A Gentleman of the Old School

One of the teachers who did most for me taught the first class I attended at Notre Dame. Dr. John Michael Cooney, in salt and pepper tweed, entered the room just as the bell rang that September morning in 1935.

'Let us pray for sense,' he said. (in those days every class began with a prayer.) A dozen students arose and stood there in the northwest corner of the old Notre Dame library. John Cackley, Jim Bacon, Paul Foley, and the rest of us prayed for sense. What an apt petition, especially for students.

Dr. John Cooney

After 'Amen,' the professor took the two steps up the podium and settled behind a tall desk, a perch that gave him a good view of the log chapel and of the lake beyond. Out of habit he tugged at his black bushy eyebrows, which contrasted with the white halo of hair encircling a bald head. He was not yet sixty, but to us at twenty he seemed ancient.

'Now for the Litany of the Saints.'

From a red book of class records he called roll -- Bock, Geary, Gillespie, Mulcahy, Riley-peering at each saint as though forever planting him in memory. Gently he closed the book and began the semester. In a soft southern voice: 'All of you come from good people. How do I know? Because you are sitting here. Your parents have good values and are willing to make sacrifices for you."

Doctor Cooney saw it as his duty to our parents to teach us respect for the word. He set out to enlarge our awareness of the simple declarative sentence and promote the classical virtues of measure and restraint. Even before we turned in our first assignments he knew what our problems would be, for in teaching writing to generations of students he had observed that the weaknesses of each generation are much the same. He had long ago concluded that if at the Last Judgment we must account for every idle word, most of us will be busy late into the night. I have been told that during one examination period he announced: "Only ten minutes left. You can't write much in ten minutes, but you can cross out a great deal.'

The advice he gave most often was: 'Have something to say, say it, and be done with it!' He began that sentence with hands poised a foot apart, and brought them together with a resounding slap as he hit the last word.

In the fifty years since, I have not found better advice for a writer. Even now I hear the echo of that slap.

He considered it a matter of courtesy that a writer make himself understood. Gobbledygook is vulgar and reflects bad manners. He might have gone so far as to put clear writing on a moral basis: out of charity you ought not inflict on the reader unnecessary inconvenience. No undue pain.

The professor was gentle and gracious, except when a student turned in a piece of writing saturated with the sloppiness of a first draft. How impatient he was with the soggy. He liked to see a sentence definite enough to cast a shadow. 'You'll never know how to write until you learn to rewrite!"

On one assignment Koehler, or Jordan, or Hurley wrote: "We took a ride in a horse and buggy.'

The professor slapped his forehead. 'Dunderhead! You can ride in a buggy, yes, but how can you ride in a horse!'

Sometimes he shook his head and sighed. "If you read student papers long enough, you get as dumb as they are.'

He was from Kentucky and when he heard that I was too, he said: "The country people down there use the language better than many professors. They may not have so much schooling, and they may make some mistakes in grammar, but their sentences have more life in them. No jargon."

When he said that, I recalled hearing a farmer describe an ailment: 'When I twist my neck a certain way it makes a poppin'sound, like a horse steppin' on a chicken.' Many professors lack the ability to appeal to the senses the way that sentence does.

Leanness of prose was not enough for him; there had to be some life there, too. The directions on a can of soup are lean, he said, but where is the life? "Read more poetry and you will write better prose."

Professor Cooney's sensible advice about writing gave a direction to many lives. For example, Walter Wellesler Smith, of the class of 1927, said that as a student the person he most admired at Notre Dame was Doc Cooney. Since Red Smith was a sports writer, you might think he would have chosen Knute Rockne.

After being saturated with Professor Cooney's advice, Red Smith performed so well that he became known as the best sports writer ever, won a Pulitzer Prize, and had the satisfaction of knowing that all over the country English teachers read aloud his columns in class as examples of good writing. Red expressed one of Professor Cooneys attitudes when he said, "The English language, if handled with respect, scarcely ever poisons the user.' He took to heart Doc's admonition that you don't know how to write until you learn to rewrite. He worked hard on every column. His wife said, 'When he goes into his study and shuts the door, he can be heard calling upon the deity."

Professor Cooney promoted the classics because they remind us that ancient wisdom is still wise and makes us aware of the march of generations. Such insight, he felt, gives us a truer perspective. Whenever his own perspective became distorted he was the first to admit it. For instance, when visiting friends on a farm in Kentucky he stepped outside on a bright, sunny morning to see a colt running through the garden, sending vegetables flying in all directions.

He rushed into the house to spread the bad news. His host paused in the kitchen door, smiled, and said, 'My, my, Isn't he a pretty sight.

''Here I was all excited," said John Cooney, 'And he was enjoying the beauty of it. He was right."

In the classroom he observed the twists and turns inside our simple psyches that distinguished one from the other. Realizing that this kind of difference is at the heart of style -for style is the reflection of character -he made sure that his advice went beyond dancing participles, split infinitives, and the comma fault. He saw through to the special weakness in each of us.

Some were too dilatory, many too sports-minded, and a few wanted to write only armchair articles. John Cooney demanded that the dilatory make their deadlines, that the sports fans cover something in the arts, and that those who cherish their 'think pieces" get out and dig.

He certainly had me scouted. Having been reared on a farm, I was accustomed to aloneness, preferring to blend into the woodwork and not bother anyone. He knew that to be a journalist I would have to learn to face into the winds of the world, and he decided to prepare me for it. So from his high perch in the classroom, whenever he saw a wedding party coming out of the log chapel he would send me to gather infoffnation and telephone it to the News-Times and the Tribune. The society editors always knew of the event before I called, and Professor Cooney knew that they knew, but he kept sending me anyway. I gained a great deal of experience in making a pest of myself; log chapel weddings were numerous during those Depression days because young couples could not afford anything very grand.

Doctor Cooney also had advice for the activists. He believed that it helps in a writer's development to bring some silence to the soul, and feeling that trees and water have a calming effect, he would suggest: 'Go walk along the river down behind Saint Marys. The noise of civilization will be far away, just a hum.' Some things in our characters were too basic to change and he took that into consideration, too. 'Some people are sprinters and some are milers. The sprinter is capable of the brief, brilliant thing; the miler is good for the long grind. Learn which you are and live with it.'

He realized that teaching should proceed slowly and that the press of time is so important in development. When a mother showed concern because her son was not doing as well in class as she would have liked, Doctor Cooney asked, 'Has he grown much lately?'

"Why, he shot up a foot in the last year!'

'There now, you can't expect everything at once."

In those days newspapermen had the reputation for being heavy drinkers. The professor reminded his student journalists, 'There is some advantage in that for you. If you don't drink, you will give a favorable impression in comparison."

Years later I came across this sentence in one of Montaigne's essays: 'it is good to be born in very depraved times, for by comparison with others you are considered virtuous for a cheap price.'

So many things have brought to mind John Cooney. I thought of him in Burma the day I heard the Buddhist admonition: 'in life hold all things gently as you hold water in the hand." It caused me to recall a banquet for journalists at Notre Dame when Father Eugene Burke, C.S.C., told an anecdote about Doctor Cooney. While walking toward the lake on a summer aftemoon, the priest had met the professor with a bathing suit under his arm.

'I hear the largest bank in South Bend f"ed this morning," said Father Burke with some excitement.

'Yes, I had money in it.'

'Do you have anything left?'

The professor took some coins from his pocket.

'What are you going to do?' asked the priest with real concern. 'Right now I am going swimming.' John Cooney knew about holding things gently. Money, friendship, love, and life itself, hold gently like water in the hand. When you grasp you don't have anything. Professor Cooney often spoke to me about Kentucky, especially of Bardstown where he had been a newspaper editor. It bothered him that so-called progress brings with it such clutter - filling stations, pennants flapping above used car lots, cinder-block buildings. He observed with a touch of sadness, 'If you walk down some of the back streets, you can still catch a glimpse of how it was."

Like many southerners he was a fine storyteller. Everything reminded him of an anecdote. One day when he saw Johnny Mangan, the university chauffeur, drive along the road between the library and the lake, he was reminded of an exchange between the chauffeur and Frank Walker, the postmaster general of the United States.

Whenever Walker returned to his alma mater, Mangan was sent to the train station to meet him. On one such trip Mangan said, 'I'll have to hurry up and get you out there, Frank. Have to pick up Chesterton. Take him for a ride every afternoon."

To tease the chauffeur, Frank Walker asked, "Who in the hell is Chesterton? 'My God, Frank, don't you know? He's in the writin' business.' Professor Cooney could not abide a lack of common sense. During the First World War he was one of the 75,000 Four-Mnute Men who agreed to give brief patriotic speeches in movie houses and in other places where the public gathered. He gave talks between shows at the Oliver Theater in South Bend until he was told to include in his talk something about how the Germans were poisoning wells at farms in Michigan.

"Right then I quit,' he said. 'I knew the Germans had more to do fighting a world war than to start poisoning wells in Michigan. I didn't want to become involved with somebody else's lack of sense.'

He also thought it a lack of common sense when instruction in the German language was dropped by schools, and German books were removed from libraries, and Beethoven and Bach were scratched from the repertoire of orchestras.

If it is true that education is what remains after one has forgotten most of what was learned in school, I know what remains from my classes with Doctor Cooney: a regard for good sense.

When John M. Cooney died in the autumn of 1945 1 learned of it by letter in New Delhi. A United States Army major crossed the verandah, pointed to the envelope and asked, "Bad news?'

I told him about a man who had held in high regard good manners, Kentucky bourbon, and common sense.

The major said that such gentlemen of the old school are of an endangered species. There will be no more to replace them.

Wherever Doc Cooney and Red Smith are, I hope they noticed that I rewrote this several times.

'Several! That's too indefinite a word,' they will say with indignation.

Oh, well, three times; is that definite enough?

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