Death of a Storyteller
Ralph McInerny, 1929-2010
BY TOM HOOPES
February 14-27, 2010 Issue | Posted 2/8/10 at 2:00 AM
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — All Ralph McInerny ever wanted to do was tell stories. But when the University of Notre Dame professor of philosophy died Jan. 29, at age 80, he had done more than he ever dreamed of.
He published more than 40 books on philosophy and Catholic culture, wrote thousands of scholarly and general audience articles, edited three national magazines and authored more than 80 mystery novels (including the Father Dowling mysteries). He was an occasional poet and a full-time philosopher. His titles at Notre Dame included being director of the Jacques Maritain Center and Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies.
Along the way, he taught as visiting professor at 13 different universities (the last of them Oxford University in 2008), founded the magazine Crisis with Michael Novak, gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland and received eight honorary doctorates.
But “in my early teens I saw myself as a writer,” he wrote in a First Things retrospective on his career in March 2006. “I became fascinated with biographies of authors, and I idolized the upperclassmen who produced the poems and stories and articles for the school magazine.”
He would dedicate himself to his writing. But also to his country. And his Church.
After a short stint in the U.S. Marine Corps (1946–1947), McInerny entered St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., graduating in 1951. He then completed his postgraduate degrees in philosophy with astonishing speed: a master of arts from the University of Minnesota in 1952, and a Ph.L. and Ph.D. (summa cum laude) from Université Laval in Quebec in 1953 and 1954 respectively.
After teaching philosophy briefly at Creighton University (1954–1955), McInerny joined the philosophy faculty at the University of Notre Dame in 1955. He was made assistant professor in 1957, associate professor in 1963 and full professor in 1969. He went to Belgium as a Fulbright Research Fellow 1959–1960 and was awarded another Fulbright Fellowship in 1985–1986 to undertake research in Argentina.
Along the way, he fell in love — with philosophy.
“When I left the seminary for the second time, certain now that the priesthood was not my vocation, I was not the same man who entered,” he wrote. “I began graduate studies in philosophy. Philosophical prose is for the most part as distant from the imaginative use of language as one can get. Dullness is all. Dullness and clarity, that is. At the age of 22, any literary ambitions of mine were going to have to be compatible with my academic involvement.”
‘He Couldn’t Help But Write’
But he still had those literary ambitions.
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, recalled how devoted to his family — seven children and wife Connie (one child died at age 4) — McInerny was. But he never stopped writing.
“He would often tell the story of what he did,” said Father Fessio. “At 10, he’d go down and write for two or three hours. He wrote every day.”
Kimberly Shankman, academic dean of Benedictine College, said his philosophical and story-telling abilities were complementary.
She knows him as the deliverer of “the best lecture I’ve ever heard. ... I still remember the structure. He started with an anecdote and then built on it to incorporate very nuanced and powerful reflections on Aristotle and St. Thomas, applied them to contemporary issues, and closed by retelling the anecdote, which took on a whole new meaning in the light of the previous discussion. And he did it all without notes.”
McInerny’s successor at the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame is John O’Callaghan. He summed up his colleague — and mentor.
“He was a writer,” he said. “He couldn’t help but write. He wrote every day. Wrote short stories, wrote novels, wrote essays. I think it’s more that he was a writer and the writing took many modes.”
Said Father Fessio, “He was a scholar doing translation from Thomas Aquinas and writing popular novels and everything in between.”
But the mystery writing wasn’t in conflict with his deep philosophical mind, said O’Callaghan.
“Conceptually, the writing of fiction for him was a way of portraying human lives and a sort of moral development of individuals toward God or away from him,” he said. “I think he took seriously that human life has a narrative feature and in the telling of stories you could display for people what philosophically and morally he believed: that life is a life of virtue and vice.”
Just calling Notre Dame to get the school’s press release was enough to see the impact this man had on that campus. A switchboard operator, hearing that he had died, was audibly upset. “He’s in a better place,” she said.
“He will be greatly missed at Notre Dame,” said O’Callaghan. “He had an extraordinary effect upon everyone here. He was a gracious man. The grace that filled him poured into his students and his colleagues. He always had a smile, and he would do anything for you.”
He said one important dimension of McInerny’s legacy is “the model of a full human life that he presented, and that so many of us aspire to follow with the magnanimity and grace that came so easily to him.”
His love for family life inspired many to start families of their own.
“He was a phenomenal man of the Church,” said Father Fessio. “We’ve lost a great warrior.”
McInerny himself, in summing up his career, shared an anecdote about Herman Melville. The Moby Dick author was not successful in his own lifetime. After he died, a motto was found written by his desk: “Be true to the dreams of your youth.”
Said McInerny, the storyteller, “Finally, that is what any writer does, return again and again to the original aspiration that came to him when young. It is the writing, producing a well-made story, that counts. All the rest is gravy.”
Tom Hoopes writes from
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