HARTFORD – A heartfelt thank-you from an archdiocesan high school student threatened to upstage a keynote talk by Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun during the 18th annual Archbishop’s St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in Hartford March 16.
Jenny S. (last name withheld) is a student at East Catholic High School in Manchester. Her goals include a career in the medical field and a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team.
But there was a problem.
“It was a serious health issue for my mom that put my parents’ ability to pay tuition in jeopardy,” she wrote in an essay that she read before nearly 900 people attending the scholarship fundraiser for the Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Schools (FACS).
“God answers prayers,” Jenny read from her essay. “I received the news that I was selected as one of the FACS scholarship recipients, and we got the extra help we needed. … Thank you from me, an East Catholic student, a volunteer and a dreamer.”
The event was sponsored by Farmington Bank, Sinatro Agency General Insurance and Trinity Health of New England.
Jim Calhoun, legendary college basketball coach, may not strike one as someone who once needed a helping hand the way Jenny and others needed it. In his talk, he told his personal story.
“See, I’m a guy who went through the important situation of losing my dad at 15, the hero of my life,” the former head coach of the UConn men’s basketball team said. As a result, even though he had a basketball scholarship to attend what is now UMass Lowell, he put his dreams on hold and worked as a stonecutter to help support his mother and his five siblings.
Help came in the form of Catholic Charities, finally enabling him and his siblings to pursue their dreams, he said. His siblings became successful, “and I turned out okay,” he quipped, to appreciative laughter.
“I turned out okay because others cared,” he said. “Someone cared enough about that kid [him] to send him to a private college. It was because of the Catholic Church. It was there when we needed it. It was there to help us. It was there to lend a hand, to try to explain the unexplainable, to put things in perspective.”
During a close basketball game some years ago, he told his players he was not going to come down too hard on them but rather dismiss mistakes with two words: “Next play.” Then a player made a mistake. The enraged coach strode onto the court. The offending player smiled and reminded him, “Remember, coach: next play.”
On the next play, the same player was fouled and won the game at the foul line.
“That’s what life’s about,” said the man who tallied 873 wins during his coaching career. “The next play. What can we possibly do? What can you do to help others today? I’ve got a good idea. You’re in the right place doing the right thing. Make sure that you pause for just a second to do the best you possibly can to help others. There is no greater gift.”
Archbishop Leonard P. Blair lightened the atmosphere with a few Irish-themed jokes, a tradition begun by Archbishop Emeritus Daniel A. Cronin and continued by Archbishop Emeritus Henry J. Mansell, both of whom attended the event, along with many other clergy and religious.
Archbishop Blair reminded listeners that tuition paid to the Catholic schools in Connecticut has in effect been subsidizing the public school system. Not only do parents of Catholic school students pay tuition – either directly or through scholarships – but they also pay taxes that support public education, he said. He urged support of a bill in the state legislature that calls for studying the feasibility of an education savings account to assist with tuition.
“Certainly, I believe we will always have our Catholic schools, God willing,” he said. “We don’t want them just to be schools for the wealthy. That’s not been part of our mission historically. And our parents need help if Catholic education is to remain vibrant and strong.”
Enid M. Rey, CEO at Our Piece of the Pie, a Hartford organization helping young people become self-sufficient adults, attended the event for the first time. She said she supports FACS because it shares a similar mission of providing support to people in need.
James Wade, an attorney at Robinson & Cole LLP in Hartford, said he has been attending for many years. “The Catholic school system in the greater Hartford area has a long-standing history of turning out great people,” he said. “I’m a member of this community and I see how important this is.”
Sister of Mercy Judith A. Carey, former vice president of mission integration at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, said, “Catholic education is a tremendous experience for every child.” She said the scholarships FACS provides make it possible for many students to receive a Catholic school education who otherwise could not.
“I was just telling someone that when the sisters began the Catholic schools many years ago, it was for the poor, it was for the immigrants, it was for those children who would never be able to get a Catholic education,” Sister Judith said. “So I’m just so happy, despite the changes that have had to happen, that we continue to support our Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Hartford.”
Cynthia Basil Howard, executive director of FACS for more than nine years, said, “Every student who comes to school is so eager to learn. And teaching is not a job the educators do; it’s a vocation. You have to walk into a Catholic school to see what’s happening. You’d be quite amazed.”
Early estimates of the money raised at this event averaged about $81,000, according to Fox News reporter Todd Piro, emcee.