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Occasional ramblings by an anesthesiologist/mother (and sometimes her husband).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Remembering Fr. Higgins

When I first attended an open house at Canisius High School, my father walked along grumbling. He was not amused at the prospect of having a family member enter a Catholic institution for the first time since 1536. In the end, he was grudgingly convinced. We later came to realize the Jesuits were truly a breed unto themselves. Perhaps the one with the most striking personality was a math teacher by the name of Fr. Higgins.

In 1994, During my sophomore year, I had him as my teacher for Math 3 Honors. His style was no-nonsense to say the least. The first half of the year was spent mastering the things one needed from that course - trigonometry, etc. After that, we spent our time mostly practicing for the SAT II. He knew that most of what was in a Pre-Calculus course was useless filler. He knew that after such a course, we were ready to take calculus for real. Canisius at the time had a track in which one could take AP Calculus during one's Junior year and spend one's senior year taking Calculus at Canisius College. Fr. Higgins lobbied the school to allow students to go directly from Math 3H to the College.

I was one of three people to go to the College during my Junior as well as Senior year. There wasn't anything I needed for my college classes that I didn't have coming out of his course. It was then that I started to realize what a truly special teacher this man was.

My sophomore year was his last year as a math teacher at Canisius High School. The next year, as I started at Canisius College, so did he. He became not only the Assistant to the President at the College, but also the rector of the Jesuit community in Buffalo.

Throughout this time, he kept tabs on us. During my junior and senior years, he would often take time to meet with several of my friends & I, or simply with me, to discuss how we were doing. Individual meetings would be held in his cubicle outside the president's office. The larger meetings would be held in the board room, where we would either have pizza, or sometimes demolish whatever food the board had left behind.

During this time he was a great help as I considered colleges. But the greatest service he provided to my family was during the Holiday season of 1996.

Around September of my senior year of high school, my father started to feel ill, and missed a few days of work intermittently. The day after Thanksgiving he was admitted to the hospital. He continued to deteriorate and nobody knew what was wrong with him.

The Jesuits in general, and Fr. Higgins especially, were very good to us during this time. There was a constant stream of Jesuits visiting my father in the hospital. When my mother asked the high school if she could delay the payment of my tuition check, she was told "forget about it."

The kicker, however, happened on the Friday just before Christmas. The doctors had determined that the problem was in my father's colon, and that it should be removed. Prognosis for surgery was uncertain. At that time, I had applied to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) under their early decision program. Fr. Higgins found out through his many channels that I had been accepted, and was able to tell my father before he went into surgery. I have never seen my father cry. I am told, however, that he did so that day.

The surgery was successful. My father's colon was removed. It was further determined, upon examination, that the ulcerative colitis which had caused his illness was rather fortuitous. Had it not been discovered then, in six months the cancer would have been - but too late to do anything.

Time passed. The only part of my freshman year at WPI that wasn't a complete, unmitigated disaster was my grades. I therefore took those back with me, and decided to apply to Canisius College. I, of course, spoke with Fr. Higgins about this. He arranged for the application fee to be waived. What I remember most, however, was one line: "It's a good thing you're coming here now; a few years ago, this place was a dump."

Throughout my college career, he was always there for advice. Soon, however, he had even more responsibilities. the president of Canisius High School was taken ill, and he stepped as temporary relief. When the president's illness was determined to be not so temporary, he officially became the president. During his tenure, he presided over the construction of a new sports complex. The high school is currently expanding to add a new gymnasium as well as a new academic wing. When I entered Canisius, the population was less than 400. At this time, it is more than twice that.

After completing his tenure as President, he went on sabbatical at LeMoyne. Few knew how much he had really been pushing himself. At the age of 54, a heart attack claimed his life.

On the one hand, one can take comfort in the fact that he had accomplished such a great deal in his far too short life. On the other hand, I can only imagine what more he could have done with even more time on Earth. His funeral mass was held at St. Michael's, the Jesuit church in downtown Buffalo. When one sees approximately 7000 square feet of standing-room-only, one begins to get an idea of how many lives he touched.

Mostly, however, I think back to my wedding. ES1 & I asked him to perform the ceremony. At the rehearsal dinner, he walked around with a stack of note cards speaking to people. When it came time for the homily, he brought out a stack of papers and a stopwatch. His homily clocked in at 12 minutes. It was the first and only time I had ever heard a fire and brimstone wedding homily. The apparent moral of the story was that the fate of the universe rested upon our marriage.

At his funeral, it was said that he was famous for 30 minute masses. He was a no-nonsense man who would neither waste time, nor forget what was important. I don't think I ever truly realized how blessed I was to know him. He was there to watch over me during a very important time in my life. He always pushed me to make sure I did not waste my potential. That he considered me important enough to spend so much time on means I need to make sure that I continue to push myself the way he did.

Fr. Higgins will live on in all those whose lives he touched. I deeply regret that my daughter will never in this world meet him. She can, however, at least see him in action. Here I post, as a tribute, his homily at my wedding. To you I say that this was only a taste of what a truly great man he was. He will be missed.

Click to Play: (warning: 89 MB file)


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