Distinguished Alumnus and Honoree, Stars Over TMI
The Best Is Now
Every young man who has crossed the threshold to take up residence at 800 College Boulevard surely remembers his first impressions.My own memories of those awesome first moments remain vivid after more than forty years. Straight ahead as one enters the front door, turning to the right, opposite the mailboxes, hangs a somewhat severe portrait of our founder, Bishop James Steptoe Johnston. Near Bishop Johnston hang pictures of our most celebrated alumnus, General Douglas MacArthur.In rakish contrast to Bishop Johnston’s formality, we see a young MacArthur, quarterback of the 1896 football team, stretched out,sprawled, in the center of a team photograph. All others sit or stand.Number 85, the team leader, grandly reclines. What we now know of the General’s manner and of his life makes this early image truly prophetic.“Genio y figura, hasta la sepultura,” the proverb reminds us.Our temperament and the expression on our face, unchanged to the end.That same olympian personality that would half a century later so endear itself to President Truman confidently asserts itself in this extraordinary scene.
Next to the teenage MacArthur hang several pictures taken fifty-five years later when in 1951 the General returned to visit the school.Words which became instantly famous are printed under the photograph: “This is where I started, and I thank a merciful God that I am able to come back to the school again.” I remember contemplating those pictures, thinking how serene and enviable the young MacArthur seems, wondering how anyone could possibly utter those latter-day words.“Old people can be so tiresome,” I thought. And here I stand, forty-two years later wishing to begin with General MacArthur’s words.
It is customary on evenings like this one to recount some of the awkward, tastefully scandalous memories of one’s salad days.Because many of you listening will remember these moments, I will mention a few.When I first set foot on the campus, in May of 1963, I was directed to the library to take the Secondary Schools Admissions Test. Opening the door, I heard the roar of the air-conditioners that created the only cool space on campus.Behind the desk sat Mrs. Willett, who looked up calmly and asked: “What is your name?”“Ray,” I stammered. “No, no, no. I asked your NAME.”“Ray Keck,” I repeated.“Ah, yes. Keck. Sit down, Mr. Keck, and please do not talk.”
In the first weeks of school, I was seated at Coach Watson’s table. The dining room in those days was in the basement, and in September at noon, pipes running across the ceiling near the heads of the tallest boys, the room was at least 105º.The Headmaster would ring the bell to quiet everybody down for prayer, and the twenty-five or so fans hanging from the ceiling or propped up in windows or standing in the corners had to be snapped off. “Bless, O Lord, this food to our use and us to Thy service. Make us ever mindful of the needs and the wants of others. Amen.”Loud scraping of chairs as everyone sat down and all the fans came back on.At one lunch, we were served the fixings for cold sandwiches. The waiter put the platter down. Coach Watson looked down at the limp cheese and lunchmeat.“Eat this up fast, boys, before it gets hot!”
Mr. Hightower’s junior English was the highpoint of my day. But I spent the first several weeks worried about another cadet in the class.After every new thought, Mr. Hightower would look up and ask: “Did you get that, Mr. Stringfellow?”This guy Stringfellow must really be dense, I thought.Or Mr. Hightower must think him dense. Not at all. Mac Stringfellow was his favorite.
Bill Alston, from Laredo, early on let me know about the School’s healthcare facility. “Don’t show up at the infirmary unless you are dying,” he warned.“Why?” I asked.“Because even if you come in with a bleeding gash in your forehead, even if you are going for a flu shot, Miss Frey will say to you: ‘Step over there behind the screen and drop you pants!’I avoided the infirmary altogether for those two years.
Returns always begin with what St. Ignatius Loyola called “composition of place.”What does this place, remembered, now look like, feel like?When MacArthur returned to the TMI of 1951, he would have enjoyed a certain comfort denied us today. Although more than fifty years had passed since his graduation, Douglas MacArthur walked the same ground in 1951 that he remembered in 1896. Alamo Heights was, to be sure, quite different, but TMI stood on the hill where MacArthur had first known it. Today we are not on that ground. The School is in a new place, and is in many ways a new school. Agèd alumni like me are supposed to mourn change, to wish to see things exactly as they were, to reward richly a school or college able to preserve the buildings, the walkways, even the trees they remembered as students. There is, to be sure, a very human comfort to be derived from seeing things as we remember them, still in their accustomed spaces, brimful of memory.
But in 1963, the campus was only part of what made TMI.San Antonio was, then as now,a city of dizzying variety, alluring history, great beauty. Olmos Basin in 1963 formed a wild expanse of natural vegetation and dramatic landscape right in the center of the city; the expressway which now cuts through the park, inadequate for the traffic it was to carry even as it was being completed, had not yet been built.I remember seeing pictures in the Express of ladies defiantly gathered, flowers clutched in their hands, standing down the bulldozers. Miraflores, which I remember from early childhood on the corner of Broadway and Hildebrand, had by 1963 given way to the USAA headquarters, but Dr. Urrutia’s exotic home, with its Winged Victory and lions guarding the front gate, still stood at the edge of the park on Broadway just south of the Witte Museum.Riverwalk was just that, a place for a stroll along a narrow stretch of shallow, green water between St Mary’s Church, under Navarro Street, to Casa Río. Joske’s was still the largest store in the greatest state, with a terrific book department and adjacent coin and stamp counters.TMI uniforms all came from Frank Brothers across the street. Frost Brothers, stretching between Houston and Travis Streets, was the most beautiful store imaginable.The North Star Mall seemed new age.While as a young child I was taken to La Fonda on Main Avenue, in 1963 I quickly learned that Mi Tierra, on West Houston Street, served the real thing. Just a few blocks east but a culture away from Mi Tierra, in the lobby of the St Anthony Hotel, a piano quintet presented short concerts on Saturdays around noontime.Hemisfair had not been built, nor the King William district rediscovered. The Airport Bus, which took us from the School to town and back, was always crowded on Broadway with Sisters of the Incarnate Word in their immaculately starched habits.
San Antonio and American society, at least to my young eyes, seemed so comfortingly stable.Social mores, etiquette, expectations, were still in large measure as they had been when General MacArthur was a student here.I could hardly have known, in September, 1963, that the earth was about to move, that a new society was about to begin to form. One afternoon in late November we marched up College Boulevard and lined the west side of Broadway to salute the President and Mrs. Kennedy as they swept through town. The shattering events which followed less than twenty-four hours later did, to be sure, alter our lives. But even that horrible tragedy, for many the most memorable event of the decade, did not suggest a more profound change that what was to come.
I can best illustrate what I mean by recalling what was then a familiar and, sadly, an unremarkable presence in downtown San Antonio. Parking downtown in those days was largely in what we called the River Garage, located where Mansión del Río now stands. When one walked out the north side of the River Garage, one looked across the narrow street to the back of the Majestic Theatre and a small, well-lighted marquee with a large sign: “Majestic Colored Balcony.” In looking back, what most astounds me is how natural and appropriate it all seemed.The sign and the reality it enforced provoked neither in me nor in anyone I knew discomfort or questioning.It was part of the rational order of things, an order which has, blessedly, passed into oblivion.
While it may be customary for creaky old alumni like me to recall the “good ole days,” I am here to proclaim to you that the truly good days are ours, now. Fortunately for this nation, the Class of 1965 quickly found itself growing toward a world very different from the one we were born growing into. As dramatically transformed as our changed views of race, ethnicity, and society, South Texas began in the late sixties to open higher education to its people. Today a young man or woman growing up in San Antonio may choose to attend one of three Catholic universities, all much evolved in the last four decades.UTSA and the recently opened Texas A&M- San Antonio will keep alive the commitment of the State of Texas to this community.
If the desire to leave home proves strong, a young person today might choose among the five border universities of South Texas, of which Laredo is the newest and, I shamelessly add, the most beautiful.Texas A&M International University offers 80 graduate and undergraduate programs in a dynamic, international environment. On a 300-acre campus only 10 years old, with exquisite buildings and state-of-the art technology, your Laredo university proudly takes its place on the new map of education in Texas.In the fall of 2004, our faculty-to-student ratio was 16 to 1, providing every student close and easy access to his or her teachers. Like TMI, we are blessed by our location.Laredo remains the largest inland port in the nation, with more square feet in warehouses than San Antonio and Austin combined; the volume of trade that passes through Laredo is exceeded only by New York, Los Angeles, and Windsor-Detroit.This year, the total value of commerce through Laredo will exceed $100,000,000,000 (one hundred billion dollars!).It is appropriate that we should focus on trade, and our PhD in International Business Administration offers solid academic research at the site of heaviest international activity.Like our sister universities, Texas A&M International embodies exciting, new thinking in higher education. Universities today reach out to students; infamous courses like Freshman English at UT-Austin, snares designed to catch and eliminate the poorly prepared or the unaware, have disappeared from higher education.
I must end with what has proved for me TMI’s most enduring gift: an intimate and grateful relationship with the Episcopal Church.The cadences of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer brought to my ears the sounds of beautiful language tuned to the yearnings of the soul. The order and majesty of the service I still find greatly appealing, and Sunday evening vespers in St. Luke’s were always inspiring.“Cast your bread upon the waters,” I remember one speaker telling us, “and it will come back a club sandwich.”Another comment I have remembered and repeated often: “Christ said ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Count them.’ “ Bishop Everett Holland Jones often came to lead our chapel services; memories of Bishop Jones, the man and the priest, remain among the most inspirational of my life. San Antonio’s inimitable Don Baugh, Canon in this Diocese and Interim Rector in Laredo several years ago, once commented that he had never seen an ugly Episcopal church. Quite right, and I would add: I have almost never heard ugly Episcopal music.
More important than any memory, TMI today surges forward, strong and secure. This magnificent new campus places at the School’s disposal facilities to support the very best preparatory education at the oldest Epìscopal school west of the Mississippi. And so the most appropriate note for us all must be one of thanksgiving. A poem by New Zealander Shirley Erena Murray best expresses the remembered, the lived, and the anticipation in all thanksgivings.
Give thanks for life, the measure of our days,
Mortal, we pass through beauty that decays,
Yet sing to God our hope, our love, our praise,
Give thanks for those who made their life a light
Caught from the Christ-flame, bursting through the night,
Who touched the earth, who burned for what is right,
And for our own, our living and our dead,
Thanks for the love by which our life is fed,
Love not changed by time or death or dread,
Give thanks for hope, that like the wheat, the grain
Lying in darkness does its life retain,
In resurrection to grow green again.
Thanks be to God.
Ray M. Keck, III
Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University
5201 University Boulevard
Laredo, Texas 78041