"He instinctively can find the shining greatness of our American culture and does a good job of highlighting it (although he also does have those rare lapses when he writes about hockey, but that is something caused by impurities in the Eastern waters or something)." Erik Keilholtz
Under the patronage of St. Tammany
Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
Friday, November 22, 2002 Appalachian coal miners as Ward and June Cleaver?
Sure, why not, if it fits the template of the puff piece you're about to write on the travails of a liberal visionary overcoming the forces of reaction? Read the opening paragraph of this Boston Globeprofile of Cambridge College founder Eileen Moran Brown and you'll get the idea:
Eileen Brown grew up in Ashland, Pa., a small town where the culture was conformist, the politics Republican, the religion Roman Catholic, and all three as calcified as the black coal mined from the scrubby hills of Appalachia.
Ashland, it turns out, is a coal town in the heart of Molly Maguire country, so one wonders at the blanket label of "Republican" given politics in an area of Irish-Catholic mining folk, like young Eileen Moran's family. But what matter, these small details; the point is, the place wasn't "progressive" by Cambridge standards, hence it was retrograde and conservative, and the idea simply is to apply a default shorthand term – like conformity, or Catholicism – that is accepted by right-minded Globe readers as synonymous with bone-dry stodginess. Read on.
On Eileen's first day in first grade at St. Joseph's parochial school, Sister Devota posed a challenge: ''Who is willing to die for Christ?''
Every other child raised a hand, but not Eileen Brown.
Sister Devota was aghast.
Eileen explained that, yes, she understood the question, but no, she wasn't willing to die for anybody, including Christ.
Sister Devota called Eileen's father.
''Well, of course Eileen doesn't want to die,'' he said. ''She's 5 years old. I think you ought to stop asking dumb questions, Sister, and just teach her to read and write.''.
Ah, yes, the 1950s Sister Mary Elephant story, that staple of the "Recovering Catholic" armory. Can you imagine Sister asking a child something like that? How unsophisticated: The penguin instilling a simpleton's faith at the end of a ruler. Thank goodness we've moved beyond that.
Sixty years later, Eileen Brown sits in the dining room of her Cambridge home, and over a lunch of lobster salad and Diet Coke, she recalls two lessons from that day long ago.
''First, listen to your inner voice and don't pretend to be willing to die for Christ if you're not. Second, there's a price to be paid for telling the truth, because in Catholic schools, as someone unwilling to die for Christ, I was labeled rebellious, radical, and brazen.''
As it turns out, the nuns were right. Brown has been rebellious, radical, and brazen, but she is also idealistic, occasionally confrontational, and always resolute in demanding that black kids get the same chance as white kids.
That revolutionary notion led her, as a teacher in Philadelphia in the 1960s, to speak up for minority kids, to organize picket lines and sit-ins, and to threaten to disrupt the Penn Relay unless the University of Pennsylvania kept a promise to admit black kids.
And it led her, in 1971, to found what is now Cambridge College, one of Boston's more reformist institutions, and to serve as its president for the past 21 years.
So it turns out Eileen Brown does indeed have a religious zeal, but for a secular mission. She is a believer. She is applauded for having given her life radically to a cause – in this case, the advancement of the civil-rights agenda.
But the idea of giving one's life to Christ – and even for Christ – is mocked out of hand.
This story's unexamined, unquestioned biases – against "calcified" Catholics and like "conformists" – are as deeply rooted as any held by the conservative mossbacks constructed out of straw by the writer and his subject.