Johnny Sturm passed away last night. He was, more than anything, a surprising man. Raised in his father’s East Side bar – he became a Jesuit. Five foot five and a half – he became an unstoppable halfback. Pugnacious, irritable, and old school tough – he loved the theater.
… and as he was drifting off last night, I’m certain that stubborn old man was humming a Slow Boat to China. I’m listening to Peggy Lee and Bing Crosby sing it right now, and it can’t help but make you smile.
He once asked me what the boys really thought of him back in the day at Canisius [where he strode and ruled the campus like a Titan]. I told him they would regularly take up a collection for a hit. His answer, “Good.” When he was blue, I would say the word “suffer,” and he would giggle like a little kid. He wanted all the young men in his charge to suffer. It was his way of making them accountable, and in Fr. Sturm’s world, you were accountable. And not just the students, but the faculty and staff as well. Rest assured, he wasn’t that popular amongst the faculty. He didn’t want to be loved or hated, he wanted to be loved and feared – and he was.
The most-repeated story I tell about Fr. John as Prefect is one of the many about him teaching me to be accountable. I came to school late one winter’s day with John Cooper. John’s car wouldn’t start, and he had to call AAA. Of course, knowing Fr. John, Coop made certain he had a time-stamped receipt [in triplicate with a blood oath signature and phone number for further verification] to support his excuse for being late. Fr. John considered the evidence and gave Coop a pass. For me, however, he had a different plan – and it started with JUG. I flipped. He calmly told me, with that familiar cigar stuck in the side of his mouth, that I could have taken the bus and been to school on time, yet, I chose to get a ride with John Cooper. “Let that be a lesson to you,” he said. “You are responsible for your choices, especially for the choice of who you throw in with… and today you made the wrong choice.” I steamed and stewed all day, but when I got to JUG after school, he was just sitting there laughing at me. He was intent on teaching me a lesson every chance he got.
He came to our weekly Committee meetings for years. For the first couple of years, every time Butch would swear, he would apologize to Fr. John. But, as time went on, Johnny Sturm started coming to the meetings, and he was a riot. He’d down his turkey sandwich from Picasso’s, tell me to fire them all, doze off, and then he’d want to see more of Sarah Palin. Boy, he really loved that broad. She was his fourth favorite woman: first was his mother, second was his sister, third was St. Theresa, and fourth was sultry Sarah Palin. He had her pictures all over his computer. I just had to post one of his favorites [above] – it’s the only way I can be certain that he will be smiling while he is reading this.
As I write this, the memories just keep flowing: Years of standing on the 18th tee at Brookfield, always challenging the old man to hit it over the water, and watching those muscles of his flex one more time, summoning up the memory of their strength, and then smacking it over. What a smile? The smile that said, “I still got it.” And he did.
He enjoyed his third career as a writer, but he loved the attention more. His first career as Prefect of Discipline was rewarding, but, for years, his firing left a bad taste in his mouth. His second career as Fr. Love the Marriage Encounter Whisperer was as remarkable as it was unexpected. He fell into it by chance. A fellow Jesuit had posted that he needed help with his new marriage encounter program, and Fr. John answered the call. He was still in career limbo, and this proved to be just the tonic he needed.
His third career came about just as unexpectedly. He had been posting little homilies in the weekly bulletin at St. Michael’s [where he finally warmed up to saying the Mass in English]. Several of the parishioners asked for copies, and he asked me if I could put together a compilation and print them out. I suggested it was time for him to write a book with his weekly meanderings as a start to his opus. The Downtown Priest was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
When we were starting the Downtown Priest Committee to publish his books and raise money for the Jesuit Experience, he told me that there are good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things. When I asked him where he put me, he just smiled.
Working on his book was a joy. Editing it was a pain in the ass. I use to mess with him and put God in wherever he had Jesus. He was certain that if he didn’t intervene [as always] that I was going to burn in hell. He’s up there right now, and he better be busy saving my soul. I’d always be telling him to get back to work. I loved calling him a slacker. I’d tell him I wanted a thousand words by Thursday, and he’d laugh. I’d tell him “it’s payback time, old man.”
My only disappointment was that he promised to ‘tell me all’ when he was 100. That was our deal. Of course, he was, more than anything, a Jesuit: Bound by their secrets, buoyed by their mysticism, and controlled by their hierarchy. He was the stupid jock in their world, barely passing his Latin exams. His ascension at Canisius High School was confusing, his physical intimidation was worrisome, and his enduring popularity and respect were troublesome [often eliciting petty jealousies, which, along with his intransigence, would eventually prove his undoing].
Of course, it is all conjecture. He would do nothing to betray the secrets of his soul – and his soul belonged to the Jesuits. Being a Jesuit gave him his gravitas. It certainly worked with me. I started at the Canisius High School Day Camp when I was 6 years old and graduated from Boston College when I was 21. I am a product of the Jesuits. At times it makes them proud, and, at times, I’m certain they wonder what went wrong.
For Fr. John Sturm, I was his best work. 50 years of friendship, guidance, collaboration, and laughs. I’ve already been missing him for the past couple of years. Naples just isn’t the same without his visits. Let’s just say September is not my best month. I lost my mother nearly 50 years ago in September. I just lost my brother of 50 years a couple of weeks ago. And now I have lost my mentor, friend, and second father.
To me, he was a man: Courageous, funny, spiritual, loving, happy, lonely, and tough. To many of you he was a priest. To all of us he was a legend.
… and after he hummed Slow Boat to China, he dreamt of that opening kickoff against Nichols and ran it back one more time for a touchdown into the arms of his loving mother and St. Theresa. Johnny Sturm is home.
Slow Boat To China http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjKkdRwbAEs&playnext=1&list=PL4CC4847D6C034759&feature=results_video
Please feel free to add anything you’d like about Fr. John in the reply section to this post.
It took some time in life to realize that very few people had similar educational experiences like mine at Canisius High School. It was so much more than high school. If was Life School. Fr. Sturm was the leading man to be sure, but the rest of the cast complemented him so well that all the bases were covered. I have valued that time greatly throughout my life.