In the summer of 1970, I was sitting at the kitchen table of an Irish bungalow situated on the back street of a small Irish town when my father’s voice, reciting “Tree” by Joyce Kilmer, came on over the radio. His translation of the poem into Irish had recently appeared in the local newspaper, and Radio Eire had subsequently invited him to their Sunday afternoon broadcast. I sat and listened with the Irish family with whom I was spending the weekend. We were all in the kitchen reading the Sunday papers, but the room suddenly stood still listening to what must have been a most unusual sound – Irish spoken with an American accent. Not sure at all what the response would be – was my father making a fool of himself here ? – I was greatly relieved when he ended and Carmel, 16 at the time, turned to me and said “Ah, sure, Susan, your father is a great man”.
In 1920, Arthur O’Dea was a freshman at Park High School on Park Avenue in Rutherford, New Jersey. He was an avid fan of his high school football team. The 1920 Football Schedule was the compliments of Wallach Brothers, a men’s haberdashery on Broadway in New York City. Written over Compliments of Wallach Bros. is Property of Art O’Dea. That would be my father’s writing, when he was just boy of fifteen. When you open the football schedule, which is a cardboard card measuring 5″ x 4″, there is a list of the dates and the opposing teams for that season. Dad wrote Skedyouell at the top of this list. He also wrote in the score for each game. Rutherford had a winning season that year, 10 and 0, according to the totals he wrote in at the bottom of the Skedyouell. However, there was a tie on November 20 between Chattle High School and Rutherford at Rutherford (7-7). He also rewrote Property of Arthur O’Dea on the very bottom of his Skedyouell.
On the opposite page is the list of players, starting with the team captain, and listing the varsity squad. My father had some fifteen-year-old fun with these names just as he did with the word schedule. The Manager is listed as D. Keep. Next to Keep’s name Dad has inked your mouth shut. A member of the varsity squad is listed as F. Lightfoot. Dad has inked in heavy hand. R. Thorne is followed by brier, C. Kiel by rudder, and E. Luke by warm. Some of the varsity players have an asterisk next to their names, and it is noted at the end of this list that this marks the Letter Men. Dad has crossed out Men and inked in children.
In 1924 Dad was a senior in high school and he ran track. The Official Program from the Sixth Annual Championship Track and Field Meet of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association says that this track meet was held in Palmer Stadium at Princeton University on Saturday, June 7, 1924 from 10:30 – 2:00. Dad ran as number 3 in the 100 Yard Dash Class A High Schools, and the 220 Yard Dash in the Class A High Schools. He received a medal for his performance in the 100 yard dash. My father started New York University in the fall of that year, and he was living at the Zeta Psi House in University Heights. His high school friend, “Bres” , was living in Brownson Hall at the University of Notre Dame, and wrote the following letter to his former high school buddy.
October 23, 1924.
John informs me that you think I owe you a letter. I’ll favor you with a little news.
Well, the football startled the East by beating the Army. They will meet a worthy opponent in Princeton, but will come out on top. How did you like the playing of our captain on Saturday? He has certainly landed a place in football history. NYU is having a a hard time according to the latest scores. They are not as you thought.
You seem to be taking every subject in college. John wants to know if you are taking sewing while Clate would also like to know if they show you how to push the carriage. 25 hours a week must be pretty hard. We are only taking eighteen hours. the quarter exams come in a couple of weeks. Latin and Biology will give us the most trouble.
I suppose you take your daily beating from the sophs. Well, this is a real school! We have our fun without some one giving it to you. Hogan says that if you bring any more of these sad stories to his ears, he will disgrace you in public by calling you a liar. John has developed into a hard nut, so hard that he claims he will beat a guy who calls him by his new name.
John feels that it in only right in dissolving the law firm of Weinberger and Falvinavo for the simple reason that his partner is lost in the eternal clutches of the women at St. Lawrence University in the wilds of New York State. So you see, his new name is both fitting and proper.
Now it is your turn to write; and don’t wait a couple of weeks and then say I have not written you.
I will close now as the stuff that they call food is waiting to be devoured.
Your friend, Bres.
Two years later, in the fall of 1926, Dad received the following letter from his Zeta Psi fraternity brother, John G. MacKnight.
Sunday. September 10, 1926
My dear Art,
I have your letter and I must confess that it leaves me puzzled. From the letterhead of the Paulist Novitiate and from your inquiry as to your standing in the fraternity, I was inclined to think that you were contemplating entering the priesthood. As this is a very serious step for anyone to take, I was wondering whether or not you had this in mind. I wish you would tell me if such is your decision and let me know what your plans are.
I was extremely sorry to hear that you were not coming to New York to finish up this year, but after all you are the one who must decide on his future.
Best wishes from all of the brothers at the Phi.
John G. MacKnight
During his first three months at the Paulist Novitiate in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, his father would drive the family to visit him on the weekends. The following letter suggests that sometime in November he wrote to his mother that the family should be preparing for Christmas in some way during the season of advent.
November 30, 1926
My dear Son,
When I awoke at 6:30 this morning I was so happy in the the thought that my child, my little boy, had already served at a mass for my dear mother. The mass here was at 7:30 and we were all present.
I am sure you would like to hear about my wonderful retreat. Mother Lynch was my mother and we became great friends. She is the dearest loveliest woman and was extremely kind to me. I think she assigned me the best rooms and I surely appreciated it. I told her that perhaps she thought I was old and decrepit and need a few luxuries in my old age. She also said I needed no introduction as she knew I was your mother the minute she laid eyes on me. Who shall take the compliment, you or I? I could never begin to tell you in a letter all that I think of dear Father O’Keefe. His conferences were a joy never to be forgotten. When I see you I will try to tell you about them.
In your letter you made the remark that you thought that I should prepare the family during the season of advent for the coming of our lord. Well, I had that very thought and am going to begin by including you. As a good means for this purpose I have asked the family to stay home from Oak Ridge until Christmas Day and all have consented although it will be a hard sacrifice for Helen and Anne. It will be a family mortification and I hope it will be of great benefit to all.
Dad is as busy as he can be u p on the third floor. As usual he had a few surprises for me when I returned from the retreat. He has an old tin waste basket that was in the cellar for ages painted a vivid green beside his desk. He also received the Duraut radiator cover for the Packard (imagine my feelings). He was so proud of his artcraft. I am going to mail this on my way to pay the taxes a job which every good citizen make believe they are proud to do. Grandma O’Dea will be so happy to hear form you and I am sure it will make her understand a little better. I will now close with love from all and may God bless you and keep you.
On February 8 of the following year, 1927, she writes:
Tuesday is the day of the week in this house for me to look for your letter. When Helen and Nan arrive at home the first question is “did Arthur write?’ and there is a scramble to see who will get it first. Your letter today was unusually interesting and I quite agree with you that every church in the land should have a Paulist book rack. But my dear boy don’t ask me to approach Father Smith on this subject for I am almost certain he would not do it. However, if I have the opportunity to suggest it,, I won’t let it pass. Father smith never refused me anything I asked of him, but I am always careful to study him well first.
And so you did see the tracks (of our car) in the ice out where we skidded. It was well Larry was aware of the situation and got the car out very easily. I started to walk down the hill but changed my mind for I thought I might better roll down in the car than on my head. Dad is working hard to get away tonight, I don’t know just where and I don’t think he does either. He wrote to Mr Wilkins about the matter and I hope all will be stilled and rid this controversy.
March 3, 1927
I bought the life of Father Doyle and have read some of it. My usually was you know and last night I started it in earnest and have read about half of the preface. Helen and Nan would devour it if they got hold of it, but I was wondering if I should allow them to read it Don’t you think they are too young?
March 31, 1927
My dear son,
A year ago today if you remember you started for Washington and I shall never forget how happy it made us all to see you start. Usually I worried a little more or less whenever you took a trip, but not on that occasion for I knew you were in a holy place. And when you came home, I read your eyes as usual and then I knew. I am sure you often wonder if we miss you and while I never say that we do, you may be sure that there are many lonely hours, especially the evenings. We are getting used to it now, and offer it all up and thank God for his goodness to us.
Dad is in Buffalo this week giving several talks on the revision of the regulations. I am enclosing a picture of Bishop O’Dea that I discovered in the NCNC paper and while I don’t know if he is a relation I think it is nice to know there is some one making the name so exalted in the church.
I was wondering if you didn’t need socks or a tie and if so , may I bring them to you on Easter Sunday? Also ask Father Skinner if he will allow us to pay your dentist bill and if we use that blank check that you have or is you have destroyed it I will send you another. Dad and I would be happy to send money for you necessities if permitted, so let me know.
April 26, 1927
My dear son,
Your letter arrived early this morning and so Helen and Nan read it before they left for school. Needless to say the contents delighted them, particularly the fact the you are going to try to preach. If they could only “listen in” We will all be praying for you and all the other novices that the Holy Ghost may inspire you to do very well.
Uncle Ben was unable to visit you last week as he had been very busy and half sick too. He had a very trying case at the hospital and after every means known was used, the young man died. He was only twenty-four and Ben was all broken up over it. He and Bub are going to Buck Hill Falls over the weekend for a rest and he needs it. he looks miserable.
The Easter collection here amounted to $2283 and the proceeds form the Passion play the week before was $1000/ I though you might like to know how well we are doing. The collection East Rutherford was around $1400,a and in Hasbrouck Heights $750.
May 5, 1927
My dear son,
We reached home Sunday at 7:45 as the traffic was heavy through Mountain View, and Dad had a sour experience. We were all very tired and went to bed early. It is quite warm here today and every one you see passing seems to act lazy and tired. Even the children are dragging their feet. Spring fever is catching.
The Ford was towed out of ht yard yesterday for which I am thankful and I never want see another piece of such art ion my premises. Mr. brown was here yesterday and he is thinking that he may buy a nother car if he can find a good second hand one, and if he only would their place would look respectable again.
There remains but one letter from his father dated March 9, 1927. The letterhead reads “Hotel Woodruff, Watertown, New York.”
Dear Son Arthur,
A few lines which I presume will surprise you coming from this place which you will remember so well as our stopping place for the night of August 26. The next day you will recall from your tiresome ordeal in the part you occupied as chauffeur over the long strange roads to Montreal. There are of course many places and instances the trip brings back to our memory which on the whole was wonderful for us.
I was home yesterday when your letter arrived. All were glad that you are keeping well and happy and thus far find no hardships with the Lenten requirements assigned to Romans. It is a welcome period for the Catholic butcher, but as I have had to confine myself to slight ration more or less for some time I do not find it hard to refrain from the forbidden eats.
I was at Oswego today arrived here this evening, will go to Sackett Harbor in A.M. and possibly spend balance of week at Watertown. We had some rain Sunday and remained home all day after Mass except for an auto ride of 40 minutes in the late afternoon. The radio still offers excellent entertainment at home any evening and on Sunday afternoon.
All are well and filling their usual routine duties, the girls at school, music, etc, your mother with the housework, meals. NY. shopping and occasional town visit. All the other rattled families are well and apparently prosperous of late indicated by new vehicles, house improvement, etc.
My business trips of the usual touring order, hard to tell when or where I am going next. Fortunately I have not had a call from headquarters to go anywhere, so my itinerary has been left to my own promiscuous selections. It is well that I have district confines or I might have strayed and been lost in Yellowstone Park or other district quarters worthy of my inspection.
We have visited the novitiate so regularly we will all miss the trip during the lenten period. I believe your mother and the girls have consoled themselves to is as a Lenten sacrifice. Of course it deprives me of considerable practice necessary to acquire the title of efficient auto pilot – but so long as the mechanism of the chariot behaves itself, I am well satisfied not to exert it.
Trusting that you will remain in good health and be happy and successful with your work, I am as ever,
Your loving father,
In the summer of 1928, my father went to Haiti with Father Lynahan, another Paulist and friend of the O’Dea family. However, sometime in the next year after his return, my father left the Paulist Novitiate with three of his Novitiate friends. Together they pooled their money and bought a car and drove to California and back to celebrate their decision. In January of 1931 he received a letter from a Novitiate buddy who was now the assistant sacristan at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park California.
I was sure glad to receive your letter Art and I am sure you know that this delay in replying does not indicate anything to the contrary. Although you would like to do a lot of moaning about it if you could get hold of me. You still kill the women, you big virile brute, and one cannot blame the poor damsels for finding a weakness in you as I have often told you before. Your real future lies in Hollywood but I know you. You hate to leave the home talent to despair to satisfy merely popular demand. I was just wondering whether you are laughing or whether it is down on the table. Sure wish I was there to see you, but please let me know as I know you will in might strong language. All kidding aside I appreciate your telling me about that little affair and I wish I had seen the girl. But now I know there is another, s o write and tell me about her. Remember when we used to talk those things and many others over…There is much more I would like to say but I must bring this letter to a close. By the way, if you still have the negatives of some of those pictures we took on the trip, I would like to have them, especially the one with the indian, and those around the lake, and that one of myself in your back yard. I have an album now, so please enclose a snapshot of yourself.
In early February of 1931 my father received a letter from one of his novitiate buddies who was now in Rome.
Well, as I’ve already agreed, our class is certainly well scattered with three of them here; Paul Ward and Bob Murphy ordained and doing priestly work; you (to be?)a lawyer; Gavigan a professor; Cyril Barker a happy, married man and a father; Brenne far away in California still studying and not far from the priesthood; Slattery off somewhere doing business; Dever on the verge of getting married, happily I hope; Burke is still at St. Mary’s in Baltimore, and not far from ordination. Gosh who would have believed that the class of 1926 would have dispersed so far and wide! I often wonder back to those days and like to think about them. I can still picture you in your cassock and sash and birretta – you of the rosy red cheeks. Well, God is good and if we only be faithful we shall all meet again.
In June of 1932 he completed law school at New York University. In the same month, he received the following letter from Father Skinner;
Accept my congratulations on your graduation. You are finishing at a time when the country needs men of sound principles and courage. I trust you will do your share towards the upholding of Christian standards in the troubled world.
May God bless you
Yours sincerely in Christ,
My father always had a large black crucifix hung over his bed, and I remember being told that it had come from the seminary days. I also remember seeing a small stamp sized picture of Christ kneeling in prayer in a garden. It was a brown sketch on a white background. It was held around his neck not by a chain but by two white narrow ribbons, almost like flat cords: from the left corner of the stamp sized picture a cord went to his back where another stamp sized picture was held. Another cord ran from the right corner on the from to the right corner on the back. This was also from his seminary days…and it intrigued me. The cord was yellowed with age, and I sensed my mother did not have much time for it, or perhaps she would have washed it for him. As a child, I thought he must have been torn between these two worlds if he still hung onto stuff like that. My mother had such a strong distaste for the dogmatic side of Catholicism that I was suspicious, at times, that this is what my parents had fought about when they were dating during my mother’s junior year of college. Because of this disagreement, my mother had packed her bags, put on her beaver coat, and returned to her parent’s potato farm in Limestone. What my father then did is perhaps best explained in the following letter from Gene Meade, a former novitiate buddy who was now at the Apostolic Mission House in Brookland Station in Washington. D.C.
November 27, 1932
I received your card from “nowhere” in Maine. When I first looked at the card I thought you were in Ireland. I read Limerick instead of Limestone. HaHa. Anyhow I hope you got your fill of “pomme de terres” up in Maine. Why did you go up there? Deer hunting, I suppose. Well, Arthur, I am anxious to know how the bar exam came out. I hope and pray OK. I heard part of the Army Notre Dame game yesterday. Did you see it? What do you think of the election? Why not come down here for the Inauguration? Joe Tray is in Rome, so only Kenny, Barker, and I are left of the old guard. Remember me to all. Let me hear from you soon. I ask your good prayer.
Yours, Gene Meade
Arthur O’Dea and Bessie McLaughlin – the pomme de terre- were married in Limestone, Maine on June 14, 1933.