By Curtis J. Mallegni ‘67
The sharp ring of the alarm clock cut through the quiet stillness of the early morning air. It was a typical start of a fog-infused summer day in San Francisco: 6:30 a.m. in June of 1963. Today was my maiden voyage to the fortress at 222 Stanyan Street known as St. Ignatius High. I hurried out of our flat at 3216 Fillmore Street and across the street, to board the 22 Fillmore bus with thoughts of high school running through my head. Equipped with fresh school supplies, clean clothes and the promise and wonder of a new educational adventure, I was ready for any challenge. At Ellis Street I transferred from the electrical 22 Fillmore bus, to the careening, diesel-powered juggernaut known as the 31 Balboa. The note I received from SI said to get off at Stanyan. When I arrived, I beheld the fort: 222 Stanyan Street — St Ignatius High. It would become the hub of my life for the next four years. Without a clue as to what lay ahead, my momentum took me to the front door and through the portals of Jesuit education.
My admission letter indicated that I would have to attend, and successfully complete, summer school to be admitted to the freshman class at SI. I was committed to whatever it took. Wandering through the halls with other bewildered classmates, I had to make it to the right classroom and be on time. The letter I received read Room 310 — Mr. Corwin.
Using my modest instincts of direction, I found the classroom at the end of the third floor facing out over a parking lot with a beautiful view of Turk Street. The smell was of musty chalk dust, cleaning solvent and furniture polish. The classroom was four rows of eight undersized desks of what seemed like early American colonial and probably doubled as a stockade for recalcitrant settlers. I was a rather robust youngster in my tender years (although that has all changed now), so needless to say the fit of the desk was rather snug.
At the front of the room, there was a lonely, larger, but still undersized, desk. It had the effect of making the teacher look much more imposing, perfect for intimidating youngsters. The desk was occupied by a pensive, bespectacled, owlish looking man with a stern look. He wore a herringbone sport coat that had high mileage, standard issue teacher tie, and the balance of appropriate pedagogical attire. He surveyed the room with an expressionless but all-consuming look. Little did I know or realize I was about to get my first introduction to “Uncle Frank.” The settling-in rustle continued for a few more moments. There was an air of nervous angst among the summer schoolers. The Frank Corwin Experience was about to begin.
Then a scarcely audible mutter came from the front desk, which initially failed to quell the student din. Finally in booming Bostonian diction, Corwin announced “Room 310, Mr. Frank Corwin, St. Ignatius summer school,” closely followed by a shrill alarm bell. Class was now formally in session, the honorable M. Francis Corwin presiding. A heavy, nervous silence ensued. Corwin held the attendance folder in his hand and examined it closely.
“I will call your name, and you will answer ‘present.’ If you are absent, don’t answer.” he bellowed. Whatever could he mean by, “Don’t answer if absent”? As confusion reigned, he continued. “As I call your name and you answer, I want you to move to the next available desk so that the class will be seated in exact alphabetical order. Understood?” Once again, Uncle Frank surveyed the perplexed adolescent faces. He was thoroughly amused.
Corwin then proceeded to read off the names with perfect inflection and accent. I knew, as good as he was, he would certainly stumble on my name as did every teacher I had since kindergarten. Then he loudly proclaimed, “Mr. Mallegni, (Ma-len-yee).” Perfect. “Here,” I peeped, and meekly took my place right behind the L’s.
With roll call completed, he placed the absentee slip in the doorjamb outside, and then pulled the door shut. Class was formally in session. To begin, he outlined some basic ground rules: “Buttocks all the way back in the chair, eyes front, back straight.” We sat in silence and watched his every move. He slowly walked around the room, intently looking into our faces as if he were looking for something he had lost.
He carefully perused the grade book in the stilled silence of the classroom. Finally, he stopped and looked up. Then it happened. My worst nightmare. Like a cannon shot, Uncle Frank boomed, “MR. MAL-LEN-YEEEEE! ON YOUR FEET, SUH.” I rose in silence although I felt like Ralph Cramden in the “homina-homina-homina” mode, dumbstruck, gasping for air.
He continued with perfect diction at high volume, “In the great tradition of Jesuit education, do you know where the division between the Pacific and Indian Oceans is located?” I stood in pallid consternation. My paralyzed mind labored for a relevant thought. The stunned silence continued. Beads of perspiration sprung from my brow. Uncle Frank continued to scour the faces of the class as he paced up and down the rows, waiting, waiting. Finally, my jaws separated. and, with what seemed like the creak of an old barn door, I said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?!!!” he thundered. “You don’t know?!!!” he repeated with a questioning upwards inflection for emphasis. “You must know this, Mr. Mal-len-yee! This is part of a well-rounded education. Your homework assignment, and that for all your classmates, is to determine the boundary line of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Mr. MAL-LEN-YEE!! Take your seat, sir (suh).” Gladly, I thought.
With the passage of time, I could put this in perspective and appreciate my first SI encounter with the legendary Frank Corwin. As I got to know him better, I came to a fuller appreciation of his larger-than-life impact on so many of us. There was a tinge of self-deprecation in his style and delivery as if he were taking a shot at the potential for pomposity in academia. Yet he understood the benefits of order and discipline in academic achievement. Uncle Frank had made his point. The bar had been raised considerably. This was very different from grammar school, and it was adapt or perish. Whatever it was, he left an enduring impression that carried me into freshman year.
With summer school under my belt, I felt like a seasoned SI veteran. I knew the floor plan of the school, including the location of the vice principal’s and principal’s offices and, most importantly, the basement vending machines. With brimming confidence, I was ready for a full load of classes, which included some new and mysterious fields of study such as Latin.
In my freshman year, my first period class was Latin taught by Mr. Morlock. Yes, THE Mr. Morlock. I always admired his persistence in trying to teach us a language that for most of us was really conceived on another planet. The classroom was set up included long white Formica-type desks that faced the front of the room and seated about 8 to 10 across. Each student was assigned a number, and Mr. Morlock would have a corresponding number on the blackboard. (It was actually a green board as I recall.) We would put on the headphones and listen to spoken Latin phrases. If Mr. Morlock pointed to your number, you would have to repeat in Latin the phrase you had just heard over the headphones. If you did it reasonably well, you got a check. If you missed it badly or botched it, you got a 0. He was very efficient, so each of us would get three or so at-bats with each session.
The great thing about this approach is it provides immediate feedback, requiring deft intellectual agility and total concentration. I got off to a rocky start. When Mr. Morlock pointed to my number the first few times, I just smiled and waved. I promptly got 0’s: instant feedback. I picked up three or four goose eggs before I realized I was supposed to repeat the phrase. It was time to get on the stick. Carpe Diem! Then my Italian genes kicked in and I was able to hold my own.
To this day, I remember many useful Latin phrases that I use as ice-breakers at cocktail parties and other social gatherings. Some of my favorites are “vestis virum facit” (clothes make the man), or “mens sana in corpore sano” (sound mind, sound body, or something like that). Here’s one that appealed to our sense of adventure: “A cane non magno saepe tenetur aper” (a small dog often scares a wild pig). If you want to get the hors d’oerves all to yourself, try that one sometime. And finally, one of my personal favorites: “Caelo fulmen scriptumque tyrannis” (lightening is the writing of the gods.) This one is instant social currency.
Anyone who has studied, or speaks another language appreciates the mental agility required to express oneself in a foreign language. It’s another way of looking at things, a different worldview. I don’t think there are many chat rooms in Latin these days, but like summer school, it was another growing experience, stretching our pliable intellects into new and exotic domains.
Webster’s dictionary defines sophomoric as “conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature.” Pondering the nuances of isosceles triangles and other geometric mysteries in my sophomore year illuminated this condition all too well. The illuminator was Fr. Pierre Jacobs, SJ, and he was the perfect antidote for our sophomoric tendencies.
Fr. Jacobs was an Old-World gentleman in the fullest sense, carrying himself with utmost poise and dignity. I can still see the image of Fr. Jacobs coming across the football field to class with beret and flowing cassock as if he were floating on air. His appearance projected precision and efficiency in all things. His beret, rimless glasses and perfectly groomed flattop haircut, chiseled a formidable image of intellectual acumen against a backdrop of the rampant and diffuse trappings of sophomoritis. He was the intellectual razor’s edge.
Amid the unsettled din of the initial moments of class, he would quietly wait for antsy students to settle, and they gradually did. He then proceeded with taking attendance, pausing to look at the faces so as to remember them in his steel-trap memory. He pronounced the names perfectly. Fr Jacobs was pleasant, balanced, mature and always in control. There was no time for foolishness, and he acted as if he were telling us, “When you’re in my class, you have to grow up for 45 minutes.”
Fr. Jacobs was instinctively fascinated with the mysteries of geometry. He was always pleased when he completed the solution to a difficult problem as if to say, “Isn’t it wonderful the way that falls into place?” He reveled in the precise language of mathematics. In his sonorous Belgian accent, he would wonderfully pronounce the language of the trade: isosceles, hypotenuse, circumference and Pythagoras (PI-THAG-O-RUSS). It was all music to my ears, although these concepts elude me to this day.
He had all the geometric trade implements: a compass, a ruler and a protractor. Despite Fr. Jacobs’ insistence on focused attention and calm in pondering mathematical mysteries, one of us would inevitably drop one of these tools on the floor where it would land with a rattle. In quintessential Fr. Jacobs style, he would respond, “Put the toys away, child.” Enough said. The geometric “tools of the trade” could also be used to inflict short jolts of discomfort to classmates. There was nothing like letting the guy in front of you “accidentally” back into your compass at about 9 a.m. — a rude wake-up call.
Affixed to the midriff of Fr. Jacob’s cassock was a small metal tube that held a piece of chalk, attached to a retractable metal chain and used to facilitate the drawing of geometric shapes as needed. As he discussed various shapes, Fr. Jacobs would quickly pull out the cylinder holding the chalk, and by placing his thumb as an anchor on a portion of the chain, draw near perfect triangles, circles and other objects to demonstrate his point. A picture was worth a thousand words, and he knew it.
The highlight of the class was working the geometry problems en masse. Fr. Jacobs would posit the mathematical conundrum, and we would quietly try to solve it using our books, our instruments and our sophomoric guile. You could hear our brains working hard, as Fr. Jacobs strolled the classroom looking over our work with a discerning eye.
After about 5 minutes, he would verbalize what he was seeing and sensing. As he’d peer over someone’s work, he would announce to the rest of the class, “We have one correct answer.” This person would have a gleaming, gloating smile on his face. The rest of us would look on with perplexed resentment. Fr. Jacobs would continue his stroll through the aisles, stop and take a look, then announce, “We have one INcorrect answer.” The student would look befuddled at the master, and, if inclined, Fr. Jacobs would offer a suggestion or two to facilitate the solution.
Finally he would stop at my desk. He’d peer down, look at me directly, shake his head and say, “We have one UNBELIEVABLE answer.” The place would go nuts (for a very short period), and then Fr. Jacobs would say with great sarcasm, “Settle down, children.” And thus was the extent of my enigmatic foray into geometry. In all, Fr. Jacobs greatly helped us in overcoming our sophomoric proclivities, and some of us had lucid but brief moments of geometric understanding. More importantly, he did much to get us farther down the road to maturity and junior year.
As we gingerly made the transition from overconfident sophomores to under-confident juniors, my sojourn in the mysterious world of mathematics continued. The next stop was “advanced” algebra, or Algebra II with Bill Lamon.
Mr. Lamon had been a pilot in the Belgian Airforce. He was the epitome of Old-World dignified honor and expected his students to be of similar mien. He carried himself with the dash and aplomb of the fighter pilot he had been. Some might have characterized him as a mite stuffy, but his standards were high and out of reach for most of us. No doubt our profound mystification with the enigmatic world of mathematics continued with Mr. Lamon.
In keeping with his Old-World tendencies, Mr. Lamon was inclined to read, for all the class to hear, the results of major exams. Our mathematical foibles were exposed to the not-so-tender mercies of our fellow classmates.
He would read the names and proclaim the grades with great drama and formality. Some of the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. With a heavy Belgian accent, he proceeded: “Let’s see … Mr. McArthur. Where is Mr. McArthur?” McArthur would sheepishly raise his hand. “Oh yes.” Lamon would take a measured look at McArthur, and then, using his pencil, he would scroll down the attendance book and then stop. “Mr. McArthur … a DEEEEE! Ah, you need to do much better, much better.” McArthur ignominiously slunk deeply into his chair.
And so he continued, “Mr. Johnson … a DEEEEE! Same problem. You need to work much harder.” Johnson accepted his sentence with a bewildered look on his face. Mr. Scarpone … a DEEEEE-MINUS! Terrible!” a D-minus mathematically is about 0.5 grade points (see I did learn some math). As such, it does not make a great difference in advancing the cause of civilization, yet many got the D-minus. On the other hand, it gave new meaning and significance to the upside of getting a straight D.
After about 20 or so grades were read, all in the lower reaches of the grade spectrum, he would pause for a little editorializing. “It’s unbelievable to me that these grades are so poor. You need to do a better job of applying yourselves. It is your honor, your pride.” We looked on profoundly bewildered, like a herd of deer starkly frozen in the headlights of Mr. Lamon’s grade book.
Exhaling in disgust and shaking his head, Mr. Lamon continued and finally got around to yours truly. “Mr. Malignant … how in da hell do you pronounce dat name?” This was something I had become quite used to, so I tried one of the most successful techniques to facilitate the pronunciation of a nice Ma-len-yee. “Mr. Lamon, think of lasagna. The gn is fused together to produce a n-y sound — like la-sahn-ya.”
“Oh yes. This is very helpful. Let me see.” He scrolls down the grade book. “Yes, Mr. Malignee — EFFF, a complete fah-lure.” With a dumbfounded look, I accepted my fate. Despite the ignominy of COMPLETE failure, my classmates were actually very understanding, themselves all lurking in the D and D-minus neighborhood. With heavy hearts and dizzy heads, we pressed on, determined to improve.
Among other junior year adventures was chemistry class. Who could forget the wily Mr. Buley asking in his smoke-burnished voice, “God ******! Why don’t you guys get this? What the hell is going on?” With his drawn, compassionate face, he asked the critical existential questions. Through the sulphur bombs and titrations, I honestly had no idea what the hell was going on. It was hard enough just memorizing the elements. Just when you had it under your belt, some guy at Berkeley would discover a new one … Seaborgonium or Berkulonium! Yikes! Mr. Buley looked on dolefully as we sustained our profound confusion.
And there was the youngish and very patient Mr. Capitolo: Cappy, The Bear. We were not well suited to English, but he tried to make it fit. Some rubbed off, but most rolled off. Cappy was the embodiment of patience as a virtue.
In senior year we were graced with the young, erudite scholastic Mr. Tony Sauer. He called me either “Chief,” or “Big Curt,” or “Curt babes.” He humored himself with our names as well as our own adolescent attempts to be cool. Little did we realize we were in the midst of such a formidable wit and intellect who would become the intellectual beacon of SI. He was way ahead of us, and we rarely got “his drift” as hard as we tried. Yet he endured as one of the truly great friends of our class, then and now. If only we could go back and take it all in anew with a slightly better chance of understanding what he was talking about. We pondered the Canterbury Tales, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Macbeth. We memorized “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace,” and we imagined Lady Macbeth out outing the damn spot. Great stuff indeed, if only we had known.
There were the personalities for the ages, like the diminutive and fiery Padre Luis Peinado, SJ, and the chanting of Machu Pichu; the young Bob Drucker; and Chuck Murphy cum venerable SI legend Pere Bernie; the super-organized scholastic Randy Roche; Tringali’s English class; the way-over-our-heads American History with Mr. Buckley; followed closely by Fr. George Lee’s “why anything” religion class; or the not-so-silent retreats with Fr. Hanley; the so-quiet-you-could-hear-a-pin-drop library under the watchful eye of Br. Sullivan; and the stern but abundantly fair Clark Kent look-alike, Fr. Leo Hyde, and his then understudy and legend-in-the-making Br. Douglas Draper.
Some places I’ll never forget: the Pits, the field house, the gym, the sandwich place (sign knocked out every few days from a pine cone volley), Kezar Pavilion and the side doors that breathed when the crowd roared, the vending machines in the basement, the chapel and the Fr. Hyde sit-down-and-cool-off bench (now outside Br. Draper’s office on 37th Avenue).
One day the Red and Blue flag came down at the fort at 222 Stanyan and it was all different and yet fatefully necessary. The place had taken us as far as it could. The Red and Blue was hoisted again at the dunes on 37th Avenue, and the lore, legends and memories of old SI followed the flag to the Sunset.
In those great days in the mid-1960s, our lives were imbued with the music of the Beatles. They captured our hopes, our fears and the spirit of the era. The music often expressed what we could not. Their song “In My Life” from theRubber Soul album expresses best what SI was for me then and now:
There are places l remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all.