Fr. Roger J. Landry
Distinguished Alumni Award Acceptance Speech
Lowell High School Cyrus Irish Auditorium
November 2, 2016
To see a video of the speech, please click here.
Mr. Martin, Members of the School Committee, Esteemed Elected Officials, Members of the Faculty and Administration, Dearest Students and dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great joy to be back here at Lowell High School, which is a place of so many of my happiest and most formative memories. Since I graduated in 1988, I have always believed that I was a distinguished alumnus — distinguished by having been lucky enough to have attended our nation’s oldest co-educational and racially integrated public high school and for having received such a great education, not just here but also at the Greenhalge Elementary, Robinson Junior High, and Arts Magnet Schools, each of which prepared me to take full advantage of the educational feast that hungry students have been offered here for the last 185 years. I was always so honored to represent this school on tennis and basketball courts, in math Olympiads and academic competitions, for the School Committee Advisory board and in the media, and I recognize that what I’m receiving today is not just an honor but also a responsibility to try to embody, to the extent that I’m able, the great hopes that continue to inspire Lowell Public Schools and to bear fruit from the seeds the teachers and administrators have planted here with such admirable dedication since 1831.
Over the course of the 28 years since I graduated, I have lived for extended periods in Cambridge, Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, and New York, Barcelona, Toronto, Rome, Lisbon, Vienna, and Krakow, and have been so fortunate to visit so many other places. Thousands of times in various languages I have been asked, “Where are you from?” And while it’s common for citizens of the US traveling or living abroad to say “The United States” and for those from throughout New England simply to say “Boston,” I have always replied, with great pride in my roots, “I’m from Lowell, Massachusetts.” I’ve been happy to see, even in some of the most surprising locations, how well Lowell is known, as the epicenter of the American industrial revolution, the place to which some of their relatives had emigrated, the hometown where Mickey Ward learned to fight, or the beginning of the road for Jack Kerouac.
Growing up, Lowell for me was a place drenched in history and one that sought to make history. Whenever I went to homeroom or English class, I was always fascinated by the list of Carney Medalists, stretching back to 1859, filled with names after which streets, or businesses, or even schools were named, little knowing at the time that my twin brother Scot and I would one day have our names inscribed as part of that history. Across the street from my home in Centralville is a small cemetery on Hildreth Street enclosing the tomb of Benjamin Butler, graduate from one of the first classes of Lowell High who went on to become an important Civil War figure, Congressman, Governor and more. When I was a high school senior, a Lowell native, Michael Dukakis, ran for president, to be followed four years later by another presidential candidate from this city, Paul Tsongas. During my time, the then-University of Lowell regularly won NCAA hockey championships, our grapplers dominated New England wrestling championships, our basketball team was ranked first in the state and fourth in the country. When there was a post-card competition by a Boston radio station for a free concert with one of the top stars on the Billboard chart at the time, Richard Marx, Lowell High School decided to enter and, with the encouragement of our teachers and administrators, we crushed the competition from across the Commonwealth. Lowell High School for me was a place not only a place where ideas were taught and high ideals communicated, but a place where we were formed and encouraged, by the staff as well as by the history of the city, to try to make those ideas have consequences and see those ideals contagiously lived.
I would never have become an alumnus, not to mention a distinguished alumnus, of Lowell High School were it not for the dedication and love of so people. My first school was 48 Dana Street, where my mother taught me to read sitting on her lap well before we had entered kindergarten and my dad showed an example of hard work that I always sought to imitate in the classroom. I am so happy that my mother is here today; my dad is at Mass General Hospital with some heart issues and I’d ask you to join our family in praying for him. I grew so much from the daily competition and mutual support, in the womb, in the classroom, in sports, and in life, from my monozygotic better half, my twin brother Scot, as well as from trying to set a great example for my younger brother Greg and baby sister Colleen. I developed my mind and memory from taking piano lessons from the time I was four, and I’m so happy that my piano teacher, Mrs. Doris Thomopoulos, about to celebrate her 90th birthday, was able to join us. And I was blessed by so many great teachers, who taught me not only to think but also, through their example, how to live and strive to excel. I would like to thank in a particular way, Mr. Robert Kealy, my junior English teacher who not only increased my vocabulary and taught me grammar in a way that allowed me later to serve for many years as a newspaper editor, but who through the study of American poetry and prose, opened my mind and heart in a way that has thankfully never been closed. I’d like to single out as well Jon Donlan and Carol Anne Davis, teachers of the highest academic standards, who through their diligence and dedication in preparing to teach us infectiously helped me to aspire to their standards. There are many other teachers I could name, who taught me Algebra and Geometry, Latin and French, history and science, and so much more. I am so grateful to them, too, and to them all I wholeheartedly dedicate this award.
Please permit me to conclude for thanking Lowell High School for preparing me for two last things.
The first was for education at Harvard. I had already grasped by the way Lowell High had prepared me for the SATs and AP tests how good a Lowell High Education can be, but it was after my first major test in college that I got the definitive evidence. With 230 others, I had placed into the advanced inorganic chemistry course taught by Nobel Prize Winner Dudley Herschbach. The date of the first major exam was also the day I would be playing in the final match to make the Harvard Tennis Team and I will sincerely tell you that my mind was far more occupied with tennis courts than the periodic table. I went into the test having studied only for about 30 minutes, something I wouldn’t encourage the students here to emulate. I was humbled by the test, leaving thinking that at most I had gotten a 65. A few days later when grades were posted by ID numbers, I scanned the board, starting halfway up and going down, without finding my ID. I began at the halfway point a second time, and began to go up, but as I got higher, not having seen my name, I began to descend again wondering if I needed an eye test. Finally, not having found it, I started from the top, and the number 103-3049-10 was second on the list. I couldn’t believe it. Yes, the test was hard, but it was hard for everyone, and I was introduced for the first time to what was called a Bell Curve. It was on that day that I recognized just how incredible was the preparation given to me here at Lowell High, not only in chemistry but in so many subjects.
The second thing I’m particularly grateful for is what I consider the most important. I want to thank the Lowell Public School system for preparing me for the priesthood. We all know that a public school doesn’t teach religion specifically, but so many teachers taught me powerfully in an informal way. Scores of administrators and teachers I was lucky enough to have along the way could have succeeded in any profession, including those that would have been far more lucrative, but they became teachers in order to form me and others. They taught not as a job but as what Catholics call a vocation, a calling, and it’s not surprising to me at all that many of them moonlighted as volunteers to teach religion in their parishes and churches. They likewise showed an example of service, using their talents and time to serve the poor in groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, food pantries, homeless shelters and more, in a way sometimes heroic. They showed by their own life that there are far more important things that fame or fortune. And they really cared. I remember Headmaster Peter Stamas’ meeting with my brother and me when we were struggling to fit into the computer generated schedule the classes we wanted to take. He sat with us, had us prepare a list that would work, and made it happen. On another occasion, when I went to the Drivers’ Ed section to try to get an application for a motorcycle permit so that I could get drive to school before I would be able to drive a car, Mr. “Beaver” Robinson opened the drawer where the applications were and said I could come and get one. But before I got there, he sat on the drawer. I asked what this well-known Hockey Coach what he was doing and he said, “If you’re going to get one, you’re going to have to get me off this drawer. I’ve seen too many accidents and I care about you too much to give you one.” As a 16 year old kid, part of me was disappointed, a little angry, that he was not giving me what I wanted; but the more mature side of me was astonished, and grateful, that a teacher cared about me that much. And he was one of many. And the example of so many teachers like this of personal care for students, of using their time and gifts for others and especially for the needy, of vocation and mission, and of lives motivated by humble faith always inspired me and analogously I have tried to serve those who have been entrusted to me in Catholic parishes, high schools, and other apostolic works with the same type of virtue I saw in them.
I thank once again Mr. Martin and all those responsible for this great honor. And I hope that the students of the classes of 2017, 18, 19 and 20 will take as much advantage of the great gift of education you are being given in Lowell public schools as my fellow honorees and I from the classes of 1850, 1854, 1959, 1988 and 1992 have. We are all distinguished by having been blessed with the opportunity for a great education here at Lowell High.