Saturday, June 21, 2008

My Dad: Principal Without a Diploma

My dad, Raymond Leahy, at his desk as Principal of Dannemora High School, 1963.

The sad passing of Buffalo native Tim Russert last week made me think of my own father, Raymond Leahy. Like Mr. Russert, I was raised in an Irish Catholic family in upstate New York during the 1950's and 1960's. And just as he wrote a book about his father's life in his 2004 best seller "Big Russ", I've been editing my father's memoirs of growing up in Quebec, and coming to America where he became a successful school administrator.

Unlike Mr. Russert, I do not wax idyllic about the wonders of Buffalo, New York. It's descended into a predictably down beat grey bleakness over the last three decades from which it will never recover. I do, however, cherish the experiences of growing up in upstate New York. It's a great place to be from.

Big Russ was a World War II veteran who worked two jobs to put his kids through Catholic schools. His was the school of hard knocks, and the lessons he gave Tim stayed with him and helped him become the great and respected newsman he was.

My dad was a Korean Era vet who worked like crazy to overcome his lack of a formal high school education and carve out a career as a teacher and administrator in upstate New York. For those of you who may be interested, I've included the first few paragraphs of his memoirs:

I never understood why my mother and father married each other, let alone why they had five children together. We lived on a one hundred and twenty acre farm situated four miles west of the small village of Hemmingford Quebec. We were so close to the border with the United States that on a summer day you could head south on foot and after walking an hour through farms and woods you would be in the United States. There was no fence, no guard, not a sign anywhere to tell you were in the state of New York rather than the province of Quebec. Montreal lay forty miles to our north, and Plattsburgh, New York was a mere thirty miles to our south.

My dad's family was all Irish. My mother's family was half Irish, half French-Canadien. We were Roman Catholics, and the two families had lived in the same community, and attended St. Romain's Catholic Church together since the 1840's, when my dad's Grandfather Andrew Leahy and my mother's Great Grandfather James Dowd had immigrated from Ireland.

Though he was born in the right place, Dad was born fifty years too late. He was made for the life of a small farmer in the nineteenth century, the life his father and grandfather before him had lived, where a man knew his fields, his animals, and how to get the most out of the few resources available to him. He was a stubborn man who relied upon his own ingenuity and effort to scratch out a living from our rocky patch of land. He had the bad fortune of coming along at a time when rapid technological and social changes were making the kind of farm life at which he exceled obsolete.

In contrast to Dad, my mom was born in the right place at the right time. Her misfortune was to move from the right place to the wrong place just as she began her married life.

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