Today I received an email I knew would be coming, telling me that one of my high school theology teachers, Jim Skerl, had died of pancreatic cancer. So ended a thoroughly Christian life, one that deserves to be better known.
I liked Mr. Skerl as a teacher—he had us read Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One” in his class on Death and Dying—but I can’t claim he made a major impression on me when I attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. But I do know that he made a major impression on many of the other boys he taught between 1978 and October 3, 2014, the date of his last class. As the mother of one of those boys wrote on Facebook today: “My son once told me, ‘Mom, you will never find anyone more like Jesus than Mr. Skerl.’"
I became aware that good things were happening in the Ignatius theology department not long after I graduated, when I attended an alumni gathering and heard from one of the teachers how students were now reading G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. But I didn’t become fully aware of the enormous good Mr. Skerl was doing until I attended the school’s Christmas fundraiser in 2008. The fundraiser is held at Severance Hall and features a Christmas concert by the Cleveland Orchestra. Until 2008, the part of the event that I had always liked least was the period after intermission, when the school typically honors a benefactor, who then gives a speech that always lasts too long for my taste. But in 2008 my wife and I enjoyed that part of the evening the most. That year, the school gave its Magis Award to Mr. Skerl. First we heard from the president, Fr. Kesicki, who told us how hard it was to persuade Mr. Skerl to accept the honor. And then we heard Mr. Skerl tell us how much he had learned from the members of the L’Arche Community for the mentally disabled he had invited into his home and into his classroom, and from the homeless of Cleveland, who, in a program he initiated, receive regular visits on Sunday nights from Ignatius students bringing them dinner and companionship. He told us that members of L’Arche were in attendance, as well as some no longer homeless people who had been helped to turn around their lives by the volunteers from Ignatius. He also described how grateful he was to the parents who had instilled his faith in him, and how that faith had been strengthened by all manner of people, including the 8,000 or so students he had taught at that point. Even though the spotlight was on him, Mr. Skerl used that spotlight to bring attention to others, including the type of others that most of us generally prefer to ignore. I could tell that even members of the Cleveland Orchestra, who typically sit impassively through the award presentation, were moved.
Mr. Skerl did not bring dinners to the homeless on Sunday nights or have students become friends to the disabled at L’Arche to bring attention to himself. The outside world had no idea this was going on, and most alumni had no idea, either, although we did somehow manage to keep informed about the school’s exploits in other areas, particularly the football field. But another of Mr. Skerl’s activities did end up bringing him some outside attention. In February 2006, Scott Simon of NPR interviewed a student, Dan Sklenka, about his work as a member of the St. Joseph of Arimathea pallbearer society. This society was another of Mr. Skerl’s ideas, conceived as a way to enable Ignatius students to perform one of the corporal works of mercy, burying the dead. The society is known to funeral directors in Cleveland, and whenever someone is being buried who has no one to carry his casket, either because he was indigent or because he had no friends or because his relatives or friends were too few or too infirm to carry his casket, a call is placed to Ignatius and eight young men, dressed in blue blazers, show up to respectfully carry the casket, offer their condolences to the living, and pray for the dead. As a result of that NPR interview, other high schools around the country have established similar pallbearer societies. Amazingly, the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society is now the most popular extracurricular activity at Ignatius, even though participation is limited to juniors and seniors.
I last saw Mr. Skerl a few years ago, when I stopped by the school on the way home from work. Since I graduated, it has become customary for members of the senior class to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament prior to graduation. I knew from another email from the school that the chapel would be open for this purpose, and I wanted to spend some time in prayer after a week spent doing things that, sub specie aeternitatis, mean rather less than the sort of activities Mr. Skerl filled his life with. And, of course, Mr. Skerl was there in the chapel, spending time with the Lord who guided his life.
Ignatius no longer offers the class on Death and Dying I took from Mr. Skerl, although I have heard from others that Mr. Skerl's last months at the school were a tutorial in how to face death like a Christian. But another of the classes he initiated is still in the curriculum, “Christian Manhood: Responding to the Call of Jesus Christ.” The students of St. Ignatius could have had no better teacher for that course than Mr. Skerl, who answered the call of Christ in an exemplary way.
UPDATE: I am pleased to report that the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a worthwhile front page story this morning, a very moving tribute to Mr. Skerl written by sportswriter Terry Pluto. You may read it here.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.