As Father Ryan High School seniors left school Wednesday, Jan. 11, they walked out with a simple message: “You all are building your cathedral right now.”
The message was relayed to them by Jack Deegan, a 1947 graduate of Father Ryan High School, who visited four psychology classes to give them advice about preparing for college and the rest of their lives.
It all started with a handwritten letter that Deegan sent to the school asking if he could visit and address the students.
“As a retired college professor and a Ryan alumnus, I’ve spent many years studying the transition from high school into college,” Deegan wrote. “It’s a critically important juncture in their personal development changing from hopeful teenagers into career-minded young adults.”
Deegan approached each talk armed with his bachelor’s degree in business from Vanderbilt University, his Master of Business Administration degree from Florida State University, and his 27 years of experience as a college marketing professor at Texas Wesleyan University, where he was responsible for creating the marketing department and taught all nine of its classes. He spoke to the students about taking advantage of the formative years of high school to prepare them for what’s ahead.
“When I made the transition, and it’s regrettable that I stand up here and have to tell you, there is no formal program sanctioned by the education world, so it comes down to something that I’ve been developing for the last 27 years,” Deegan said. “It’s moving from a situation in high school where so much is done for you to now, it’s all done by you.
“It’s entirely your decision, entirely your responsibility, your future,” he said.
To explain what he meant, Deegan shared his transition story, noting how he graduated from Father Ryan with many accolades and honors including a religion medal. He had been accepted to the University of Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. But then, as a college freshman, he was put on the dean’s probation list.
“He called me in and said, ‘Deegan, I’ll give you one semester, get in it or get out,’” Deegan recalled. “I resented that because my confidence was shattered, a big detour sign put on my highway to success, and for two years, I was treading water. I changed my major three different times, but the dean had no offer or help or suggestion or advice. It was just do it.”
But, to make sure that the same didn’t happen to the students of today, he gave them advice that he wished someone had given him 76 years ago.
“The altitude people reach in life is determined more by their attitude than by their aptitude,” Deegan said. “You control it. You decide. No grading. No report. No test. It’s entirely up to you.
“There are two success habits,” he said. “Any career you want to talk about, any aspirations you have in life, do more than expected. Become a self-learner. They’re twins. You can’t do one without doing the other.
“You’re probably sitting there and saying, ‘Well, gee, I’ve got a busy schedule.’ I’ll tell you, you don’t know what a busy schedule is until you step on a college campus, and you’re going to have to be prepared like that,” he continued with a snap of his fingers. “You’ve got a nine-month head start before you walk on a college campus. Never, never again will you have the time, the youth, and the energy to do this. Life responsibilities won’t give you the luxury, so how much time do you spend incorporating these extra goodies? That’s up to you. And you’re going to have to live with your decision. But know that it’s a situation where you build your personal confidence.”
It won’t come without stumbles, he added.
“Expect to stumble. Each time, you gain a little more personal confidence,” he said.
With that in mind, he asked the students to think about an activity they do well. “Now, think back to when you first started wanting to do that. You were a klutz, but you practiced and practiced and practiced, and you improved your self-confidence. That’s the same way here,” he said.
“Again, senior year is ideal because you’ve got a nine-month running start of getting in the habit, so look at it from the standpoint of saying to yourself, ‘I’m not going to college. I’m starting career training in September,’” he said. “If you look at it that way, then you use college as four years of practice.”
To end his talk, Deegan shared one of his favorite stories, which tells about a young man walking in a part of town that he hadn’t in a while. Upon approaching an intersection, he heard noise to which he looked up and saw people working. Curious, he walked closer and first approached three men laying bricks. When he asked the first and second man what they were doing, they brushed him off rudely. But when he asked the third man, he said proudly, “I am building a cathedral.”
“He was laying brick just like the other two, but he saw the big picture, something that would be admired for years and years,” Deegan said. “Well, young men and young ladies, you all are building your cathedral right now. You have an opportunity to help yourself, to be proud of yourself, and this is the ideal time and place.”
The seniors said they were grateful to hear Deegan’s words of advice.
“It was really interesting and helpful,” said Aidan Bostelman. “I feel like it’s not something we have really heard yet, and I think it all motivated us to tackle this year and college knowing that we’re being very well prepared here.”
“I feel like a lot of kids our age don’t know exactly how to handle college and what the future holds,” added Krispin Braniff. “He gave a great example of what to expect and how to handle being an adult in a new environment and moving on in life.”
In between speaking to classes, Deegan received a tour of Father Ryan by President Paul Davis, and even found his class composite. All the while, he proudly walked around donning his purple Father Ryan Class of 1947 sash.
“I’m Irish for life,” he said.
This is only the second time since graduating that he had been able to return to the school.
“This is a lifelong dream for me coming back,” Deegan said. “Those formative years that I spent here, I walked on this campus in 1943 as a snot-nosed spoiled brat. I walked off four years later as a Christian gentleman with a purpose.
“That’s why the endearment is here much more so than an undergraduate or graduate school,” he said. “This is where I came alive. This is what formed me. This is what put me together as a human being, and I never will forget.”