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In Memoriam: Ralph McInerny

Thomas Bounds | Friday, February 5, 2010

Dr. Ralph McInerny, Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy, scholar, poet, writer, publisher, critic, family man and friend passed away this past Friday at the age of 80.
Over a 55-year career at Our Lady’s University, he wrote nearly 150 books, including a New York Times bestseller and a mystery series later adapted for NBC; taught thousands of students; directed more dissertations than any academic in Notre Dame’s history; developed friendships in legion and managed to inspire, offend or impress just about everyone he encountered.
He has been and will continue to be eulogized well by his closest friends and fellow academics. One should explore these pieces — the Internet is a good place to start — to learn more of this man imbued with “an angel’s wit and singular learning.”
However, as he last officially taught a course at Notre Dame in the fall of 2006, his influence has thinned among the student population to whom he devoted much of his efforts.
Please permit me, then, to share a bit of my own experience with this gracious man. While my interaction with him was limited, three aspects of his person stand out in memory: Ralph was inspiring, he was funny and he knew fully the joys and sorrows of life.
He told me a story once about the legendary Notre Dame English Professor Frank O’Malley.
“He would take some of his students over to the University Club,” Ralph explained, “and would very nearly get them (and himself) drunk. Then, standing up, he would orate forcefully on the outstanding talents of these young men, on the way in which each would go on to make a difference in the world. These boys were nothing special, of course, but they stumbled home thinking they were. And, by golly, some of them did something about it.”
This same spirit animated Ralph. By official count, he ranks among the top 10 Professors in the United States for number of Philosophy dissertations directed. He frequently taught Directed Readings courses at the request of students in addition to his regular teaching demands. Always, the emphasis lay on the ability of the student to come to knowledge through the use of his or her own intellect properly oriented towards the Truth.
As former student and now Loyola Marymount Professor Christopher Kaczor wrote recently, “He called forth the best from us by seeing it in us before we did.”
Ralph was also, to give the simile its literal force, funny as hell.
He was concerned primarily for the Catholic Church, especially that great body of inspired truth given it by St. Thomas Aquinas. The issues to which he devoted his work were thus serious matters indeed, but always, always with an air to the humorous, “the only test of gravity,” as Aristotle observed.
I asked him once — in those quaint pre-Obama days — about Fr. Jenkins’ decision regarding the Monologues.
He jumped back without missing a beat: “He turned a pornography play into World War III and spent six months trying to solve a problem his mother could have figured out in five minutes.”
His life was devoted in love to his wife Connie and their seven children. The loss of his three-year-old firstborn, Michael, in 1957 and of his wife, Connie, in 2002 marked the two great tragedies of his own life.
Once, after a group dinner at the Morris Inn, he asked the waitress for a box to take the rest of his meal home. “For tomorrow night,” he explained. One could tell he missed his bride.
Yet through it all he maintained that indefatigable joie de vivre. “Wherever the Catholic Sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine,” from a poem by Hilaire Belloc, were favorite lines of his. I asked him once last year about the Gospel teaching that husband and wife are not married in heaven.
He faced me with a smile and responded, “We romantics know better.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor McInerny a few times over the past couple of years. Now he reclines in memory: rounded brown tortoise shell glasses over a face punctuated by a Newport cigarette, tweed jacket with a button-down shirt, khaki pants crossed at the knee.
He is no longer with us, but, as Marvin O’Connell eulogized in a masterful homily earlier this week, “We can hedge our bets that Ralph rests now in the bosom of Abraham.”
In paradisum, deducant te Angeli …

Tom is a Senior at Notre Dame. He
recommends that you read “I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You,” the delightful autobiography of Ralph McInerny. He also recommends
seeking out his book of poetry, “The Soul of Wit,” and turning to his poem entitled “Necking.” Amidst the shock and laughter, you’ll have to smile. Tom can be contacted at tbounds@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.