SI in the 1950s was a Shangri-La for most students and teachers, but not for all. Not everyone was happy with the conformity and old school ways imposed both by 1950s America and a pre-Vatican II Society of Jesus. Some students rebelled, such as Michael Corrigan ’60, who wrote about his displeasure with Jesuit strictness in the semi-fictional Confessions of a Shanty Irishman. (He also sang the praises of Fr. Becker in his book for showing him “the magic alchemy in words.”) For the young scholastic Robert Kaiser, SI was both an ideal school and a place that tried his patience.
Kaiser arrived at SI with 10 scholastics from his philosophy studies. “Talk about fresh-faced enthusiasm,” he said in a 2003 interview while a visiting scholar at USF. “After being cooped up for seven years, we walked with a spring in our step now that we were suddenly in ‘the active life’ (as opposed to ‘the contemplative life). I threw myself into the job 110 percent, as did the other scholastics. At 24, I looked about the same age as the 17 year olds I was teaching. I remember going to a senior class picnic and grabbing a beer. One of the dads said, ‘You can’t have a beer.’ Then he discovered that I was one of the scholastics.”
As a scholastic, Kaiser worked long hours, rising at 5 a.m. and often working until 2 a.m. In his first year, he ran the frosh Sodality and Inside SI, was a prefect at the cafeteria at lunch, coached JV football, taught three courses of freshman English, one Virgil course and two more honors classes in senior English.
“Teaching at SI made me feel special,” he said. “We had a faculty and student body striving for excellence. We were the best. My main job, as a coach or teacher, was to convince the kids they could do more than they thought they could. And they often did.”
Kaiser was closest to his JV football kids. Noontime, they huddled around him in the cafeteria, and they attended ’49ers games en masse thanks to free ’49er tickets provided to schools by Mayor Christopher’s Milk Fund. Coaches from UC Berkeley and Stanford made sure Kaiser got 44 tickets for their games. “The quarterbacks would sit with me, and we’d call the game together. We were like comrades in arms, and I made sure everyone played every game.”
The scene was very different at Welch Hall, where Kaiser lived with “some very old and crotchety priests” assigned to USF. “They didn’t talk to us very much.” He praised some of the priests at SI for their vitality, but they still made the scholastics do most of the grunt work. Their only time off was Friday night when the minister gave the scholastics a case of port or black Muscat from the Novitiate. “There were more than two dozen scholastics then. We could go through a case of port while we played Monopoly or hearts,” said Kaiser. “Audie Morris would always try to shoot the moon and, at a penny a point, he’d end up owing us huge amounts of money.”
Scholastics then received a $2 weekly allowance to cover “bus fare.” Kaiser and Morris didn’t use the two bucks for bus fare; they spent their money on movies, borrowing the school’s pick-up truck — “the keys were under the mat” — and “tootling down to Market Street Saturday nights in mufti. The movie cost 50 cents and popcorn was a dime. We would have been in trouble if anyone found out we were borrowing the truck, but it was our way of cutting loose at cut rates.”
Kaiser soon found life in the order far too rigid. “We followed the rules woodenly. If I wasn’t awake at 5 a.m., I wasn’t a good Jesuit. If the minister found I wasn’t at Mass at 5:30, I’d be in trouble. Sometimes I was assigned a 6:30 a.m. Mass to serve, and I’d sleep in to 6 a.m, lazy lout that I was. We were then supposed to meditate for one hour before a 7:15 breakfast. But if I slept until 7, after working on Inside SI until 2 a.m., I was in trouble. It was all a part of the formalism that prevailed at the time.”
The students, for the most part, didn’t sense this tension. “The kids were happy kids,” said Kaiser. “What was not to be happy about? They were in the best school in the city, getting the best education, envied by all the other kids, and they had an identity. They were from SI and were proud of it.”
In his third year, Kaiser decided to leave the order and SI. “The sacrifices of the three vows were ones I was willing to make as long as I felt I was doing something for the Kingdom. When I found out that my superiors were more interested in reveille and taps, than in the work I did running the school magazine, I realized the sacrifices weren’t worth it.”
Looking back on it now, Kaiser says “there wasn’t a lot wrong with SI. It wouldn’t have been fair to ask the Jesuits in the 1950s to do what they are doing today. That would be rewriting history. Luckily, the Jesuits have learned new ways of getting spirituality across.”
After Kaiser left SI and the Society of Jesus, he went on to a successful career in journalism. He covered Vatican II for Time and is now an editor for Newsweek. He is the author of 10 books, including Clerical Error, which recounts, in part, his years at SI. Kaiser is also the editor of the online magazine www.justgoodcompany.com, published by Westcoast Companeros Inc., a club of more than 200 men who have left the Jesuits. “It comes out spasmodically,” he says. “I still feel I’m a Jesuit at heart,” he adds. “And I still have a strong identity with SI. In 2002, I met a guy in a restaurant in Venice who turned out to be a student at SI when I served there as a scholastic. We had a tremendous sense of belonging.”