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September 26, 2006

Growing Up Catholic

“Hello, Jimmy,” the frail old woman in a bathrobe, said from her wheelchair, reaching out to accept the flowers I’d brought her.


 It was a visiting room at a retirement home for Catholic nuns in St. Louis. About 12 years or so ago.


I’d called ahead to arrange the visit, with my former kindergarten and 4th grade teacher.


Sister Antonita Maria looked so different.  It had been nearly 40 years since I’d seen her at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Kansas City.


In those days, she'd  worn the long black, wool “nun’s habit” with starched collar that hid everything but the face.


Sister Antonita Maria had a  natural smile, a generous attitude, and lovely singing voice.


She must have been fairly young when she taught me, my equally unruly twin brother Johnny, and others in the 4th grade.


One day during the middle of class, she suddenly got up from her desk, rushed out and slammed the classroom door behind her.


I tipped toed to peek out the door. Sister Antonita Marie was standing in the school hallway – sobbing.


She was usually composed and cheerful. For some reason she did not elicit the moderate fear we had of the nuns’ discipline. Perhaps she didn’t carry the wooden ruler, like others, making the rounds between desk rows at test taking time.


The nuns wore a large crucifix and Rosary beads on their habits. We would listen for the sound of clicking beads approaching from behind us.


It was the 1950s. The St. Joseph order of nuns led a restrictive lifestyle. And they had to travel  in “twos” whenever they went outside the convent, school and church area.


My Mom would call the convent some Saturdays with an invitation.  ‘Would Sisters like to take a Sunday ride and stop for ice cream?’


If the answer was “yes,” my Dad would spend Saturday afternoon washing and waxing our 1948 Plymouth in preparation for the next day’s outing. It was considered an honor to have the Parish Priest or the Sisters in your home -- or your car.


And here, five decades later was Sister Antonita Maria  – perhaps in her late 70s,  and in a retirement home.


She’d had diabetes, with one leg amputated, and sat uncomfortably in the wheelchair.


“How is Johnny? Do you two get along any better?,” she asked with a bit of a smile.


Driving on to Michigan and home after the visit, I wondered if Sister Antonita could have recalled  such details about two little boys,  among the thousands she taught during her career.


There was nothing special  about the Richmond boys..


The “Sisters” were special --  for those of  us growing up Catholic in the 1950s.


September 08, 2006

*Tom Liston's Glory Days

 Tom Liston still has his “glory days.”


Not the glory days of high school in 1962, when he was the De La Salle Academy’s star basketball center, baseball pitcher and the tight end who  caught the winning touchdown against  arch rival Rockhurst High School in the waning minutes of the senior-year  game. And could date almost any girl in Kansas City.

 Not his  later glory days of national news media attention and  big money contracts as a professional baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals and other teams.


Liston's real glory has little to do with such things.

In 1961, my brother Johnny, and I were kicked out of Rockhurst High School in Kansas City at the end of our junior year.

The Jesuit order of priests ran Rockhurst -- an order admired  and reviled over centuries for its love of the intellect, power, politics and world missionary work.

As with most things, the Jesuits  were matter of fact about our  departure from Rockhurst High School.  We were gone, they told our distraught mother, because of marginal academic performance. ( I still think  we also didn’t quite fit the preppy “Jesuit” persona as two Irish kids from an inner city parish.)

It wasn't  easy changing high schools at the end of the  junior year. But we were accepted at  De La Salle Academy, a Christian Brothers school with a good reputation, and a diverse student body.

We  were welcomed by the Christian Brothers, and by members of the 1962 De La Salle Senior Class as if we’d been there all four years.

And 'class big shot' Tom Liston -- with every reason to ignore us -- did just the opposite. He went out of his way to be friendly and helpful in a low key way.


From C-minus students at Rockhurst, the Richmond brothers graduated with honors at De La Salle Academy in 1962.


Last week, Johnny (now a successful hospital president)  went back to the 44th reunion of our DeLa Salle graduating class.  There were about eight there  who’d graduated in our class.


Among them was a different Tom Liston – someone my brother did not at first recognize, and who candidly talked about  his life of alcoholism and drug addiction after the glory days of national television and major league baseball  ended in his late 20s.


 Liston had recently moved back to his old St. James Parish home  in Kansas City.


“If you saw him on the street, you’d probably think he was  homeless,” my brother wrote sadly to me in an email today -- Liston's  once impressive 6’-5” frame evidently bent over, his handsome, chiseled good looks of high school no where to be found  in a prematurely aged  face.

Talent, fame and fortune can be wonderful gifts, or difficult  burdens  over  a lifetime.


I choose  to remember the Tom Liston who never let athletics or popularity get in the way of being a thoughtful, nice  human being.


I bet, if you  think about it, there're a few Tom Listons in your own lifetime.


* Name Changed