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Many of you will remember Mr. Richard Cavanaugh from his many years of service as a teacher here at Priory. It was with sadness that we learned of his death on the morning of June 30. His funeral Mass was celebrated at the Abbey Church. Please keep Dick and the Cavanaugh family in your prayers.
I would like to begin my homily for Dick’s funeral Mass in an unusual way. I spoke with John Mohrmann, Dick’s very dear friend, colleague and successor as chair of the Priory English Department, and John thought it was a good idea. And I respect John’s judgment very much.
I would like to start by reading a short prose piece entitled “The Hodiamont”. The piece is quite relevant to who Dick Cavanaugh was and is.
You would smile and promise, “One day, not today, son, but one day you will ride one.” “Sure,” I would sulk. “Sure.” As only a child is graced to marvel, I would marvel at it rumbling along, sparks flashing and popping above. This antiquated mystery on streaks of polished steel would cut through the red brick streets of the city. The old street lights, coal chutes, street life, ash pits, transoms, storefronts, alleys and churches with steeples sticking right up into the sky, all romantic because foreign, provided the distinctive details of this wonderful scene. I would later be told that these were the things that made up a neighborhood. A neighborhood, I would gather, had something to do with Mrs. Witt and a three-legged dog named Lucky and playing jacks with a golf ball on the cold tiles of the front porch of Isola Snodgrass. I could never completely figure out exactly what a neighborhood was. But I knew that I wanted one. And I knew that I didn’t have one. What we had was a subdivision, just a subdivision. And as fate would have it, a subdivision did not have old street lights and coal chutes and street life and ash pits and transoms and storefronts and alleys and churches with steeples sticking right up into the sky. And most regrettably, we certainly did not have the Hodiamont streetcar. So, when the Hodiamont, the last remaining line, finally bit the dust, I was deprived of the opportunity I had been promised. You see, the only way to have really figured out what a neighborhood was, would have been to have observed it through a window of the Hodiamont. I couldn’t say just how I knew that. Some things you just knew. And so I never really came to know what a neighborhood was but …
I couldn’t help smiling as we skittered and clanged past the Colosseum, then past the ultramodern steel and glass office buildings. I could see that smile, that same smile, and could hear you joking, “Sure ain’t the Hodiamont.” No, it sure wasn’t the Hodiamont. And of all those pried into that jostling tram, only one fool could be seen to be wearing a smile. Only fools smile for only fools remember. The lump in his throat could not be seen.
Dick Cavanaugh knew what a neighborhood was because he grew up in one, a very vibrant, close, loving neighborhood in north St. Louis, the neighborhood around St. Edward’s church on Clara. That experience of neighborhood was a defining experience in Dick’s life. In that neighborhood he learned to love, to care for people, to humbly serve people, beginning with his own family and then branching out to the people of the neighborhood, especially his classmates at St. Edward’s.
As we know Richard was a brilliant man, but he was first and foremost an exceptionally humble man, an exceptionally caring man, a fiercely loyal friend, and a faithful servant.
None of this brilliant man’s academic or professional accomplishments were on display at his desk in the Priory faculty room, but there alongside pictures of his beloved family was his St. Edward’s grade school baseball team photo. How many people would find it important to have a picture of friends from grade school on their work desks? But for Dick Cavanaugh, if you were a friend of his from his neighborhood, you were his friend for life. And he valued you, he was fiercely loyal to you no matter how long ago you became Dick’s friend. A number of those friends from St. Edward’s remained Dick’s friends until the day he died.
Dick Cavanaugh’s neighborhood expanded throughout his life from his neighborhood of St. Edward’s, to the neighborhood of the school community at Rosary High School in north St. Louis County where Dick was so very happy as a young teacher, where he loved his students and colleagues so very much and where they loved him so very much in return. It is so good to have the Rosary community with us this morning. Dick appreciates that so very much, I know.
And then after Rosary, for 38 years Priory became Dick’s new neighborhood. In this his new neighborhood of Priory he shared the qualities of love, of humble service, of respect, of fierce loyalty and friendship, which he had learned in his old neighborhood of St. Edward’s and then developed at Rosary. These qualities of Dick endeared him to many, many students and faculty members over the last 38 years at Priory. I know of no one who came to know Dick Cavanaugh who did not love him and respect him very much. That cliché “to know him is to love him” was certainly true of Dick.
In the little prose piece “The Hodiamont” the loving father in the story made good on his promise to get his son on a streetcar some day. But that did not happen as the son thought it would. The streetcar ride did not take place in St. Louis, the boy’s city or during the boy’s youth, as the son would have wanted. That promise of a streetcar ride was fulfilled not in St. Louis but in Rome, and not during the boy’s childhood but many years later when the boy was now a man and years after his father had died, thus the lump in the man’s throat.
Dick Cavanaugh’s life did not go as he would have wished, or as Jean, or Bryan or Jill, or as any of Dick’s family or friends would have wished. Dick and all of us would have preferred that Dick could have enjoyed many happy, healthy years of retirement as a reward for his many years of faithful service to his students, family and friends. As we know that was not to be as Dick’s last years were difficult ones for him following his stroke. God the Father, Dick’s loving father, had a different plan for Dick, just as thein the story had a different plan for getting his son on a streetcar, different from the plan the boy would have preferred. But Dick was a man of great faith and so he knew that God’s plan was the best plan for him and that God knew best.
Dick, who practiced his Catholic faith so very faithfully, even sometimes attending daily Mass, believed strongly in the afterlife spoken of in our scripture readings this morning. He firmly believed Jesus’s words from our gospel this morning when Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Dick strongly believed those words we heard in our second reading promising that at the end of our lives we will “meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
Because of Dick’s strong faith in the Lord’s resurrection and his own one day, Dick was able to persevere so heroically through his illness. He knew that the end of the Lord’s story and his own story was not suffering and death but rising to perfect unending joy. Because he believed that, in spite of all of his suffering and his diminished physical state, Richard could firmly hold your hand and with eyes sparkling offer you his very warm smile when you visited him at NHC.
The Bible says of St. Joseph very simply, but very profoundly, that he was a good man. Dick Cavanaugh was and is a good man. A man who lived his catholic faith by worshiping his loving God faithfully and by humbly serving his family, his friends, his students and the poor. He learned to do this in his beloved old neighborhood of St. Edward’s and continued living out his catholic faith in the neighborhoods of the communities of Rosary and Priory. Please God, Dick is now in another neighbordhood. In the catholic church we have a name for this neighborhood. We call this neighborhood the communion of saints. Please God, Dick has already been rewarded for his great goodness and faithfulness by being admitted to the communion of saints in heaven, admitted into his new neighborhood that is not bound by time or space but extends from heaven to earth. In this neighborhood of the communion of saints we are not separated from Dick and our other loved ones who have left this world for their reward.
We are still connected to them and we can still communicate with them through prayer. We can help them and they can help us through prayer. Let us pray for Dick and ask him to pray for us that by his prayers and following his edifying example of humble service of God and others we will join him one very happy day in his new neighborhood in heaven, his and our final neighborhood, the only neighborhood that will last forever.
At a certain age I started to pay attention to the obituary page of the newspaper. Most of us here have seen those obits that run the length of a page listing the deceased’s many achievements, honors, awards, jobs, and hobbies. The obituary for Dick provided all of the important information about his family and just one other sentence:
“Mr. Cavanaugh taught at Priory for 38 years.”
Dick always appreciated conciseness and precision in writing, and in a sense this one simple sentence says it all. Dick taught with dedication and care and love for over 40 years.
If you’d ask his former students, they would all agree:He was an excellent teacher.In the classroom, he had the highest standards. He posed discussion questions and assigned essay topics that required thought. He challenged students to grapple with questions and to organize and articulate their ideas. And he respected their ideas.Generations of students have learned to write, learned to think and communicate clearly, thanks to Dick. Many of his students became English majors or teachers as a result of his inspiration. But countless others — lawyers, doctors, businessmen — benefitted from his expertise.
Of course, if you’dask his former students what made Mr. Cavanaugh a special teacher, they’d just as likely give a response that would have nothing to do with his extraordinary intelligence, his vast knowledge of literature, or his gift for teaching writing. They would say: He cared about the whole student.
Dick loved literature and teaching, but not as an isolated intellectual exercise. He relished discussing literature and teaching because of its connection to life and relationships.
Dick left teaching abruptly in December 2009 when he suffered a stroke.About a year and a half later, when it was clear he would not return to teach, I undertook the difficult task of cleaning out his desk. It was a powerful and poignant experience that summer’s day alone in the faculty room. I won’t dwell on it here… In the end, I packed up in one small box the things I thought Jean and his family would want: a few papers, a couple of plaques, and the photos of Jean, his children, their spouses and grandchildren, and the old black and white photo of his grade school baseball team at St. Edward's.
I saved a few things for myself. In particular, I kept a little scrap of paper Dick had taped above his desk. Printed in his wonderfully precise penmanship it says:
“Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”
I did not recognize the quote, but it somehow seemed to embody who Dick was, and so I taped it above my desk.
I thought about this scrap of paper this week, and I “Googled it” to see if I could find its origin. Turns out it’s one of the last lines of a French novel called The Diary of a Country Priest. In the final scene of the story, the parish priest, who has suffered much, is dying of painful stomach cancer. A friend who is watching over the dying priest regrets that his friend will not receive the last rites of the Church. The dying priest, who has for years served God and God’s people in the midst of his doubts, limitations, and seeming failures, puts his hand over his friend’s hand and utters the words: “Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”
What I sensed about that little quote a few years ago, I am certain of now. In six words, it articulates Dick’s profound Faith: In all areas of his life, he recognized and believed: Grace is everywhere.
Dick Cavanaugh was the smartest person and the best writer I have ever known.With his keen intelligence and many gifts, he could have been or done anything.And yet, in his wise and humble way, he chose to be a teacher. He fully understood — and embraced — the power of an ordinary ministry like teaching.
And he invested himself in it.Dick’s student’s learned to write because he spent so much time reading and responding to their papers. Countless papers! He probably read papers most days of his life. Dick would go to school early on weekend mornings to read papers. As Jean would attest, he did this almost every weekend — and on days off. And in the summer.For many years, Dick taught summer school . . . and he tutored students throughout his career — children of friends and colleagues, sisters of Priory students, and complete strangers — but they all became “his students.” This was hard work, but this is just “what he did.” He would read a student’s paper, confer with the student in the morning before school, and then read the revised paper. And this was physically difficult work. Dick suffered from diabetes throughout his adult life, which affected his eyesight, especially in his later years. I often say that my favorite image of Dick is of him sitting beside a student discussing his paper. Perhaps a more emblematic image would be of Dick sitting alone in his chair in the faculty room hunched over a student’s paper peering through his reader’s magnifying glass (which I also found on his desk).
It’s quite common that experienced teachers can grow cynical . . . from the daily grind . . . the low pay . . . unappreciative students . . . or whatever.This was never the case with Dick.Yes, he was a truly excellent, master teacher, BUT to him teaching was a Labor of Love.
He loved literature. He loved ideas. But even more he loved his students.
Dick recognized their goodness, their potential.Though demanding, he was generous, encouraging, and compassionate.He recognized God’s Grace in his students — even in the unlikeliest, even in — or perhaps especially in — the students some teachers might find the most difficult to teach.
And, of course,he was Grace to others in so many other ways. A former student at the funeral home last night recounted how when Mr. Cavanaugh would see him in the hallway, put his arm around his shoulder, and ask how he was doing, he really knew Dick cared. Dick also regularly accompanied students to the soup kitchen at St. Augustine’s in North St. Louis, introducing them to a life of service. And when I sorted through files in Dick’s desk, I was reminded of his thousands of subject reports and hundreds of recommendation letters.In his eloquent, precise prose, he would capture the true essence of a student.
Dick was always pleased to hear from former students, to learn they had succeeded, become English professors or doctors. But it always meant more to him that his students might go on to become good husbands, good fathers, or even good monks.
I was a bit surprised at how little remained from Dick’s desk. But I realized it was fitting: he was never about possessions — for him true meaning in life came from the simple and the ordinary, especially in the depth of relationships.
I have mostly commented on Dick’s life as a teacher. But he was Grace to everyone in his life. He was a wonderful colleague.In addition to being an inspiration and an example of humility and integrity, he was a friend. And he was a friend to everyone — the office and cafeteria staff, the part-time coaches, the maintenance men, and the grounds crew. He cherished the fellowship of the lunch table, and he welcomed new teachers. And this is how he felt about people in all areas of his life. He really got to know the high schooler who worked behind the counter at the Bread Company. I remember when we adopted automatic deposit of our paychecks...Dick didn’t want it because he liked going into the bank and visiting with the tellers. He has remained friends with grade school classmates, seminary classmates, colleagues he taught with forty years ago at Rosary High School, and numerous former students.
In one of my first years at Priory, I remember when Dick addressed the school community from this podium. He briefly recounted the challenges of his childhood. His mother died when he was very young; their family never had much money; and by any account life was austere. But Dick emphasized that when he was a child, he always felt happy because he always knew he was loved.
And that’s what he has done for us — he has loved us in the most ordinary but profound ways: as teacher, mentor, colleague, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandfather, and friend.
I’m afraid Dick would be a little put‐off by a eulogy like this, but I know he would believe in everything else we are doing here today — the extraordinary ordinariness of sharing the Eucharist together in Mass, the fellowship later after the burial, the humble efforts to console each other, and especially the joyful sharing of stories. As we mourn the death of our good friend, may we also celebrate — and continue to give thanks for — the Grace he has been in our lives.
In 1989, God granted me the greatest blessing of my life by assigning me to my parents, Tim and Cheryl. In 2002, my parents compounded my blessing by deciding to send me to Priory. And from 2002 through 2008, I found myself blessed to be in the classroom of Mr. Richard Cavanaugh during all but one year of my Priory experience. I did nothing to deserve any of these three privileges.
Mr. Cavanaugh was the first intelligent man I encountered who uttered the phrase, “Grades don’t matter.” It has taken me the better part of ten years to understand and truly appreciate the wisdom of Mr. Cavanaugh’s oft-quoted dictum. But in my immediate reaction to his death, I realized that Mr. Cavanaugh was right. When I learned that he was gone, was I guessing what kind of grades he got as a student? Was I thinking about where he attended college? Was I thinking about the decorated academic achievements of his life? No. I thought about the way Mr. Cavanaugh made me feel, and the permanent value he created for my life throughout six years of daily encounters.
I will try to share some memories of Mr. Cavanaugh with you, but I hope you read it through the correct lens: I can only expose the top of the iceberg, and much of Mr. Cavanaugh’s greatness will remain uncovered in my reflection.
It is, after all, quite difficult to describe the sight of humble service that Mr. Cavanaugh provided for myself and others who took notice.
On the last Wednesday of every month, Mr. Cavanaugh would put on his Cardinals cap, get in his car, and tell me to follow him as we headed down to St. Augustine’s Soup Kitchen. As the youngest member of Mr. Cavanaugh’s entourage, I quickly learned that service is not a burden but an adventure when you choose to wrap yourself with an attitude that is upbeat, optimistic, and positive.
I saw firsthand the friendly banter between Mr. Cavanaugh and the other cooks during the preparation of food. I saw Mr. Cavanaugh break through chains of poverty and be the difference-maker for someone having a miserable day. The most dramatic example in my memory of soup kitchen visits was this: A man came in, angry and armed with a vocabulary consisting of four-letter words, and began listing several grievances. By chance, Mr. Cavanaugh found himself as the man’s target. I did not hear the specific dialogue of the conversation, but within three or four minutes, a transformation occurred. The angry man was smiling, laughing, and joking around with Mr. Cavanaugh. He even gave an extra-loud, extra-appreciative “Thank You!” upon receiving his food.
How did Mr. Cavanaugh do that?
When I asked Mr. Cavanaugh about it, he shrugged off that brief interaction, saying, “Usually, when people are angry, they are just hurt and want to be heard.” To Mr. Cavanaugh, it was a casual and normal experience and insight. To me, it was a flicker revealing the harnessed power of a shepherd’s ministry. By the end of the day, Mr. Cavanaugh probably thought nothing of it. Just another day in the life of Richard V. Cavanaugh. I, meanwhile, remain in awe and can still remember the moment verbatim seven years later.
I mean, my gosh, what I would give to possess a disarming personality like that. And boy, what I would give for a brain that nonchalantly produces wisdom like that.
Mr. Cavanaugh was one of six teachers (along with Mr. Miller, Dr. Ritchie, Mr. O’Connell, Fr. Michael, and Dr. Kilcullen) who gave me far more attention and time than I ever deserved. Priory would have needed to triple each of their salaries to approximate their value both inside and outside of the classroom. If you were never taught by Mr. Cavanaugh, I’ll try to explain the experience: He was the proud teacher who beamed upon seeing a student leave his comfort zone and dare to take a risk. He was the serious yet gentle instructor, reminding you that great literature can still move mountains if you approach with an open heart and put your technological devices down for a second. He possessed the spirit of an approving grandfather, winking at your mischief as long as it was all in good fun and no one got hurt.
He taught me that great writing is not mechanical, but rather, artistic. If you bleed on the page, you will form an emotional connection with somebody. Writing was the means, not the ends, to what Mr. Cavanaugh did best: build relationships. He would edit my short stories at 7:30 AM before class had begun, tell me to “fix it during lunch”, and then think nothing of helping me yet again after sports finished at 5 PM. In the sea of the Priory community, Mr. Cavanaugh spent thirty-eight years sailing with a lifejacket in hand, ready to throw a rope to anyone—and I mean anyone—who caught his eye.
During the summer after my graduation, I was blessed again by fate when Mr. Cavanaugh sat down with me in the Priory lobby to have our final conversation before I went off to college. He talked to me about the importance of an internal moral code, and how the glory that comes out of being an honest man, a hard worker, and a good friend will give life value, regardless of whether any others recognize it at the time. Mr. Cavanaugh told me that great men become unfocused when they start worrying about what others think; the proper attention belongs to narrowing the gap between who we are and what we would like to become. He uncapped the lid of my own potential by telling me that I had the power to make others breathe easier if I made selfless love a priority for the rest of my life. In other words, Mr. Cavanaugh was trusting me to do for others as he had done for me.
Mr. Cavanaugh once told me that professional writers remove sentences, paragraphs, and (better yet!) even pages from every project. So far, I have cut out three-and-a-half pages from this reflection. Weary reader, you can thank him for that. Mr. Cavanaugh once told me that, before making new friends, you should go out of your way to keep an old friend. Since his death, I have reached out to twelve of my former classmates with whom I have lost touch. And lastly, Mr. Cavanaugh once told me not to worry about what I did yesterday, but to focus on what I can do today, tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that. That is a heck of a final homework assignment, but luckily, my memories of Mr. Cavanaugh allow me to consult the teacher’s edition of the textbook anytime I encounter one of life’s hard problems.
My hallway conversations with Mr. Cavanaugh were important enough that I still remember all of them years later. He would always approach with a smile, put an arm on your shoulder, ask how you were doing, and then briefly pause in preparation for the real conversation that was about to get started. And while I do not know if these moments ever got him a plaque, a pay raise, a cite in the newspaper, or the collegial adulation that they deserved, I spend time in prayer satisfied that Mr. Cavanaugh is now being rewarded for all his moments of agape love.
Mr. Cavanaugh was one of the first teachers to reach out to my family after my father died. He quickly became a family friend and was my advisor for a year before Coach (Sr. O'Connell) took over. He pushed me, disciplined me, and spoke to me in a way I wasn’t used to. “Grades don’t matter” was his mantra. It was his way of saying that it’s ok to push the envelope; it’s ok to experiment. Mr. Cavanaugh is the reason English became my forte. I wanted to write for him and I wanted his opinion on everything I wrote. It’s because of him I decided to go the Missouri School of Journalism at Mizzou. I’m graduated now and he will always be one of my fondest memories at Priory. God bless his soul and Laus Tibi Domine!