Dare to Be Different

“Who is whistling?” Spoken with a Transylvanian accent and the imperious inflection of a person with the habit of command. I’m guessing Fall 1964. On the steps of gym in some Godforsaken place called Devon PA. Little did my 13-year old self know this would be a life-changing day for me. Damn good thing. I might have gotten the Hell out of there while I could. You know, like, for want of a nail? That kind of thing.

It was different, alright. I was a kind of more or less normal adolescent, give or take a trumpet. And my taste in music was stuck in the 1930s, but otherwise, whatever passed for normal. Definitely not cool, but sane, if Catholic. Man, Devon Preparatory School put an end To All That. In the end, I guess, it’s all worked out. But I wonder what would have happened had I gone to the garden variety public high school (Lower Merion) where an early heartthrob had proceeded me. I might have played. Maybe I would have been marginally less neurotic. I could have been a contender. You know the story. Or maybe I would have ended up in Viet Nam. Who knows? And gotten killed or truly screwed up. At least two guys from Lower Merion died in Vietnam. I think Devon was spared.

Nobody used the word “nerd” in 1965, but had they used it, Devon would have been nerdy. When you got their propaganda, the class photos had guys with short hair and white socks who looked like the should be working in some accounting firm in Reading. Actually, the “dork” was common, and you could be sitting in Latin class and hear someone yell “McNally, you dork” on the way to the gym. I actually did. Poor guy. Devon was a dorky place. It did not have the social prestige of Episcopal or Haverford. Or the cafone pretensions of Malvern, Devon’s Catholic arch rival, who actually had a football team (I think) and played in the Interac League. No, we were the “bookish” ones. Supposedly. Supposedly, we were all, umm, not very masculine. I once had a girl from a Catholic school sing me a ditty

I used to go to Malvern Prep and I was quite contrary
Now I go to Devon Prep. Whoops, I'm a fairy.

I was thrilled, needless to say. Remember, this was 1965. Pre-Stonewall. So I spent a good deal of time working against stereotype. It wasn’t difficult, believe me. Devon wasn’t Georgetown Prep, by any means, but any female presence on campus was apt to cause much disorder. Guys with cute sisters were popular.

Anyway, Devon was weird. Not everyone liked it, for sure, and the rules and discipline could be medieval. No smoking. No cigarettes. You got caught, you were out. No appeal. I recently learned one of my deceased classmates used to sneak smokes behind the gym. Thank God I didn’t know; I would have joined him. And got tossed. If I was taking the Pennsylvania Railroad home, I’d get down to Devon station, wait for the train, and light up once I was on a car. Or get well away from campus, usually much closer to Philly, and then smoke. Big deal, right? I did run into one of the Spanish priests on a Friday afternoon at a nearby shopping center where I was indulging. I froze. He froze. “What brand?” Then he bummed a smoke from me. The rebels just seemed to find each other at Devon. Priests included.

And there were rebels. One of the priests, Luis Arsuaga, was Basque. He was a good dude. By the time we were Freshmen, we knew, thanks to his religion class, that nobody took the Bible literally. 1965. Conservative Catholic school. You wonder why the South drives me crazy? I was 14 and we were talking metaphors, fables, and symbols in the Bible. Literally true? C’mon man. It might have been right-wing, but it wasn’t check your brain at the door. Luis also got into a famous public dispute with the Headmaster (of whom more below) in which he made public reference to intimate relations between the Headmaster and his Secretary. Luis was gone at the end of the year. To Colombia. Where he eventually died. As a Basque, Luis had no time for fascists. Wrong place, Luis. Even then Devon had its quota, and I didn’t call it Trump Prep then.

Since there were still priests then, we had quite a few, of the Piarist Order. No, not the Jesuits, much less the Agustinians. Their motto was Pietas et Litterae and it fit. Ours were a remnant of the old Hapsburgh Empire, Hungarians and Spanish. At best, as in the Empire, they tolerated each other. The order was founded by St Joseph Calasanctius, whom we regarded with due reserve. And when we got into hot water–frequently–we got to kneel in front of his portrait.

Yeah, that one. Know it well.

The priests were mostly known by nicknames: Chico, Tony, Stubby, The Big O, Ripple, Wheels, Stan, Paz, and, fearsomely, for obvious reasons upon viewing, Nose, aka Steven Senye, Sch.P. A lot of people thought Nose was a bastard. You’ll remember I met him whistling on the steps on the way to the entrance exam. He was no pussycat, for sure. Dour, severe, hair-trigger temper, domineering. I believe he was founding Headmaster in 1956 (I may well be wrong). Notice the date. 1956. As in Hungarian Uprising against the Soviets. Well, the Hungarians had to go somewhere after we didn’t liberate them, poor fools. So some of them came to the US, and to Devon, Pennsylvania. Lucky us. They were sort of po’d at the US, not surprisingly, and sometimes, we caught a whiff of Anti-Americanism. I never saw anyone actually get slugged, but we all knew a well placed Piarist index finger jabbed in the solar plexus could put a dude out of commission. That I saw. Along with plenty of yelling, when stuff got tacky. It wasn’t an everyday thing, but it happened. Different times, you know? Were the Hungarians Horthyite fascists? God, who knew? They weren’t Liberals.

You had to know how to handle these guys. Having been around Sicilians and various crazy Italians most of my life, I knew better than to confront them head on. So I sort of humored them, basically, and, for the most part, it worked. I learned to imitate the accents, one or two of them especially well. Chico caught me once chewing out a class in his inimitable Spanglish. He only glared, but afterward, allowed as how I did him very very well. He later left the priesthood, so, you know not all these guys were with the program. It was figuring out who you could mess with. Nose wasn’t one of them. For most, the assistant head, Fr. Magyar (Wheels, as in Mag wheels…..) wasn’t either. The rest was situational, which some of my dimmer classmates never quite got.

The academics were tough. Man, they didn’t mess around. I figure Devon probably ended my budding career as a trumpet player in two ways. I wasn’t a natural player as a kid, and I did practice. A lot. Usually an hour or so a day in grade school, and more in the Summer. My first teacher was the Band Director at the Catholic diocesan high school, and he had big plans for me. Cause I had some technique and some range, so he figured he had a lead even if it turned out I couldn’t play jazz. But I didn’t go to his school. My Mother wanted me at Devon, because she was afraid I had hoodlum potential. So, long story short, commuting about an hour and a half a day to Devon from just outside West Philly cut into practice time. And then Devon’s academic demands did the rest. I just wasn’t talented enough or bright enough to cut corners with the horn or the books. And I found I sort of liked history, literature and languages, surprise. And even matrix algebra. My God. This was HIGH SCHOOL. But it took a lot of work.

Devon had no music program then. I started to fall behind because I cut back on practice because of time constraints, which made my teacher unhappy. So Salvucci Aspiring Trumpet player got canned as a trumpet student by this guy. If I wasn’t gonna play for him, well, he wasn’t interested. That wasn’t exactly that. I continued private lessons with another teacher (who was a better player, frankly), but he got sick, and I took a break from instruction. I figured I knew enough to continue on my own, which was, like, wrong path. Playing backup to some Martha and the Vandellas stuff wasn’t exactly working on Haydn or Charlier. So I stopped really practicing, developing, and even though I was playing, got to college and quit. To this day, I think Devon was a big factor in my not playing. Or so I tell myself. I think I already sensed my limits. You could still buy Harry James’ solos, and they made for, well…..painful self-discovery.

Truth was, I also discovered I liked Dante. And Tudor-Stuart history. And, Lord, Spanish and Latin. And James Joyce. And John Donne. Weird, man. Who likes that stuff at 15? Guilty. So I spent more and more time on my studies. Which didn’t exactly produce Super Chops. So if you wonder why I worship Roy and Dizzy, wonder not. I come by it honestly. Every instrument is tough, but the trumpet is a killer. Very few can get on top of the damn thing without a lot of very hard work. I sure as Hell couldn’t. Two hours of practice a day was out if I wanted to even be a B student. Opportunity cost, you know.

But Devon also did something else for me, or to me. I came from a working class family. I watched my father put himself through Penn at night even though he worked during the day. My Mother worked. Everyone worked. That’s just the way it was. You wanted something, you worked for it. Period. Devon was the same way. I did well enough, but I never thought I was particularly smart. That isn’t false modesty. I wasn’t an idiot–those I had seen at Prisontation, but I was no genius. So how good did you want to be meant how hard did you want to work? This has always served me well, other than in my last 15 years of teaching. I rarely taught a kid who could have cut it at Devon. Even the graduates of the so-called elite Texas high schools. Especially the Jesuit ones. The worst ones. Smug and self-satisfied. Like that guy on the Supreme Court. Frank is a big exception, and the Jezzies mostly hate him.

What about this “Dare to Be Different” stuff? Well, that was Nose’s motto. Oh, I took it to heart. Fr. Senye took off with his secretary after my senior year, so all the tongue wagging that went on, well. No, I don’t think they were getting it on and I don’t think he was a hypocrite. I’m not even going to speculate what was going. Who knows what he saw in Hungary growing up? Dare to be different for sure. Nose’s motto could have been “get your ass and your brain in gear.” Or I’ll do it for you.

There was a lot more to Devon. Maybe some other time. I think it ended my career as a musician. Ironically, even though I stopped going to Church, I stayed Catholic. Piarists married me and buried my Mom. We’ll figure that out one of these days. I think Luis Arsuaga had a lot to do with it.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

10 thoughts on “Dare to Be Different

  1. Senye’s iron no-smoking rule surely originated from the death of his brother (also a Piarist) from lung cancer attributed to heavy smoking. And I think, though I am not certain, that his brother was the founding headmaster. Need to research that, but I do remember somebody saying something to that effect. As I recall, the two Senye brothers, Magyar, Tibor MacHan (the gym teacher), and Bernice were the first on the scene back then.

    Forget not the American Fr. Flanagan, whose run-ins with the rest of them were not unknown to some of us. At least they let him run the college application guidance program, which wasn’t much.

    What mitigated some of the extreme conservatism was the presence of lay teachers (e.g., Collins, Bowen, Padlo) though some (e.g., Nowicki, Townsley) had their own quirks, to put it nicely.

    But despite all of the insanity, they did teach us to think, to think critically. Some of us got it, others simply took information as doctrine. I see the same division even today among students. And the place did change when Mustos replaced Senye, but they “teach them how to think” effort continued. My law students who have gone through Devon Prep (they always come to my office to introduce themselves) have been among the best. They have acquired academic discipline and a gift for rigorous thinking and diligence.

    As for Beak and Bernie, the rumors floated late in our junior year and throughout the senior year. That’s a story in and of itself. A long one full of allegations and whispers, mystery and confusion, denials and “between the lines” messages from at least one faculty member.

    No music program back then. That’s a shame. I wonder how many counterfactual lives would have emerged. Oh, a basketball team and cross-country. No baseball (that came later). Soccer, of course (but called “football”). No American football, even now. Ham radio club. Photography club. Yeah, dorkland. My excuse.

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  2. Oh man, I’m getting an acid flashback just reading this! It certainly was a boot camp for nerds.

    I have always believed that the primary objective was to teach us critical thinking. It might have worked for some of us.

    I thought it was interesting to observe the insanity of religious rigidity, see the (somewhat limited) range of different political ideologies developing in our peers, and navigate the classism that was the inevitable result of mixing working class nerds with snotty, self-absorbed rich guys playing tough guys.

    Taught me a lot about what is phony and what is real.

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  3. I wish I could recollect and interpret my comparable experience at VMA (ask LHK) with as much perspective. I simply loved it, the IHMs and my fellow study-holics.

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    1. Make that my fellow homework-aholics. LHK might agree that you boys knew far more about the personal side of the Pirists than she and I ever did about the IHMs. They quite intentionally kept their pre-convent secular identities, even their names, hidden from us. Nevertheless, their influence was benign, formational, enormous and treasured to this day. Critical thinkers we did become if we paid enough attention to the best of those old girls. Nisi Dominus frustra! 💙

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  4. I am sad about your trumpet loss. I am sure you would have been top notch. No doubt a different environment would have produced a different result, epigenetics y’all. No music is a huge regret of HS for me as well. I have enjoyed performing in community theater for many years have had roles in more than a dozen shows, some pretty substantial roles but what I really love is musical theater, singing and dancing. Cannot sing for s**t, can hardly read music, have horrible sense of rhythm and feel like I missed something that could have really been a much bigger thing in my life.

    We all have Devon stories. I know I’ve got ’em. Muller was one of my best friends in a relationship where I withheld a good deal of who I was, now gone and was even closer with Bart, we were together nearly all the time, and with whom I cannot even have a conversation now because we grew to see the world so differently.

    I honestly don’t know if we were any better prepared for what came next than kids who went to Conestoga or Radnor or O’Hara. I had many friends in college who were smart as hell and as nose to the grindstone as me or better that did go to these schools or similar and were standouts later. In my world they weren’t exceptions to the rule. Granted I lived in a small world of serious science majors who weren’t f**king around because they were gunning for med school, dental school, elite physics or chem programs. I was a pretty straight arrow back in the day. Dork would have fit, or nerd for sure. Smoking was my primary bad habit back then and quitting when I was 21 was one of my proudest lifetime achievements. It took years after DPS for me to not feel socially awkward generally and terribly so around girls. Part of a Devon legacy? I always wondered if it was me or if it was the environment of the school that did not allow for socialization in the way a public school or at least bigger school might have.

    I found a lot of thoughtful people at St. Joe’s. I am not so sure we were so differently prepared at DPS. If anything, I think the difference was the environment. Maybe some of that was the Piarists, certainly in creating the culture of the school but I think it was also largely our peers who pushed us. We were all headed to college and that ain’t nothing in terms of motivating.

    Stopping because it’s your blog and I could go on for miles but some of your memories jar loose some of mine and I cannot resist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We didn’t really know each other, which is a commentary on how tightly-knit each homeroom was. I had no idea you smoked! Was it you who told me Schmo snuck them in the woods or somewhere? Thank God I didn’t know. I’m realkly on good terms with about four guys from Devon now. They got too much money for my taste, and I asked to be removed from the Alumni Association email list because I got tired of all the right-wing crap. My horn is my big regret. I don’t think I would have ever been as good as I wanted to be, but that’s pretty much true of everything I do. Problem with the trumpet is everyone can hear you…….

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  5. Thanks for the reminiscences, and sorry to come so late to the party. If Devon was dorky-nerdy, I was a nerd among nerds. But that was OK. It was a small school (my graduating class numbered all of 29), and one did not get lost in the crowd or drown in the sea. The discipline and longstanding educational history of the Piarists meant it was mostly OK to be nerdy. I admired what the older priests had gone through to come to the US, even if my sense of history was pitifully superficial then. There was the occasional bullying, worsened no doubt by my being Chinese. In the 1970’s and 80’s (and before), Asian students were rare. But my parents felt that Devon was far less stodgy and snooty than the other private schools in the area, and they were right. This remains for me an important message – that the name and pedigree are far less important than what lies at the core.

    The academics were actually hit-and-miss. My parents and I recognized the weak teachers for what they were, but this weakness of the school also taught me how to teach myself. I discovered at Devon that self-sufficiency had great rewards. You would know this as my teacher, El Tejano! (You were not one of the weak teachers, but you did give me the flexibility to learn at my own pace.) Devon also exposed me to what non-curricular learning meant: Ham radio, photography, journalism and publishing, etc. Since my Devon days, I have always treasured elbow room and the freedom to work as I like, and opportunities off the beaten path to learn. Somewhat incredibly, I have found an uncommon degree of freedom in my current academic medicine position, where I’ve been for 25 years. For all of its foibles, Devon Prep had a profound impact on my development.

    BTW, they do now have a lacrosse team, at least. Since I picked up the sport in college (and still play!), I consider myself the original Devon lacrosse player and even played in the 2018 Alumni Lacrosse game.

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    1. I was not happy with what I saw at Devon when you were there. The Headmaster was in over his head, and unpleasant to boot. Some of the classes reminded me of Lord of the Flies. Under Jim Shea, there was a considerable return to the place I had attended, only better and without medieval discipline. I did my best. Merry Christmas

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