Flawed, Yet First Rate: an Interview with John Hagan ’67
Villa Madonna College, in the 1960s, was a commuter college with the majority of students coming from the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati region. There were no official dorms or housing to speak of, so it was unusual for someone from outside the area to choose to attend. John Hagan ’67 of Dayton, Ohio, found his way to Villa Madonna College in 1962 thanks to long-time, family-friend Father Elmer Moore, who had been an English instructor at VMC.
It was easy to tell, during our correspondence, that John has a gift for writing and a sense of humor that appreciated the polarity that was the early VMC campus versus the excellent education to be had within those classrooms. John had made the natural progression, like so many of his friends, from Chaminade Catholic High School (now Chaminade Julienne) in Dayton to the University of Dayton in the fall of 1961. It became apparent in the first year that U.D. was not a good fit and after some negotiating on the part of Father Moore, John entered VMC in the fall of 1962. Father Moore warned the Hagans that though the physical campus was somewhat lacking, Villa Madonna College was blessed with “some of the finest instructors in the Midwest.”
John’s words describing his first impression of the campus are, “It was a real shocker.” He and his parents arranged to meet with Sister Irmina Salinger, the admissions director, and while visiting the campus; they took the opportunity to view a privately owned home three blocks from campus that was available as housing. They were greeted by the sight and sound of a drunk lying in the grass playing the trumpet to high heaven. Since John’s newly married brother and sister-in-law had a two-bedroom apartment off Reading Road in Cincinnati, it was an easy choice for him to decide to pay room and board to live there during his freshman year, resulting in transferring between four buses to get to and from campus each day. The commute got slightly better in the commencing years when John purchased a temperamental old Ford and commuted from either the L.B. Harrison Club in Cincinnati or from home in Dayton, Ohio.
Academically, John was not a standout student; as he tells it, “I was quite possibly the least successful student in VMC/TMC history.” He earned solid C’s in all first year classes, except in Fundamentals of Mathematics where his lowly D’s resulted in academic probation. There was a close call between John’s second and third year when he received notice from Reverend Charles Rooks that he was dropped for poor scholarship. John pleaded with Sr. Irmina, his “angel from heaven,” to intercede on his behalf. Her intersession resulted in John’s being returned to full-time status for another year (on probation) and to his eventual return to good standing and graduation in August of 1967.
As an out-of-towner, John had few opportunities to form lasting relationships but has used experiences from his college days as inspiration for short stories (The Long Farewell) that he has since written. He recalls brilliant students in the classroom, naming Susan Court ’66 as a standout in a journalism class and Tom Cahill ’66 from history classes, with whom John went “out to lunch” occasionally since Tom knew his way around Northern Kentucky. John also recalls members of the religious community being in his classes, perhaps even former TMC President Sr. Margaret Stallmeyer ’68, although he says “she’s probably expunged any image of me from her recollections.”
Sister Loretto Marie Driscoll, C.D.P., who was John’s Shakespeare and English Reading List instructor, was his absolute favorite professor. Sister Agnes Margaret, C.D.P. was also much beloved, and John recalls enjoying philosophy with Father Charles Garvey and literature with Dr. Sandra Cuni. John says, “Bright students and skilled professors are the stuff of a first-rate education that transcends the flaws of brick and mortar.”
Upon earning his undergraduate degree from VMC, John went on to earn a Master of Education from Xavier and a Specialist in Education from Miami University in Oxford. Ironically, after retirement from a thirty-year career as a high school English teacher and administrator, John returned to The University of Dayton and served for six years as an adjunct composition instructor, sharing an office with his freshman composition professor at U.D. That disastrous freshman class inspired one of John’s short stories, “The Power of Suggestion.”
When asked what advice he has for today’s TMC students, John says this, “Savor every day of your Thomas More College experience, even those eight o’clock lectures and labs, time-consuming papers, and mind-bending exams. Don’t obsess over grades; obsess over learning, picking the brain of every professor. Grades are obviously important to grad schools, fellowships, scholarships, and job openings, but the real surprise will be how much you’ll rise above others who have not learned to process and synthesize what fine professors have offered you.”
John’s complete personal profile is pieced together from email correspondence received as the history column was being composed:
An Anthology of John Hagan ’67
To say that I am flattered by your request would at the very least be the essence of understatement. As a little history I should say that after my blundering first attempt at the rigors of college at The University of Dayton, my parents, in counsel with long-time family friend, Father Elmer Moore, erstwhile English instructor at Villa Madonna College, “negotiated” my enrollment at VMC. Father Moore had emphasized that notwithstanding its dilapidated campus in Covington, Ky., Villa Madonna College was blessed with some of the finest instructors in the Midwest. Principal among them, he noted, was the distinguished Monsignor Schuler, Dean of the Physics Department and member of the Atomic Research Commission. I completed the bulk of my degree requirements on the old Villa Madonna campus, but I like to think of myself as a Thomas More College graduate, so noted on my diploma.
Having offered this preamble, I must tell you that while my undergraduate story might provide some guffaws and sniggers, I was quite possibly the least successful student in VMC/TMC history. I will tell you, that my years of attendance (1962-1967) were likely the most atypical of any graduate, living as I did at the L.B. Harrison Club during some years and commuting from my home in Dayton, Ohio (yes, that’s Ohio) in others. The story begins upon meeting the admissions director, Sister Irmina Salinger, in her office. My parents and I were told that she would not only agree to my admission as a full-time freshman repeat, but she would disregard and dispose of my “work” at U.D, allowing me a clean slate at Villa Madonna College.
While The University of Dayton in 1962 had not achieved the beautiful setting, grounds, and edifices it enjoys today, the Villa Madonna College campus and its environs was, might I say, “a real shocker” for me. The administration building had real beauty and character but with the possible exception of Columbus Hall, virtually every other “edifice” was the pits; hence, the College’s moniker “Twelfth-Street Tech.” I endured much abuse about the campus from my Chaminade High School friends, most of whom were students at The University of Dayton (a natural progression from the Marianist-run Chaminade).
Housing for out-of-town students was in privately owned homes, and the one available for us to visit that day was about three blocks from the campus, but when I saw and learned the accommodations and restrictions, I was most discomfited. My parents, however, were not troubled by the confining conditions, but they did bridle at the sight and sound of an intoxicant lying in the grass behind the house playing a trumpet at the decibels of Judgment Day.
Since one of my two brothers and his new wife had recently taken occupancy of a two-bedroom apartment in Cincinnati and, like many newlyweds, could use additional income, they agreed to allow me to live with them and be paid room and board by my parents. Living just off Reading Road in Cincinnati, I would take four buses a day to and from the Covington campus.
The most troubling part of my freshman year was the beanie requirement for freshman, which was terribly embarrassing. With the exception of a D in both semesters of Fundamentals of Mathematics, which was really algebra and trigonometry, I posted either C’s or C+’s in my other freshman classes. I ate most of my “lunches” alone at the White Tower on Madison Avenue, but occasionally I went “out for lunch” with Tom Cahill, a very bright student and baseball player in my history classes. Tom had a car and knew his way around Northern Kentucky. I also recall having classes with members of the religious orders and may have been in a class or two with Sister Margaret Stallmeyer, but she’s probably expunged any image of me from her recollections. What was perhaps the most intriguing factor for me was taking that mathematics course in the first year and a journalism course in a later year with Susan Court, whom I regard to this day as the most brilliant student I ever observed in a classroom. She would become for me one of three freshmen students (two at U.D.) who inspire the amalgam character, Paula Blair, in my short story “The Power of Suggestion” that appears in my published collection, A Long Farewell.
Returning home from my first year, I learned that owing to my parents’ financial situation, I would need to take employment for a year in order to return to Villa Madonna. Benefiting from my best friend’s (a full-time student at U.D.) part-time employment in the Good Samaritan Hospital Hematology Laboratory, I was added at his urging to a group of U.D. pre-med students who were engaged in an eight-week orientation program for part-time laboratory technicians. Completing the program, I basically worked a full-time assignment in the evenings while taking two, day classes at U.D. The lab experience would provide the inspiration for my short story, “Night Call.” While taking an English Literature class at U.D., I was entering Sherman Hall around 1 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 and overheard someone listening to a transistor radio and saying he thought the announcer had said the president had been shot. Leaving the class 50 minutes later, someone said, “Kennedy is dead!” I had, of course, to work that evening in the laboratory, but I’m not sure how accurate the complete blood counts and urinalysis were that I ran on that very mournful night.
Returning to Villa Madonna in the fall of 1964 (now on probation, owing to the two D’s in the math classes), I began living very affordably at the L.B. Harrison Club in Cincinnati, and since I had acquired a broken-down Ford (with no heater and a leaky floorboard), I took a part-time job at Booth Memorial Hospital in the Hematology Laboratory on weekends. Things went well for me in the first semester, but when I gave up the job at Booth in the second semester to begin weekend runs to Dayton for various romances, my second-semester grades suffered the consequences. That June, I received the devastating letter from Father Rooks, advising me that I had been “dropped for poor scholarship.” Driving back to campus in August, I met with Sister Irmina, pleading with her to intercede with Father Rooks to readmit me to full-time enrollment. I waited in her office while she talked to Father Rooks in his second-floor office. Returning, she told me Father Rooks would see me immediately. Coming out the main office, I encountered Sister Loretto Marie Driscoll, my absolute favorite professor at Villa Madonna who had been my Shakespeare instructor in the first semester and English Reading List instructor in the second. She told me not to be intimidated by Father Rooks’ English accent because he was; I think she said, from Hazard, Kentucky. Father Rooks said that I could continue my enrollment as a full-time night student for the next year, and then be reconsidered.
As far as instructors and staff go, hands down, Sister Loretto Marie Driscoll was my favorite, and, of course Sister Agnes Margaret. I really enjoyed Father Garvey’s philosophy lectures, but I flat lined at C’s in all of ole Garv’s classes. Dr. Sandra Cuni showed the patience of Job during my explications of literary passages. Mr. Azar, my professor for three French classes, was most kind. He took pity upon me as I massacred French translations. Good man! After each class with me in it, he must have wondered why he ever left Cairo. I didn’t have her for any classes, of course, but Sister Irmina was an angel from Heaven.
As an English major, I had, of course, the privilege of studying the written word under the very skilled instruction of such fine professors as Mr. Joseph Connely, Sister Agnes Margaret, Dr. Sandra Cuni, and my Thomas More College savior, Sister Loretto Marie Driscoll. In my second collection of short stories, Ties That Inspire, to be published this spring by the Goose River Press, “Movers and Shakers” was in part inspired by Sister Loretto Marie’s playing the negotiator on my behalf with the academic dean. Let me characterize what would have been the quintessence of most of my professors’ regard for me by quoting Sister Agnes Margaret’s assessment of my scholarship one morning in the company of the other students in my Literary Criticism class: “Mr. Hagan, if you’d show up for class more than once a week, you wouldn’t have to ask such a colossally stupid question!”
My extracurricular activities at the college consisted of taking four buses each day to and from my brother’s apartment on Reading Road in Cincinnati during my first year and commuting in my old Ford from the L. B. Harrison Club in Cincinnati and my home in Dayton, Ohio in succeeding years. It was, however, a very special Ford: sans radio, sans heater, sans backseat, and sans any girls with half a brain. On weekends in the first semester of the 1964-1965 school year, I worked in the Hematology Laboratory at Booth Memorial Hospital in Covington running CBC’s and urinalyses, and plating sputums on to horse-blood augers for the pathologist to read on Mondays. No picture of me in the Triskele in that extracurricular activity! Since I did not finish all my course work and pass my comprehensive examination until August of 1967, I did not take part in a commencement until June 1968. I don’t know if that was why I did not appear, as a graduate, in the Triskele? (Quite likely, I was just too ugly.) As a result of being from “out-of-town” in those days, I had few opportunities to form any lasting friendships. I did get to know a geezer in the White Tower, where I ate my five, 15-cent hamburgers for lunch each day. Don’t recall his name, but he had some serious halitosis.
During the 1965-1966 school year, I commuted at night in my jalopy Ford up and down I-75 and posted grades allowing reinstatement as a day student in good standing for the 1966-1967 year. One particular anecdote I recall occurred in May of 1967 year, I was scheduled to read my Senior Seminar paper on a Friday. My old Ford was especially sensitive to moisture, often playing hard-to-get on rainy days. As I was still putting finishing touches on my paper until about twenty minutes before I would make my mad dash down I-75 from my home in Dayton, Ohio, I neglected to calculate the impact that the falling rain would have upon my four-wheeled beast. When I jumped into the driver’s seat with my treatise on Charles Dickens as a social reformer, my Henry Ford’s “any color as long as it’s black,” which it was, refused to start. Frantic, I called my sister-in-law in the vain hope that she might actually be home and answer the phone. Manna from Heaven: she drove the half-mile from her house to mine, and I flew hell-bent-for-leather down I-75 in a station wagon that wafted blended aromas of dirty diapers and fomenting fruit from the backseat. I arrived at the classroom, an old bar, just as Professor Connely was about to dismiss the class. I managed to read my paper, mostly out of breath from running about two blocks from the nearest parking space. Got a C, of course.
I took two classes in the summer of 1967 and passed my comprehensive examination in August. I then accepted a freshman, French and English teaching position at Trotwood-Madison High School. Since I had taken no education classes at Villa Madonna, I taught on a temporary certificate for the first three years. I had chosen not to receive my diploma in a private circumstance in August of 1967 but to receive it in a formal commencement in June of 1968. I wanted my father, who by this time was in the throes of colon and lung cancer, to witness a special moment in my life. My oldest brother had been a scholar-athlete (football and basketball) at Chaminade High School and had gone on to play quarterback at West Point, and I had been such a disappointment to my Dad. Unfortunately, he was too ill on the night of June 3, 1968 to attend my graduation, so he and my mother remained at home. Sitting, however, in the Basilica that evening during the beautiful ceremony, I positively ached to have my parents present. Ironically, coming down the staircase in the Lyceum from returning my cap and gown, I encountered Father Rooks, and he congratulated me warmly. It was among the most meaningful congratulations I ever received.
Regarding the education received from Villa Madonna College, I second what Father Moore might have said, “Second to none.” The small classes and caring instructors were elixirs for an indolent learner. The run-down buildings were in juxtaposition with the sterling instructors and the result was a quaintness that made the experience so treasured. Bright students and skilled professors were the stuff of a first-rate education that transcended the flaws in brick and mortar. The advice I have for today’s students is to savor every day of your Thomas More College experience, even those eight o’clock lectures and labs, time-consuming papers, and mind-bending exams. Don’t obsess over grades; obsess over learning, picking the brain of every professor. Grades are obviously important to class rank, scholarships, and job openings, but the real surprise will be how much you’ll rise above others who have not learned to process and synthesize what fine professors have offered you.
I did manage to earn graduate degrees from Xavier University and Miami University and serve as a high school English teacher for fifteen years and as a secondary administrator for fifteen years before retiring from public, secondary education and serving as an adjunct, composition instructor at The University of Dayton for six years. I am now retired completely, and play the stable boy two or three days a week for two quarter horses on a small farm in HighlandCounty, Ohio.
Fortunately, I married a very intelligent registered nurse (Good Samaritan Hospital School of Nursing in Dayton, Ohio and Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, Maine), and our three children, Julie, Michael, and Matthew inherited her brains and were dean’s list students at The University of Dayton and John Carroll University, whence they graduated respectively in Medical Technology (U.D.), Civil Engineering (U.D.), and History/Political Science (J.C.U.)
All the best!
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