Remembering Father Day
LOS ANGELES ― How should the worth of a life be weighed? For when a phenomenon like Father John P. Daly, S.J., dies, that’s a question you start asking yourself. What is a life worth?
In his own over-intellectualized Harvard way, T.S. Eliot used to tantalize around that question with this unforgettable line from the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” poem: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
But the life of Daly, a longtime faculty member of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) here, was immeasurably too unique and real for such sterile ― not to mention sardonic ― gradations. On a life canvas that would have filled up the rooms of a mansion, this Jesuit visionary, a child of the U.S. Midwest, took Catholic America into Asia basically as an educational pioneer.
It is among the good people of South Korea that Daly was so well known. He put Sogang University on the global education map not only as a vital university of Asia but also as a premium destination-fellowship experience for the best and brightest students in America.
With Daly as its leader for the critical dozen years of 1963-‘75, a span when the badly battered pro-U.S. South Korea was doggedly climbing out of the black hole of the Korean War, Sogang became a pearl in the strong string of Jesuit universities worldwide.
Not unlike Loyola Marymount here, the South Korean university, snug in its own college neighborhood in Seoul’s Sinchon district, became distinctive for its small-class sizes, personal attention from faculty and career-enhancing emphasis on practical and career skills.
I did not meet Father Daly at Sogang on my reporting trips to South Korea; we met a few years ago in Los Angeles when he (clearly desperate for a last-minute keynote speaker at a conference on Korean issues) called to ask me, in polite if evident desperation, to be that speaker. I was at UCLA at the time. That I am now on the LMU faculty can be attributed in part to this Jesuit magnetic hold over the course of the rest of my life.
After that, we arranged to meet more or less monthly at what I came to dub “Chez Jesuit.” This is the private dining cafe within the Jesuit Center on the far northern edge of the LMU campus. It is a modest and quiet place, save perhaps for the whirring noises emanating from the brains of the Jesuit priests plotting the next historic pivot in the march of God’s good work.
I guess I am a bit in awe of Jesuits. Well, I should be! I once studied, however briefly and ingloriously, to be a priest of the Franciscan Order. John used to kid me about that, asking why I hadn’t thrown in with the Jesuits. I answered, “Too hard, too much studying!” He laughed and rejoined, “No, that’s the Dominicans, not us!”
I doubt that, but I’ve never doubted that every minute Daly spent with me at Chez Jesuit was a special moment in my life. An hour analyzing the last Papal Encyclical or breaking down and then reconstructing the essential Jesuitical component of a proper liberal arts education would fly by like mere minutes ― and with the best mentor you could have.
If it had not been for his influence on my thinking and where I wanted to take my life, I doubt not only that I would be teaching at LMU; I also doubt that the New Asia Media website (lmu.edu/asiamedia) would exist today.
Created at UCLA, where it then fell victim to state budget cuts, the site was reborn last November. Daly urged me to offer it to students to see if they would respond to it. Indeed they have. He sure knew his students. As he laughed, “Resurrections can be a good thing!”
It’s very interesting: Until Daley became my friend, my major mentors had been famous print editors who were corrosively not of the next world. Men like Sir David English from London and Clay Felker and Jim Bellows in America. To say these journalism gents were of secular cloth would be to describe a tsunami as ― er ― slightly damp.
Daly, though practical, was cut from a different cloth. He was a man of God. In part that was his greatness. He will be greatly missed ― and not just by me. But definitely by me.
Occasional Korea Times contributor Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Los Angeles-based Loyola Marymount University. “Conversations with Ban Ki-moon,” the fourth book in the bestselling series, “Giants of Asia” will be published in September by Marshall Cavendish Asia and by Random House Korea. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.