This morning, Lynn and I attended the funeral of Rev. Dr. Louis G. Pecek. Since learning of Lou’s death earlier this week, I have been thinking about him a lot. He was probably the greatest single influence on my teaching career.
When I met him, his title was just “Doctor,” chairing the English Department during my years as an undergraduate and graduate student at John Carroll University. He added the “Reverend” later when he was ordained as one of the first married deacons in the Cleveland Catholic diocese.
Normally there would have been little reason for a psychology major even to meet him. Department chairs taught a reduced class load, and generally they taught only the more advanced classes, which non-English majors would not be likely to take. But Lynn–the eventual Mrs. Lavezzi–was his secretary, and somehow my path to and from classes frequently took me past her desk. Lou would have been justified in discouraging me from loitering around while she was working, but he showed great patience. Eventually we had a few conversations, and I found myself employed for a few weeks over the summer helping pack and unpack the English Department, which was moved out temporarily while their offices were renovated.
In my sophomore year, I found myself in a required English class taught in the evening by a part-time teacher. It was the kind of class selected by non-majors to meet a requirement, and attitudes were generally about what you would expect. The teacher had two sections on different nights, one routine and one rebellious, and I was enrolled in the rebellious one. The teacher wasn’t getting any complaints about the other section, but some students in mine were raising hell about the teacher.1 The teacher was being accused of incompetence, but to me it seemed to be simply a clash of wills between the teacher and some vocal students in the class. Lou called me into his office one day to ask for my impressions of the teacher. I told him that I had no complaints about the teacher’s methods, knowledge, or expectations, but that I found the classroom atmosphere toxic and would appreciate the opportunity to finish the semester in the teacher’s other section–a request which he granted. The teacher kept his assignment to teach both sections.
I met several English teachers, especially the younger ones, socially through Lynn, and I enjoyed my English classes. by the end of sophomore year I had become convinced that a teaching license in English (called a “certificate” then) would be a good idea. (More reason to hang around the English offices!) To accomplish that in four years, every class during my junior and senior years would be selected to meet some requirement either for graduation or teacher licensing; I would need to schedule my courses with great precision, AND attend classes through the summer after my junior year.
It wasn’t until spring of my junior year that I finally took a class from Lou. It was an evening class in poetics (required for the teaching license). He was soft-spoken, not flamboyant; but he clearly loved the subject, and that enthusiasm rubbed off on us. He had a wicked sense of humor and would sometimes liven up the class with a humorous limerick or other poem to demonstrate that particular poetic genre.
That spring, there was great excitement about the television premiere of the 1931 film Dracula.2 The class met in a room with windows facing the quad, and we were used to hearing noises from the dorms. On a warm night just after we had all seen the film, suddenly though the open window came the sound of a shriek, interrupting a passage Lou was reading aloud. We were all a bit startled; but without missing a beat, he looked up from the passage, and in a perfect imitation of Bela Lugosi’s accent, spoke one of Dracula’s famous lines from the film: “Leesen to them, the children of the night; vhat music they make!” Needless to say, the line broke us all up.
After graduation, faced with a choice between a PhD program in psychology and the prospect of marriage and employment, I chose the latter. One problem, though: finding a job. One day during the summer, as I was on my way to the copy center3 to get more résumés printed, Lou called me into his office. A JCU graduate he knew, now the principal of a nearby high school, had an opening for an English teacher and wondered if Lou had anyone he could recommend. And that’s how I got my first teaching job!
With the matter of employment settled, Lynn and I married.4 We got ready to start a family, and settled into our starter home (where we still live). I had taken just enough English classes to get the teaching license, and it quickly became clear that if I was serious about a teaching career, I would need a graduate degree after all; but in English, not psychology. I needed to complete an English major to enter a graduate program, and Lou helped me navigate the requirements so that within a year I had completed the second major and started on my master’s degree.
As a graduate student, I took three classes with Lou. One, which was always taught by the chairman of the department, was the required introduction to graduate studies, basically a course on how to do scholarship in literature. One of Lou’s “commandments” required us to find answers ourselves, without asking for help from the librarian. (Not appreciative of the librarians’ talents, perhaps, but it sure did force us to become self-sufficient.)
Two other classes were seminars: one on Mark Twain and one on William Faulkner. I enjoyed both seminars, but the two writers are obviously very different: it was the Mark Twain seminar that hooked me. The emphasis in that class was on Mark’s travel books. Later, when I taught American Literature at Aurora High School, I usually found time to read aloud the story of “Jim Blaine’s Grandfather’s Old Ram” from Roughing It to my defenseless students. I still quote The Innocents Abroad to traveling companions and others, especially as we visit places Mark wrote about in that pioneering travel book.5
Finishing my master’s degree wasn’t easy: we had a young family, and at school I was not only teaching English but directing the drama program. Lou was immensely helpful and supportive as I did my best to manage my time and meet conflicting obligations.
There is so much more. I date my rediscovery of classical music to conversations with Lou; I always enjoyed his discussions of opera, which I’ve enjoyed even though I’ve rarely attended and know it only superficially; and he and Mary Ann shared an interest in gourmet cooking which Lynn and I have tried to emulate.
For several years, we would visit the campus and stop in to see Lou in his offices as he moved beyond the English Department to higher administrative positions; he always found time to talk with us and enjoyed meeting our kids. In 1983 he was ordained a Roman Catholic deacon. A few years later, we heard him preach at the funeral for his mother, and he brought that same soft-spoken good humor to that difficult assignment. Noting the heavy attendance of senior clergy, he quipped: “Mom’s in heaven right now talking to her friends and saying: ‘See? Four bishops!'”
Still later–probably in the nineties–I was getting ready to lead the music for a Lenten service at St. Mary’s Parish in Bedford, and went to the vesting sacristy to meet the guest preacher, who turned out to be Lou! He stopped by our house for a short visit after the service, and it turned out to be the last time I saw him.
But his influence continues. If you’re one of my students and I taught you poetry, or American Literature, or research methods, chances are good I echoed some ideas I learned from Lou. He would call you his “grandstudents,” and mostly it’s for the grandstudents that I wrote this piece.
In recent months Lou knew that the end was coming, and he selected the readings and songs for his funeral. The Old Testament reading included, and some songs echoed, Isaiah chapter 6, verse 8: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me!’”6 Lou was sent into our lives as a deacon, friend, teacher, and mentor, and he did all of those things well. I miss him and honor his memory.
- This was the sixties, after all. ↩
- In those days, most TVs were black and white, but so is the film; so we didn’t sacrifice much by watching it on TV. ↩
- The path took me through the English department offices, of course. ↩
- Lou and Mary Ann attended. ↩
- Lou was a stickler for the proper references: Samuel Clemens could be referred to by his first name, surname, or both; the pen name Mark Twain could be used as a whole, or just the first name Mark since the author had sometimes used it by itself. But referring to him as “Twain” was a hanging offense. ↩
- New American Bible Revised Edition. ↩