The reflection below was written for my high school classmates four years ago. As I’m starting a related blog series, it is reproduced here after some small editing.
It has to do with my personal history: by far the most personal of all the things I’ve posted on this blog. For a host or reasons, high school tends to bring out the personal anyway. Then on top of it, my unusual situation made it a very distinctive phase in my life.
Behind this personal history, however, is a much larger history. If the memories in this reflection are autobiographical in nature and appreciative in tone, they could be better grasped when placed in the broader context. Here are a few notes about that context, especially (a) the demographic and economic background and setting of Rochester, Minnesota, where I first lived upon arriving to America; and (b) a combination of factors related to Catholicism that resulted in my graduating class having seven Vietnamese among virtually all white students.
Let’s start with the background to Rochester. Not long after the Vietnam War ended, a small number of Vietnamese refugees resettled in southeastern Minnesota, in towns such as Winona, Owatonna, and even tiny Eyota (pop. 639 in 1970). Five years later, however, Rochester became the leading regional site for the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees – Hmong, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. It would repeat this role regarding Somali refugees during the 1990s.
Now with over 110,000 people, Rochester is the third largest city in Minnesota and the largest outside of the Twin Cities metro area. In the early 1980s, it was only half this size. Like the region itself, the population of the city was overwhelmingly white at the end of the Vietnam War, probably more than 90%, and included a plurality from German background and smaller numbers from Norwegian, Swedish, Irish, and English stocks.
Given the farming economy in surrounding communities, there was a historically long but numerically unstable presence of Mexicans, especially seasonal and migratory workers that participated in labor during harvest and at agricultural processing plants. By the time I graduated from college, though, there was a weekly Spanish mass at one of the parishes, reflecting the growth of the Latino population in and around Rochester as well as a growth spurt of Latinos in the state, who are dubbed “Minnesotanos,” after 1990.
In other words, not counting Native Americans who had inhabited the region in centuries past, it seems to me that Southeast Asian refugees were the first non-white groups to have settled in the city in sizable numbers. They included Vietnamese refugees from 1975 and the boat people crisis; Hmong refugees who either came straight from Asia or moved from another state; and Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge and the aftermath. Indeed, Vietnamese might have been the first Southeast Asians to resettle in Rochester area, but Cambodian refugees in the late 1970s were the first group to come in large numbers under the assistance of organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services.
This development was most fascinating because Minnesota had not been a “natural” point of immigration among Asians for several reasons, not in the least the cold climate in the winter. I used to joke that if Vietnamese could survive a year in communist reeducation camps or three Minnesota winters in a row, they could survive anything that life throws at them. I’d surmise too that the tiny presence of Asian minorities before 1975 came mostly from (a) Korean adoptees, and (b) physicians from other countries that came to work at the Mayo Clinic.
The end of the Vietnam War changed this demographic composition, and led to several Southeast Asian grocery stores and Vietnamese restaurants during the 1980s. Even Barlow’s, a major chain grocery store, began stocking up on many Vietnamese and Cambodian food items by the end of the 1980s. During the 1990s, there was another wave of Vietnamese arrivals in addition to the aforementioned Somali. This time, they came under immigration rather than refugee status, such as the American Homecoming Act designed for Amerasian children and their families; the Humanitarian Operation program that resettled former political prisoners in reeducation camps; or family reunion, as was the case of my own family.
Among thousands of Vietnamese who first settled in Rochester during 1975-1995, many left after one or more years for the warmer climate and/or work opportunities in Louisiana, Texas, California, and elsewhere. Still, many remained longer, some moved to the Twin Cities, and some still live in Rochester to this day.
Rochester’s economy has been long strong and stable thanks to the Mayo Clinic, the large Catholic and Methodist hospitals, and a sizable IBM plant. It obviously offered the most resources in the region to assist in the resettlement of the refugees during the 1980s and 1990s. There were, for example, many English classes for adults at a community center. There was a community college and vocational technical training where some refugees and immigrants acquired a trade. The 1980s also saw the founding of a mutual assistance association for refugees and immigrants. Its office, in fact, was only a couple of blocks from my school building, and I volunteered there a few hours each week during my senior year.
When I arrived in 1982, many Vietnamese refugees, possibly most, came to Rochester under the sponsorship of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCC). (Most sponsorees, of course, were not Catholic.) Sponsorship to the region meant that my family would start in Rochester rather than Winona, a smaller town 45 miles away where my uncle’s family, which came in 1975, was living at the time. There was also a small but not insignificant personnel factor that contributed to the resettlement of the refugees: Bob Jones, a Rochester native and the director of resettlement for hired by the Diocese of Winona, had been a long-time employee at the US Embassy in Saigon. His knowledge of South Vietnam and his thoroughly easy-going personality did much to help the transition among many refugees. He later lived for ten years in Little Saigon, not far from where I am currently living, and passed away in Rochester several years ago.
In any event, there were two public high schools in town plus Lourdes High School run by the Diocese of Winona in 1982. (A third public high school was built in the 1990s to accommodate population growth.) As I could see now, there was a mix of two historical factors, both having to do with Catholicism, that led to my attendance of eighth grade at the parish school and then Lourdes High School.
First is the existence of an extensive Catholic school system in the U.S. There is a very long and interesting and complicated history behind the creation and expansion of this system, especially during the nineteenth century. It suffices to say that my high school traces its origin back to 1877, when the Sisters of St. Francis opened the Academy of Our Lady of Lourdes for over 200 girls. These Franciscan nuns were best known for healthcare due to partnership with the Drs. Mayo and the creation of St. Mary’s Hospital. But they were actually a teaching order by design and only became involved in healthcare almost by a historical accident. The shift to healthcare led to a few changes. The Lourdes Academy turned coed some years later, and the Sisters eventually turned the administration of the school to the diocese. Although the majority of students were Catholic, Lourdes also admitted non-Catholic students as the case of other Catholic schools.
The second factor has to do with Vietnamese Catholics themselves. A clear minority at no more than 10% of the population in Vietnam, the percentage of Catholics among refugees to the U.S. was higher. Some estimates have gone up to 30%, if not more. Explanations for this disproportionate number still await historians of Vietnamese in America. In effect, most refugee students attended public schools, but a number of Catholic students went to Catholic schools thanks to financial and other assistance from the local system. (Catholic schools, however, often coordinated ESL classes with the public school system. During my first school year in the U.S., for example, I walked to a grade school two blocks from the parochial school for a daily ESL class.)
Of course, only a portion of Catholic refugee students attended Catholic schools in the U.S., for most were absorbed by local public school systems throughout America. It is probably most true in communities of large Vietnamese populations. Nonetheless, the numbers of students in Catholic schools could be striking at times and in certain places, especially in communities of small refugee populations. One example is Lincoln, Nebraska, which became a resettlement for Vietnamese refugees shortly after the Fall of Saigon. In 1979, there were 86 Vietnamese students in its public schools and, astoundingly, 75 in parochial schools. (There were also 35 students at local universities, indicating a strong investment in higher education among the first waves of Vietnamese refugees as strategy to climb the economic ladder.) Seventy-five was a remarkable number even after accounting for the atypically high percentage of Catholic refugees among the first waves of Vietnamese to Lincoln.
I don’t know how many refugee students were attending Catholic schools in Rochester during the 1980s, but this historical background explains for the presence of Vietnamese students at my high school. Having about 140 students, mine was the largest graduating class at the time and included seven Vietnamese students (also a larger-than-usual number for a graduating class). The number may not sound remarkable until you realize that just about all other students were white. (One classmate has an ethnic Chinese-Australian father and a white mother. Another was a Korean adoptee but moved with her family to Colorado after tenth grade.) I remember seeing one or two Cambodian students at the parochial junior high level, but not at Lourdes during my time: precisely because there were few Cambodian and Hmong Catholics to begin. There were several refugee students from Eastern Europe, including two girls in my class (from Albania and Poland), who must have come from a Catholic background. However, they all moved to other states before graduation, leaving the Vietnamese as only refugee students in my class.
Of course, I didn’t think about any of this background at the time. Looking back now, it is remarkable to note the confluence of big historical factors – a perfect storm of sorts – that led to four years at Lourdes and created this piece of personal history. There was the Cold War factor, and of course the Vietnam War and its aftermath. There were refugees from a Catholic background on the one hand, and the established Catholic parochial school system on the other hand. I don’t have any yearbook and I lost my copy of the class photo taken after graduation rehearsal, on the day before graduation. (“Dammit,” I remember cursing I when I couldn’t find it to include in a video of old photos made after my wedding.) All the same, it is striking to think about the history behind that photo of seven Vietnamese faces amidst their white classmates.
At any rate, this post and the next three fall squarely on the side of the personal instead of the academic, on the autobiographical rather than the analytical. The reflection elicited some appreciative comments and messages from my classmates four years ago. Later it also led to an idea, about which I’ll explain in the next post.
October 10, 2012
Dear LHS classmates,
It wasn’t until getting an email from Nora Breckle in August that I realized it has been twenty-five years since our graduation. I remember getting an invitation in the mail from John Reardon to the tenth year reunion. I was living in Seattle at the time and couldn’t go. The next fifteen years didn’t see any invitations, no doubt because I moved a lot and any mail must have been returned to the sender.
Big props to Nora, Jody, and others that organized this reunion, although I again couldn’t come. My wife and I were in Minnesota a year ago – my immediate family still lives in the state, albeit in the Cities – and we spent half a day in Rochester on the way to Chicago. It was my wife’s first time in town, and I drove by the school building and told her about my time there. School was in session and we didn’t go in. But it was enough to remind me of the good things from the past. Old memories and new appreciation have popped up in the last couple of weeks, as I popped in and out of the Facebook class page to check out photos and names. I’d like to share some of them with you, especially because I haven’t seen almost all of you since graduation.
Let’s start with a summary of “what where when” since that evening when we listened to Mr. Decker as commencement speaker at the brand new building of the Mayo Civic Center… Like most of you, I headed to college that August – to St. Mary’s and the seminary program in Winona. (Kelly Koshatka was also supposed to come to St. Mary’s but never did. Does anyone know where she ended up going?) It was a blessed four years, and by my senior year it was clear that the priesthood wasn’t my calling. I still wanted to serve, and went into volunteer work after graduation. I went to the Northwest to be a live-in caregiver at the L’Arche community in Seattle. L’Arche is an international and ecumenical movement that creates homes for people with developmental disabilities, and it’s unique in that they live with volunteers. I was with L’Arche Seattle for over eight years, including seven years as a live-in. I stayed in the area and worked as a caterer at a hospital, spending a decade in the Northwest. I bounced around in the East Coast and Midwest for a year, including three months back in Rochester to help taking care of my father after a major surgery. I then came to Notre Dame for grad work in history. Four years ago, a fellowship sent me to Southern California, where I’ve lived since. I met my wife here and got married nearly three years ago. I’m almost done with my dissertation – you gotta graduate sometimes, right? This year I work full-time as community coordinator of the L’Arche community in Orange County, and teach American history and Asian history as an adjunct at a state school near Palm Springs. Drop me a question about L’Arche or the Vietnam War anytime; I’d be happy to answer it.
During the years at Notre Dame, I came back to Minnesota two or three times a year, including occasional visits to Rochester to see a couple of college friends. But last year was the only visit since moving to SoCal. It is of course a long way between southern Minnesota and southern California. You could say that I’ve traded the Mall of America for Disneyland, Prince for Gwen Stefani, lakes for the ocean, winter snowstorms and spring tornadoes for summer forest fires and year-round earthquakes, affordable housing for tight-spaced and high-cost living. Don’t get me start on gas price lately! My wife and I live a few miles from Little Saigon in Orange County, which has the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. We’ve been trying to start a family but without success so far. Cross your fingers and say a prayer for us when you have a chance; we’d appreciate it.
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The above is a sum-up of a quarter-century, but it’s also meant to say that all of those things had their start in Rochester and especially at Lourdes High School. Although I didn’t get to know most of my classmates well, I look back with appreciation and even fondness for the time and the place and the people, yourselves included. Allow me to explain.
Some background and context should help… Born in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, I spent the first six years of my life under wartime and the next six years under communist rule. The war ended abruptly in 1975, and a large number of Vietnamese refugees associated with the U.S. suddenly found themselves on American shore. Among them was one of my uncles, his wife, and their five kids. Faced with over 100,000 refugees, the U.S. government called on churches to help sponsoring these refugees. My uncle’s family came to Winona through the sponsorship of the Cathedral parish there. Four of their five sons later attended our rival school Cotter, and one played for Cotter’s football and basketball teams while two others were in the tennis team. Starting in the late 1970s, a number of Vietnamese left the country, usually in rickety boats. It was the beginning of the “boat people” wave, and my father and sister and I were among them. It was common for a family to split up at the time, with fathers and oldest sons among the first to leave, and mothers and others staying behind in case the attempts to escape would fail. We ended up in refugee camps in Indonesia. After fourteen months, we came to Minnesota in 1982 through the sponsorship of my uncle’s family and the U.S. Catholic Conference. We came to Rochester rather than Winona because the bigger city was better equipped to handle refugees: English classes for adults, job opportunities, etc. For our first year, we lived in an old apartment building in downtown that neighbored the Post-Bulletin building.
Note from August 2016: The ground floor of this apartment building was a Chinese restaurant, and during ninth grade there was a fire from the restaurant that destroyed the building. Most occupants were Vietnamese refugees, and, ironically, the fire forced us to move into larger and better apartments and houses in the city. Of course it cost more to rent elsewhere: not a small consideration because refugees saved money to help their families in Vietnam. But I think the benefits outweighed the benefits in the end. In my case, it meant having my own room for the first time a year after the fire: a not insignificant symbol on economic and psychological fronts.
It was in this context that a number of Vietnamese kids like myself came to Lourdes. To this day, it’s still slightly amazing for me to look at the class list and see several Vietnamese last names among the Kleinschmidts and Mahoneys, the Wojchiks and Rucinskis, the Olsons and Pugas, the Blocks and Schafers, the McDonalds and Cabanelas and Paternosters. It seems that all major European groups from a Catholic background in American history were represented in our class. Even the French, a minor immigrant presence, had a rep in Jeff Ouellette. I came to Lourdes after a year at St. Francis, arriving along with Amy Fujan, Nick Schaff, Chris Schendel, Thuy Pham, etc. (Thuy was the only girl among the half dozen of Vietnamese students in our class.) My education was possible thanks to a scholarship from the Lourdes Foundation. It was a very generous gift, and I remain deeply grateful for the Foundation. It was committed to help the marginalized and disadvantaged, and its action reflected well the Beatitudes and other values from the Gospels.
They say high school is a world of its own, and there’s some truth about it. In my case, it was a very different world from what I and other Vietnamese students had experienced. You see, the American educational system was pretty different from the Vietnamese one, especially in high schools. There were (and still are) differences in curriculum. More pronounced were differences in classroom instruction and especially in the structure and amount of extra-curricular activities: sports, clubs, activities, and the like. (I’d later learn from European friends that high schools in Germany, Ireland, and England were also different from American ones, albeit not as dramatic.) Not at all used to the interwoven structure of the curricular and the extra-curricular, it took me some time to recognize it and longer to get used to it.
On top of it was the fact that my English was poor, especially in speaking and especially in the first two years. For Vietnamese, reading English is easiest, followed by listening and writing. Speaking is the hardest, and it wasn’t until college that my speaking improved a lot, thanks in part to a professor that took the time over one semester to work on my speech. But it was slow at Lourdes. I still recall an episode in Ms. Ginnaty’s geometry class, when I tried to explain how I solved a problem but no one could understand what I said. Hearing could be tough sometimes too. At the first class of biology in our freshman year, the teacher – I think it was Ms. Howard – tried a mnemonic device. She asked students to attach an adjective to their first names, as long as the adjective starts with the same letter as the first letter of the first name. There were, for examples, “Awesome Andy” and “Terrible Thanh.” When it was my turn, I didn’t quite understand the question and said, “Intelligent Tuan.” Which wasn’t exactly an intelligent answer, ha! There were also cultural challenges even in something considered universal like sports. Like most Vietnamese, I’d never swung a baseball bat until coming to America. During the softball portion in gym class, I used to swing the bat and let it fly rather than drop it before running. It scared the hell out of the guys in my team, and they ran away whenever I walked to home plate. It took a few at-bats before I understood what I was supposed to do. Sorry, fellas, but thanks for the round of applause the first time I got it right.
On the whole, linguistic limitations and cultural differences kept me from full participation in and out of the classroom. I remember talking most with Darrin Johnson, Dave McSweeney, Jeff Prickman, Steve Weinschenk, and a few others. In senior year, I worked at Assisi Heights and chatted with Kim Rowekamp, who also worked there, probably more than all of my first three years. Even there, those conversations only went so far because of language and habit. My nerdiness didn’t help either, and my wife still laughs at photos of me wearing those humongous glasses. (Well, I was hardly the only one wearing them, was I? The Eighties and big round glasses. ) The most embarrassing moments happened when I went to see the school’s nurse for the annual physical exam in our sophomore year. In my haste, I opened the door without knocking first and came upon the nurses and a classmate, the star player of our girls’ tennis team, who was in the middle of her physical. She ran to the side in horror. Christy, I’m so, so sorry! I didn’t see anything, I swear.
On the other hand, the limitations also forced me to change and adapt. Not exactly a studious student in Vietnam, I was compelled to work harder at homework. A natural extrovert, I was forced into a non-participant and became a watcher and observer instead. While already reflective, I grew far more introspective during those years. In some ways, mass-going symbolized this shift. In refugee camp, I went to daily mass with a lot of kids from the church group. At Lourdes, I went to mass (when allowed by our unique mods schedule) in the little chapel on the first floor, but there were rarely more than one or two people there besides myself and Fr. McGrath or Fr. Krough. Introversion wasn’t something I’d normally embrace, but it was necessary at the time. It also did me a lot of good in the long run.
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“Watching” was the operative word, and many lasting memories of Lourdes came from watching your extra-curricular participation. They remain with me after all these years even without the aid of a yearbook. I remember watching Yvette Low and Rich Wright sing in the jazz combo while the two Pauls played bass (Sadler) and percussion (Carpenter). I recall watching Brian McEvoy and Pete Smith and the boys’ basketball team battle my cousin and the Cotter team at the old Mayo Civic Center. And of course there was watching Laurie Decker and Martha Macken and the girls’ team cruise through regionals in the same building in senior year, then at the state tournament in St. Paul (watching on TV), and joining the happy crowd at the gym to welcome the team back after winning the state championship. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I began to understand America and some of its ideals by watching my classmates in action. Sure, there is much to be critical about America, but there is also much to love about it, including many of its ideals. Watching Eagles sports, I started to grasp the concept of the student-athlete. After four years of watching pep rallies and school assemblies and band and jazz combo, I came to appreciate more and more the interlocked integration of the academic and the extra-curricular, and the ideal of the well-rounded person in a democratic society.
To be sure, some memories have to do with the person rather than the institution. To this day, I am still reminded of Bill Theobald and Mark Lorenzo when I see men in turtlenecks. No doubt it’s because I never saw anyone wear turtlenecks in tropical Vietnam, and Bill and Mark must have worn them more than any other guys in our class. Probably for the same reason, Noelle Norris sometimes comes to mind when I see a young woman in a leather jacket. Tony Ebert was the only person in our class that drove a jeep – maybe in the entire school – and seeing a youngster drive a jeep almost always makes me think of him. Sometimes I’d walk by a Little League game and think of Tim Winkels. He was barely taller than I, but always batted the hardest and the longest distance in gym class. Why these memories? Maybe they suggest that for all protests about conformity in America, individuality is, for better or for worse, elevated and encouraged far more here than, say, in my native country.
Some other memories are more universal in content. I have seen men in drags before and after high school. But I shall never forget the hysterical sight of Andy Black, Rob Sandburg, and several other guys from the football team running out to a school assembly in cheerleader outfits and waving pom-poms. Thinking of them still makes me smile. Some memories, however, are harder to pinpoint at their roots. Seeing two teenage girls walking and talking occasionally makes me think of Monica Mergen and Maureen Griffin. Weird, isn’t it? But memories work like that sometimes, which is to say they aren’t always predictable. The only explanation I have is that Maureen’s locker was close to mine, and Monica often came between classes to chat with her and they walked together to the next class. Maybe there was more to it, but in any event this is a lovely little memory to have. It’s possible that in some subconscious ways, the sight of Monica and Maureen has become a symbol of what friendship is like for me.
There are memories from the classroom, some having to do with you and some having to do with the faculty. Given my newcomer status, it’s not a surprise that some memories have to do with being “the first time.” It was in a class of Mr. Kroska, RIP, that I first heard the word “flick” to mean for “movies.” (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he exclaimed, “Great flick!”) The first time I heard Chopin’s “Funeral March” was during a class of Mr. Sherman, when he lovingly played an old LP record of Winston Churchill’s funeral. In social studies with Mr. Hrabe, I heard about the Peace Corps for the first time when he spoke about his two years in Malaysia. Elsewhere, Mrs. McSweeney was always helpful during study hours while Mrs. Fix was terrific in typing class. Mrs. Fix’s class was probably my most favorite at Lourdes, because it was technical rather than abstract and was a nice change from the rest of the curriculum. (Were we the last generation to be trained to type in the old way? Do you even remember the last time you used a real typewriter?) Fr. Krough’s religion and theology classes were often a combo of the serious and the hilarious, and I knew of few people that could tell “call of nature” stories as funny as the Rev. Jack Krough. (By senior year, my English was good enough to begin picking up on scatological humor.)
August 2016: During the 1990s, Fr. Krough was accused of sexual molestation of minors at a different city and prior to his time at my high school. He admitted to them, spent his last ten years out of ministry, and was in the process of laicization when he died in disgrace two years ago. Click here for a story from the Austin newspaper, and the link at the end of the story for his files as released by the Diocese of Winona, which dealt with the lawsuit regarding the accusations.
In another religion class, that of Ms. Baldus, I remember she asked students to debate on women priests. The class was divided into pro and con (which was 2-to-1), and it was a rare time that I stood up and spoke at length for the minority side of opposition. I’ve changed my opinion since then; in fact, it wasn’t long after the seminary. But this episode was memorable because it showed me the democratic exercise of debate, where the minority was given the same right as the majority, where reasons were not selectively raised but fully presented for all to consider.
Speaking of speech, I fondly recall Mr. Nigon’s class in our junior year. The fondness has to do with the fact that it helped me feel more confident about public speaking – and because Mr. Nigon was very good at teaching it. I don’t remember any of the speeches other than mine. But I still recall watching Maureen and Thanh Nguyen and others taking turn at the podium and getting feedback afterwards. We were practicing for a particular skill, yes, but it also gave me a chance to see the more quiet students up front. Lest you think that I saw only extroverts and students in the spotlight, know that the hard work of introverts such as Beth Arrindell, Mike Beidel, Paul Frohnert, Cindy Meade, Ann Minor, and the two Pattys (Greipp and Ward) didn’t go unnoticed either. The Class of ’87 had a mix of personalities, as at other schools, and the differences were respected and valued while the personalities received the space plus a variety of venues to grow and develop.
It was also eye-opening to see how involved our teachers in extra-curricular activities. It was of course normal for my U.S.-born classmates to experience teacher’s involvement outside of the classroom. But it was a new experience for me because expectations for teachers were very different in Asia. I think of Mr. Mann teaching biology during the day and running the drama club in the evening. Or Ms. Beber teaching algebra on the one hand and coaching the girls’ volleyball team on the other. Or Mr. Jewison whose Latin classes during the day I took and who ran the sidelines at football games on Friday evenings as assistant coach. Teacher-coach is an older-age version of student-athlete, and the Lourdes faculty exemplified it very well. Seeing them in action left a big imprint on me then and later. I’ve been teaching for some time now, but it is college teaching and isn’t the same. Each kind carries different demands, but I think teaching high school is more challenging. All the more reason to salute the dedicated teachers at Lourdes.
* * *
It wasn’t until college that I began to blossom and bloom. In Winona, I took voice class and sang in the seminary’s schola, played intramurals, visited the elderly in nursing homes, volunteered as teacher’s aid at one of the Catholic grade schools, and spoke plenty in the classroom – probably too much as if making for high school, ha! It was then that I entered and engaged in American civic life more fully and energetically. In Seattle, I shared in the work at the L’Arche community and participated in the wider community when I could. Like other volunteers, I shopped for groceries, cooked dinner, did laundry, planned parties, and drove our disabled people to work, church, doctor’s appointments, and Special Olympics in a van. Yes, I was a soccer mom for over eight years.
It took off from there, and since our graduation I have lived in five different states, traveled to thirty-five or thirty-six others, and received speeding tickets in half of them. (Kidding about the tickets. But, seriously, what is it with the Wisconsin highway patrol?) Although qualified to apply for citizenship after high school, I wasn’t naturalized until 2000. It was shortly after Y2K that I suddenly realized I’ve lived in America longer than I did in Asia, that I’ve come to embraced and loved the U.S. as the land of my own, and that I’ve received so much from her people (and hopefully have made a modest contribution to them) that it was only right to make it official that this is my home.
None of this, however, was possible without the beginning in Rochester and especially the four years at Lourdes. Although it was a rough and lonely time in many ways, I’ve always felt grateful for the experience because it laid a strong foundation for the journey later. Then during the last decade, I realized further the magnitude of my luck to have attended our school. It was remarkable, for example, to be at a place that wasn’t embedded in the stratified structure of social hierarchy prevalent in many high schools in America. There weren’t any queen bees or any Heathers, and definitely no mean girls or mean boys. There were categories and typologies among students as elsewhere, but no hard divisions between jocks and nerds, or cheerleaders and band geeks, or bullies and rebels and outcasts.
The blurring of categories meant, for example, that one could do well in classes and equally well on, say, the tennis court such as Tom Blee, or the cheerleading floor such as Chris Cooney. It didn’t hurt that there were few problems and scandals. I remember Mr. Nigon expel Yvette’s sister for shaving off half of her head. But that was the extent of it, as far as I remember. I’m leaving out the Brom tragedy because we were no longer there when it happened. Lourdes wasn’t a perfect place. But it was peaceful and safe for the most part, and I was fortunate to have been in that environment. For some, Rochester might be too boring or the size of our school might be too small. But in this case, I’d take it over anything else.
(Speaking of Tom Blee, one of my favorite memories was watching him and Mike Kannel assigned to the same tennis team in gym class. We were at the Rochester Tennis Club, and Tom gave Mike a basic lesson on volleying and returning and such. They won the finals on the strength of Tom’s play and Mike’s effort. Wanting to mess things up, Kathy Paternoster tried to persuade them to give the trophy to her team. Blee appeared willing, but Kannel didn’t want to let it go. Not a born sportsman, Mike wasn’t ready to let go of this symbol of athletic achievement. The back-and-forth between Mike and Kathy was pretty funny, and he stuck it out to the end in spite of her pleading prowess.)
August 2016: Joseph Brom was among the graduates in my class the year before the infamous tragedy. He would teach economics and philosophy at a community college in Ohio for many years, and passed away earlier this year. He was, I believe, the first death in the class. As for the expelled sister, Yvette informed us after reading this reflection that she went back to Australia (where they came from originally) to finish high school, and now works as a midwife while raising a bunch of kids.
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Checking out the Facebook class page, it was great seeing photos of some of you for the first time in a quarter-century. I saw wrinkles on some of you. (I’m not talking about the women.) I spotted some with less hair. (I’m not talking about the men.) There were some faces I couldn’t recognize without tagging. But others I recognized instantly. There, Paul Sadler, still youthful with the shaggy-dog look. There, Joe Burt with his same wide smile as back then. There, Nora Breckle with her big old bubbly grin. Does anyone have photos of the twentieth reunion and can post them? I’d love to see photos of the people that didn’t make it to the twenty-fifth.
Now living among a big number of Asian and Latino immigrants in California, I couldn’t help noticing that they have the same aspirations to the life experienced by my classmates at Lourdes. At least it’s true among the Vietnamese, of whom I’m most familiar. Even those in blue-collar jobs, which is the case for many Vietnamese immigrants, carry high hopes that their children will do well in school, go to college, and make a better life. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they would want to send their kids to a high school like Lourdes, if because its graduates have gone on to some great endeavors in life. Our class, I gather, has produced a large share of physicians and nurses and health professionals. This isn’t a surprise, given the background of the Mayo Clinic. But there’s also a fair share of engineers and lawyers, small business owners and social workers, soldiers and technical specialists, professors and architects. Is there anyone in government and politics? What is Tim Bromelkamp up to these days?
But professional achievements only tell you so much, and there were other reasons that would have made Lourdes an attractive draw to immigrants aspiring to the mainstream and the middle class. One is the Catholic tradition of education, which is appealing to even many non-Catholics. By no means is it the only kind of education, and there isn’t one form but a number of variations within this tradition. But it is grounded and rooted in centuries of experience, and it is organic in philosophy and practice. My exposure to Notre Dame undergrads, many of whom hailed from Catholic schools across the country, confirmed the quality of this tradition.
Another reason is the exemplification of many desirable values and qualities that I learned from watching you during those years. They included hard work and fair play, personal effort but also teamwork, individual success woven into community involvement, moral decency and faith in God, compassion for others and love of family and love of country. They are middle-class values that refugees and immigrants like myself independently strive for. Being at Lourdes showed and validated those values in me, and helped me understand and practice them better.
Sorry for writing so much, all of which is meant to tell you the following. That it was a blessing for me to have attended Lourdes, and it was an honor to be your classmate. Thank you, and God bless you!