Uncle Frank

Francis “Uncle Frank” Corwin, one of the best loved teachers in the school’s history, began his 44-year teaching career in September 1947. A veteran of World War II, where he served as an MP, Corwin brought to his history classes stories and a demeanor that would frighten, amuse and entrance students (sometimes all at once) until his retirement in 1991. His students knew the truth of a joke told by Bob Sarlatte ’68: “Frank Corwin doesn’t teach history. He remembers it.”

When students recall Corwin, they think about his years serving as detention proctor. Students who received JUG went on a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of master-sergeant-style badgering and mock abuse.

It went something like this: “Mistah! Sit up straight and let’s see the whites of your knuckles! I could shine my shoes between your butt and the back of your chair!”

After leaving the army, Corwin went to Utah to teach. There the chain-smoking teacher found the strict Mormon standards a little too tough to take. Teachers weren’t allowed to smoke in public, and twice he was caught and reported to his principal, who warned him that if he smoked in public a third time, he would be fired for moral turpitude.

“That’s what they charge pimps and prostitutes with,” Frank said in a Genesis IIIinterview.12 “I told myself there were still 47 other states, so I gave notice.” He landed a job at SI and started teaching in the fall of 1947. On his first day, he walked into the teachers’ room and into a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. “In those days, everyone smoked at SI, including the Jesuits. The smoke was so thick, you could cut it with a knife.”

Then he listened to the conversations of the teachers and panicked. He asked himself, “What am I doing here? These teachers are brilliant. I told myself to keep my mouth shut so they wouldn’t know how little I knew. From then on, I’ve always felt privileged to work at SI because we have an excellent faculty.”

Corwin began proctoring detention in the early 1950s when Fr. Tichenor asked him to take on the job. Corwin was used to East Coast private school boys “who were little gentlemen. At SI, the boys were live wires, always into mischief and pranks. I could see that they were ready to explode. So when I walked into the detention room, I had every kid freeze in an upright position in his seat with his butt touching the back of his chair, hands folded on the lip of his desk, the whites of his knuckles showing, his shoulders back, feet planted together and staring at a mark I’d made on the blackboard. I’d tell them not to move their eyes from that mark for one hour.”

The veteran soldier had his fun with his charges. He’d heap verbal abuse onto his students, but it wouldn’t take the students long to realize that behind the bellicose voice lay a heart of gold and a gentle spirit.

Corwin’s punishments grew creative over the years. Leo LaRocca ’53, one-time athletic director at SI, remembers Corwin ordering him to go to the ROTC armory, check out an unloaded rifle, and walk back and forth in front of the treasurer’s office “guarding it” for one hour.

Another time, Corwin dealt with three boys who were repeat offenders. He used an old Army trick to punish them. He told the boys to dig a hole five feet wide, five feet long and five feet deep. When they were done, he had the boys turn around. He took out a small piece of paper from his pocket, threw it in the hole, and told the boys to fill the hole up again. When they were done, he asked them what was in the hole. One boy had seen Frank throw the paper into the hole. He got to leave. The other two had to dig the same hole and find the paper.

Principals throughout the years would take visitors to the detention room to show off Corwin’s crisp discipline, and parents praised him for the tight control he maintained. “They’d tell me to give their sons the back of my hand if they failed to do their homework,” he noted.

Corwin, along with nearly all the faculty in the ’40s and ’50s, believed in the efficacy of corporal punishment. “If a student missed two homework assignments, he felt the back of my hand,” Corwin said. “He always had his homework the next day. And between Fr. Ray Pallas, SJ, and Fr. Leo Marine, SJ, every locker on the third floor of the old school was dented from bodies they sent flying through the air.”

Corwin stopped rapping the boys in the early ’60s. “Other teachers still practiced corporal punishment, but I was afraid I might injure someone. I substituted it with screaming and shouting.”

In class, Corwin peppered his lectures with stories of Cairo and the war. Those stories brought to life the textbook accounts that students read. He also knew how to capture the imagination of a 15-year-old boy. While teaching a rigorous course of history, which he developed for the archdiocese (the infamous syllabus), he told stories of corpses three-days dead in the desert, of men dying from drinking too much liquor too quickly, and, of course, of Major Lake and his mistress, Sasha.

Corwin soon found that he was the subject of faculty stories. It had as much to do with the love the faculty felt for this grizzly-bear of a man as much as it had to do with the situations in which Frank found himself.

For instance, during one fire alarm drill at the Sunset District campus, Frank directed his students to leave the school and then saw that Fr. Gene Growney, SJ ’60, had elected to stay behind because one of his students had a full-length leg cast and could neither walk downstairs nor take the elevator during the drill. Frank and Gene decided to have a smoke in the bathroom while waiting for the drill to end.

“We were talking and didn’t hear anyone coming. The next thing we knew, we saw Br. Draper, the fire chief, the battalion chief and his assistant. Boy, were they annoyed. Gene and I were officially cited by the fire department. Two days later, during the faculty dinner, the faculty gave Gene and me fire hats.”

The faculty ribbed Frank about that for years. And they didn’t let him forget about the time that he woke up, showered and dressed, said goodbye to his wife and left for school. He got to the Stanyan Street campus, found no one there and thought that the entire school was at church for a religious holiday. He raced to St. Ignatius Church and found no one there. He walked back to school and saw a maintenance man. “He asked me what I was doing in school on a Saturday. If I could have physically done so, I would have kicked myself in the butt. When I returned home, my wife was laughing so hard, I thought she’d fall down. I didn’t speak to her for two days. And of course it got back to school. Nothing stays a secret.”

Frank, who eventually moved to Marin, car-pooled with several other teachers. One day they played a practical joke on Frank. They arranged with Fr. Bill Keenan, SJ ’36, the school treasurer, to put a note in Frank’s pay envelope indicating that because the school was short on cash, several teachers couldn’t be paid for several months.

In the car on the ride back to Marin, each of the teachers pulled out his paycheck and announced that more money had been withheld than they had expected. They watched as Frank took the bait. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his pay envelope. He opened it, took one look, and shouted, “Turn this car around!” They were driving on the Golden Gate Bridge at the time. Frank knew he couldn’t face his wife without having been paid in full.

In 1987, SI named Frank Corwin as the recipient of the President’s Award, the highest honor the school bestows upon a person who has not attended SI. That citation reads, in part, that “as the years passed, students and alumni came to realize Frank’s goodness, innate charity and deep humility. It is there that the wizard whose bombast was only an instructional tool was seen to be the teacherpar excellence, for he showed the scarecrow, the lion and the tin man that the treasure they had been seeking actually had always been deep within them and needed only to be recognized by the one who cared to be self-appropriated. And so the tin man finds his heart, the lion his courage and the scarecrow his brain, thanks to Frank’s tutelage.”

When he retired in May 1991, the faculty held a surprise going-away party for Frank and for two of his longtime colleagues who were also retiring — Joe Parker and Anny Medina — SI’s first full-time female faculty member. Three judges, the Hon. Timothy Reardon ’59, the Hon. William Mallen ’54, the Hon. Robert Dossee ’52, all former students of Corwin, came to honor this veteran teacher, as did J.B. Murphy, who had retired in 1989 after 50 years at SI. Members of the faculty and the judges all wore dunce caps as they sat in on Uncle Frank’s last detention period.

At the party, Judge Mallen recalled his senior year history class with Corwin. “He had one of the greatest scams going. By the time I got to my senior year, I thought I was ready for a break. But Mr. Corwin, on the first day of class, announced that anyone who caught him in a mistake would receive an automatic A for the semester and an exemption on the semester exam.

“From that point on, I sat glued to my chair listening to his every word. Two-thirds through the year in one of his lectures, he referred to Abraham Lincoln who ‘served as a colonel’ during some battle. I raised my hand. ‘Mr. Corwin,’ I asked. ‘Do you remember the promise you made at the beginning of the year?’ He said he did. ‘Abraham Lincoln was a captain, not a colonel during that battle.’

“Mr. Corwin looked in his text and announced, ‘You’re absolutely correct!’ He took out his grade book, marked an A in it under my name, and announced that I was exempt from the exam. From that point on, I didn’t hear another word of history in that class.”

Fr. John Murphy, SJ ’59, an extraordinary English teacher at SI at the time of Corwin’s retirement, told the story of being in Uncle Frank’s class during the 1956-57 paper drive. The winning class, he noted, won the title of the “Loyalty Class.” “Mr. Corwin gave threats, appeals and humiliations as motivation to be that class. For instance, he assigned a long term paper that could be waived by meeting our individual quota. We were determined to be the Loyalty Class. To do this, we hired a truck and one of the parents drove. And from early in the morning until late in the afternoon on a fall Saturday, the 30 of us canvassed the Richmond District. We went systematically from Arguello to the beach using Clement as our axis and fanning out and bringing the papers back to the truck by hand and with wagons. The truck got full. In fact, our one class had collected more newspapers than the rest of the school together.

“Well, such a great event could only be capped by an unauthorized, unexpected visit to Mr. Corwin’s home. So late Saturday afternoon, sweaty and smudged, we rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Corwin saw us, she called to Frank who came out with some alarm on his face. We presented him with a truckful of paper. Realizing there was no danger to his person or family from us, he assumed his habitual role as omniscient, rotund professor and said, ‘Gentlemen, in the history of my years at St. Ignatius, this is an historic event. All records have been shattered. You have done yourselves proud. I am sure the principal and administration will be stunned by such a performance. Thank you gentlemen. I will see you Monday morning.’”

In a Genesis IV interview, Frank insisted that his greatest honor was not the recognition he received from San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos a week before his retirement, when he received an honorary proclamation from the City of San Francisco, but the fact that he taught at SI. “I’m very trite,” he said. “I’ve known I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to teach at this kind of school. I’ve taught in public schools where no one seemed to care about anything. Here, there’s plenty of care, concern, and most importantly, love.”