Martin McMurtrey, S.M.,known to his students affectionately as Bro. Mac, taught at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio. He was a brilliant teacher, especially for the class of ’63. I was in that class. Bro. McMurtrey was a major influence on me.
His passing at age 87 in the fall of 2007 has reminded me--and other members of the class--just how important he was for us.
Our class had him as a primary teacher for three years--something unusual in high school. From the start of our sophomore year in 1960 through our graduation in 1963, he was a driving force in our lives.
And we in his.
In 1960, he was 39 years old. During his years of teaching he had developed a theory of pedagogy and a model for how to teach high school English. He called his plan: A Course in Expository Writing. The approach was simple: writing was the central task to be learned in English class; all the other elements--like grammar, history of literature, required reading, a Shakespeare play a year, a Dickens novel, American poetry, etc.--were studied as content for writing. And that writing was a collective experience: we wrote our essays and then showed them to each other in small groups and critiqued and edited each other's work. We learned not only to be writers, but to be editors. And, even more important I've learned over a lifetime now of "being a writer," to accept criticism and editorial advice gladly and non-defensively.
We came under McMurtrey's influence at a time when he and his model for teaching were being put to the test by Marianist Provincial authorities (who were deciding whether to adopt his model for their other Catholic schools). It really mattered in the course of his life that he succeeded with us. He was also beginning to teach the method to other teachers. One summer a subset of our class acted as "specimens" for demonstrations in his class at St. Mary's University for teachers of English.
During our sophomore year he'd challenged a group of about twelve of us to win National Merit Scholarships our senior year. That was going to be one of the markers for the success of his method. (I'm proud to report that along with classmates John Loughlin and Ted Weiss, I was one of the National Merit Scholars from Central in 1963.)
So our personal success got tied up with Bro. Mac's success.
It was an intense period for him. He was brilliant and crazed and manic. Sometimes he was depressed and morose--in those days his bad periods were explained as "pneumonia." We used to go visit him in the hospital. (A few years later he was included in an early study of lithium as a treatment for those kinds of mood swings and was successfully "cured.") I'm glad we had him during his brilliant period, though, looking back, I realize those must have been difficult times for him--being put to the test like that.
One of the things McMurtrey taught us was to understand and value "allusions" in literature, i.e., implied or indirect references and hints, especially to collective stories and myths. We learned to see, for instance, that when Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 73:
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
"The sweet birds" was a reference--an allusion--to the monks who sang Office of Choir before the persecution of Catholicism in England under Henry VIII. You don't have to understand the allusion to get the meaning of the image, but if you do, the image is richer and more profound.
He used that particular verse, as well, to impress upon us the importance of parallel structure in sentence composition AND the power of intentionally violating it. By the rules, the first line should be yellow leaves, a few, or none--since that's the logical order in which leaves fall from trees. By breaking the expected sequence, the "or few" takes on more power and a better, more poignant representation of aging.
Thus from Bro. Mac we learned to look for hidden meanings and secret hints. (Readers of my books will recognize this as a major theme in my writing and in my worldview.)
I've come to see that the vision of religious meaning and the "power of myth" I learned from Joseph Campbell a few later was well prepared for by Bro. McMurtrey's teaching us the value, meaning and power of "allusion."
Out of the class of 1963, the most successful writer has been Whitley Strieber. Whitley used to play pranks on Bro. Mac (like "The Anthropology" which was a spoof of the collection of our best essays and poems which Mac produced eash year called "The Anthology"; The Anthropology was brilliant, satirical, and funny, and I suspect he was proud of the three or four students who produced it, including Whitley, but had to be officially offended and disapproving). The pranks certainly added to Mac's psychological burden in those days, but Whitley was also one of his favorite and best students. Whitley now has some 43 books out. His notion of climate change was the basis for the movie The Day After Tomorrow which has certainly played into America's acceptance of global climate change as a threat. His book Warday back in the early ’70s helped change American defense policy away from the notion that nuclear war could somehow be survivable. Whitley has truly helped save the world.
I am another writer from that class and have produced some 10 books and been an activist in the development of gay genre literature (as a writer, bookseller, editor, assistant publisher) and of the gay spirituality movement. I think I've changed the world a little myself. (I am proud to have learned from the Brother who took care of Mac during his last few years, when he was something of an invalid, that after his death, two of my books —the original versions of The Myth of the Great Secret and of Secret Matter— were found under his bed. How gratifying to know that he held my publishing career somehow dear!)
Yet another from our class to publish was John O'Neill (who wrote about his experiences during the Vietnam era in an attack on the John Kerry for President Campaign in 2004). John changed the world too (though, I fear, not for the better: George W. Bush reclaimed the White House for a second disastrous term.)
I wonder how many other of Mac's students have published books.
If you, Dear Reader, found this page, you might be one of them. Please let me know. I'd like to start up a list here of Mac's successful writers. (Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Of course, Bro Mac himself was a successful writer. His titles include: Loose to the Wilds, a collection of short stories; Marianist Martyr: Blessed Jakob Gapp, S.M.; Mariachi Bishop: The Life Story of Patrick Flores; A History: Central Catholic High School. He edited a Catholic high school edition of Gertrud von le Fort's The Song at the Scaffold.
In 1998, Patrick Cunningham, CCHS Principal for years, edited The Collected Works of Martin McMurtrey, titled Out of River's Mist.
Another member of the class, Dennis Gittinger who, after serving in Vietnam, has been a math teacher in San Antonio most of his life and guide to so many young minds, wrote a lovely tribute to Brother McMurtrey in a letter dated 1995 while Bro Mac was still teaching at Central Catholic. Dennis beautifully articulates his major influence on us. With Dennis's permission I'm posting his letter to Brother McMurtrey here.
October 3, 1995
Brother Martin McMurtrey, S.M.
Central Catholic Marianist High School
1403 North Saint Mary's Street
San Antonio, Texas 78215
Dear Brother Mac,
This is the third time I've started this letter. Unworthy even of being recycled, the first two attempts have been trashed. Having tried unsuccessfully to capture the precise phrases, I finally realized that this essay will never be good enough, because words are never perfectly commensurate with the feelings they're trying to convey.
How deeply have you influenced me? I could say that I'm forever quoting you when my colleagues ask me to proof their work. Or that whenever a few of us from '63 are together, there you are in our midst. We're gone, but you're not forgotten.
Only years after graduating did I realize what you did for us. Of course you taught us how to write, but you also taught us how to think, both critically and creatively. You even took time for grammar, but you did so in the context of our own work. We learned not only how to make bad writing good, but also how to make good writing better. Although I still don't know whether your approach was intuitive or developed through training and experience, I am now aware that what you were doing more than thirty years ago is today considered the ideal paradigm. And I imagine that you're still ahead of your time.
As you know, I dearly love mathematics; yet what I learned from you in those three years of high school English has been more useful, more valuable, and more enduring than anything else in my academic career.
How can I describe someone who lives a life of service and selfless dedication? One word might be "saint," but I have something much more mortal in mind: it's a word usually reserved for the famous, for the courageous, for doers of deeds and slayers of dragons. But what you have slain is darkness. What you are, my teacher, my brother, my friend, is a genuine hero.
Thank you for giving us "the knowledge to make a living and the wisdom to make a life."
Stopping by Thoughts on a Springtime Eve
(Dedicated to M.McM., with apologies to Robert Frost.)
A hero's just a man, you know,
Who teaches people how to grow.
He has a dream, a hope, a fear
That you won't learn before you go.
Don't be surprised to see him here,
With all the little people near.
He gives to them what's theirs to take.
He arms them for another year.
He likes to give their minds a shake
And point out every small mistake.
They speak to him when they're asleep
And dream with him when they're awake.
By now they're men who've learned to weep.
They understand the faith they keep.
They'll pass it on before they sleep.
They'll pass it on before they sleep.
Here's the official obituary from Central Catholic:
BRO. MARTIN MCMURTREY, S.M. DIED ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 2007,
IN HIS 87TH YEAR OF LIFE
AND 69TH OF HIS RELIGIOUS PROFESSION
Bro. Martin Aloysius McMurtrey, S.M. died Friday, November 9, 2007, in his 87th year of life and 69th of his religious profession.
He was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, on April 16, 1921, to Martin and Alice Coerver McMurtrey, one of four children.
He attended St. Philip's School taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame who influenced him to be a teacher. He next attended Central Catholic High School in East St. Louis, where he was inspired to join the Society of Mary. He entered the Postulate at Maryhurst on July 21, 1937 (after his junior year of high school).
After a novitiate and first vows in 1939, he spent the first year of the Scholasticate at Maryhurst. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Mathematics from the University of Dayton in 1942, and a Master's of Education from St. Louis University in 1949.
His first teaching assignment was at St. Michael's High School in Chicago for two years.
He made perpetual vows on August 15, 1943, at Galesville, Wisconsin.
From 1945-49, he taught at Cathedral High School in Belleville, Illinois.
In 1951, he was assigned to Central Catholic High School in San Antonio, Texas, where for 49 years he taught English, Engineering Drafting, and coached football. From 1961 to 1994, he taught Creative Writing complete with a Student Anthology. He was proud that several best-selling authors emerged from that class. He also founded the Guardian Angels at Central Catholic, an organization that channeled student collections of food, toys and clothing to underprivileged persons throughout the city.
From 1970 to 1991, he taught CCD classes at St. Agnes Parish.
He retired from Central Catholic High School in San Antonio in 2000, but his legacy continues...not only in the 6,000 students he influenced during those 49 years, but also in the students who have benefited from the scholarship fund created in Bro. McMurtrey's name in 1975.
In 2000, over 250 former students gathered to honor Bro. McMurtrey. During the program, called "The Last English Class," he was presented several honors including an official certificate of appreciation from the City of San Antonio, the Hidalgo de San Antonio de Bejar award from the Commissioners Court of Bexar County, and an official resolution from the State of Texas.
Throughout his retirement, building his scholarship became his Number One priority. he would often be seen picking up pecans and recycling aluminum cans to be sold, with the proceeds designated for his scholarship fund.
Since 1975, the McMurtrey Scholarship Fund has granted more than $1 million in scholarships and served over 3,000 needy students wanting to attend a Catholic school.
Bro. McMurtrey was the author of 12 books (either solely or together with Bro. Herbert Janson, S.M.) including The Mariachi Bishop, a biography of retired Archbishop Patrick F. Flores, and a novel based upon his Illinois youth call Loose to the Wilds.
The Rosary will be prayed for Bro. Martin at 7:00 PM on Monday, November 12, with the funeral Mass on Tuesday, November 13, at 4:00 PM, both at Holy Rosary Church, 159 Camino Santa Maria (adjacent to St. Mary's University). Interment in the Marianist cemetery at St. Mary's University follows the funeral Mass.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be directed to the Bro. Martin McMurtrey Scholarship Fund at Central Catholic High School, C/O the Relations & Development Office, 1403 N. St. Mary's Street, San Antonio, Texas 78215.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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