainers: “Hit from where your hand is.” What they were telling young ring hopefuls to do was to forget the roundhouse swing and the knockout punch, which always bring crowds to their feet. Concentrate on the punishing jab which the booing fans always find boring but which opponents cannot long endure. In short, win fights, not fans. No, I’m not recommending pugilism or defending barbarism or denying atavism. What I am doing is advocating opportunism.

You all live in neighborhoods, school districts, parishes, communities, states and even provinces. Why not give thanks by hitting from where YOUR hand is. I cannot tell you precisely what needs to be done where you are. I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are needs and needy somewhere around you. I cannot tell you what you can or should do. I can tell you will absolute certainty that unless you do it, some need will go unmet some needy will be neglected or forgotten, some needless suffering will continue. Mother Teresa, I’m sure, knew she alone could not change all of Calcutta, only that she was called to change something there. The rest she’d leave up to God.

We need you on other fronts as well. While I’d not wish to be as fulminating as Pat Buchanan and cannot be as evangelical as Cal Thomas, I know both of them right when they assert that today’s culture war is a real one. Moral relativists and other Americans united for the suffocation of church by state are gaining strength and gaining ground. Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted contention that evil prevails when good men do nothing may beg the question. Do those who do nothing even in any sense deserve the title, “good men”? Goodness is as goodness does. To borrow one of those popular slogans from the 60’s, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

What can you do? Here again, use the forum at hand. If you’re not a celebrity, your letter may not appear in the Times or Wall Street, but it will appear in your local paper, in many national magazines to which you already subscribe. Politicians read more than tealeaves and poll results. Your opinion may not qualify for national television, but it may make local sound bite. Raise your voices at the town or school board meetings, wherever you’re known and trusted, wherever your opinions are valued. We never know who’s listening, but we’ll never find out if they can’t hear us. And of course, don’t overlook web sites and blogging. We don’t need to pay for billboard advertising any more.

Your legacy is a rich one which you’ve obviously used wisely to accomplish much and serve many. When you left Assumption Preparatory School, you were one of that school’s gifts to the world. If the advertising slogan has it right, the best gift is the one that keeps on giving. Have you been that kind of gift? Will you continue to be? Only you can answer that question.