Father Strong-an Unexpected Experience

Life comes with a variety of expectations of things we will all experience just because we are alive.  Of these expectations, the most common and least surprising, is mourning the death of someone we have known and loved.  Feeling the loss of their presence in our lives.  Missing their laugh, smile, voice, touch, and their very existence.  It is a common, yet heartbreaking,  human experience that we each recognize when we are either faced with such loss, or feel for those we know who are going through it and struggling with it.

But what about the loss of someone you really didn’t “know?”

This loss is one of those “unexpected” experiences.

When I was a freshman at Boston College I had a Jesuit priest as a philosophy professor.  His name was Father John Strong.  He was tall and lanky with sort of sandy colored hair, not blonde and not brunette.  He was I  his late ’40’s which I considered “old” when I was 18.  I have since changed my opinion on that.

I can’t say that I “knew” him, really, because I knew nothing of his life. We never shared any of life’s milestones.  He was simply my philosophy professor for two semesters.

His finals were oral exams.  He believed that philosophy was better discussed, with a give and take of information, rather than reading what his students wrote about what a philosopher thought in a blue book.  He already knew what the philosophers thought.  What he didn’t know was what his students thought.

Sitting across from him in his office, these exams were more like conversations than they were tests.  I suppose since the subject matter was philosophy rather than physics, there was a larger grey area.

But what I learned, and what I felt, was that what I said, and what I thought had merit.

Father Strong taught me so much more than Plato, Socrates, Dante, Locke, Moore, etc., he taught me to think, that there is not always a right or wrong thought.  A thought is a thought, and how you get one or what you do with it is as unique as each person who was ever created.

I enjoyed his classes, I enjoyed listening to him and talking with him.  There was some kind of connection that formed between us that went beyond the sharing of life experiences and the bonding that occurs through them.

When I returned to school my sophomore year, I looked up his class schedule and waited for him to come out of his class.

One by one students spilled out, turning left and right as they cleared the doorway.  I stood and waited until everyone was gone.

Father Strong did not come out.

I approached the last student from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked, “Where’s Professor Strong?”
He looked at me and said, “He died.”
I felt shock and sadness, and yes, loss.
I asked, “How? When?”
“Pancreatic cancer. over the summer,” came the matter of fact reply.

“WHAT??! I didn’t even know he was sick!” as if I would have been privy to that information.

I didn’t know he was sick, because I didn’t “know” him, in the traditional sense of knowing a fellow human being.

Except that I did know him, and he did know me.

All of this happened in 1978, and I still feel the loss of him.

Is it the same kind of loss as losing someone you “know” and love, and share a history with?  I would say not.

But it is one of those unexpected things that life flings at us every once in a while.  One of those things that is difficult to categorize.

I have always considered connecting with him to be a blessing. And since I don’t really know why I still think about him to this day, and I can still see his crooked smile, I choose to believe that he is still teaching me, and he is still there to listen.

Merry Christmas, Father Strong…..wherever you are.

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