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May 4, 2016

Father Berrigan A Life Admired

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The war in Vietnam was a turning point for me during my junior year in high school. We were assigned to do a controversial topic for our speech class and, in a place where sentiment for the war was strong, I choose getting out of Vietnam. This was 1967.


I contacted Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire's office for information as he was one of the only people in Congress who was against the war. He was from Wisconsin and, although a staunch anti-Civil Rights leader, he took on the anti-Vietnam stance. In the mail came a huge envelope with his position.


I went through the packet and formulated my talk and realized that Senator Proxmire was right. There would be "no Hanoi gun boats coming up the Potomac," a one phrase I still remember. The speech was a stunner but very successful. I earned an A.


I landed in college about a year and half later. The anti-war movement was in full swing. I immediately plunged into things and rose to become an anti-war leader. I led demonstrations in Washington, was editor of an anti-war paper and spoke against the war everywhere I could. I revel in those days.


Father Daniel J. Berrigan's obituary was in The New York Times yesterday, something I read each evening before going to sleep here in Borneo. I was surprised because I thought he had long since passed. He was one of those people who make a deep impression on you and then faded into the mists.


I was surprised to read he was 94, 30 years older than myself. Somehow, after meeting him several times, I was under the impression he was just a few years older than I was, not 30 years. We became strong acquaintances, not friends, but wine-drinking buddies. He came by, usually on the run and needing a place to sleep and encouraged our work.


I guess I felt an affinity toward him because I was also a Catholic. I remember the mean nuns and scary priests, and he was the first Father who acted somewhat human toward to me. I recall most Fridays were for confession, Saturdays meant Catechism, while Sundays were for Mass. The whole weekends were shot. I have avoided Mass ever since, but I always go to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican when I am in Rome. I am glued to the television whenever a Pope dies. Funny how being a Catholic sticks with you in strange ways.


When the war ended during my senior year in college, I went off to the Peace Corps and then to graduate school. My life started and ended as a teacher on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where I came down with a malady that ended my working career. He was in Salisbury a few times and he called me to recall old times and tell me his plans for the future.


I always followed Father Berrigan. He wrote many books. The poetry often comforted me in times of stress. I read in the newspapers about his anti-war activities, wishing I had the courage to join him with his band of nuns and priests. One incident which particularly stood out was his poring of blood on nuclear warheads. How he and his band of 60-70 year olds got into the place is legendary.


To him I attribute my left leaning politics and my activism in the Democratic Party. I fought for Civil Rights in Salisbury and Democratic Party candidates in Frederick. I often wrote about policies in education and anything else with which I did not agree.


His books of poetry still stand on my shelf; yes I did bring one of two to Borneo. They have gathered dust and mildew. I will clean them up for another read.


But his one action, along with his brother, was the Catonsville Nine Project where they burst into a draft office and seized records. They then burned them in the parking lot. I will always remember the phrase from the time period which really spurred me on – "the burning of paper instead of children."


...Life is good. . . . .


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