THE ARCHIVIST PULLED out the white steel drawer. “I think you’ll enjoy this,” she said cheerfully.
I looked down and froze. At the sight of the old map, 50 years drained away—and I was again in the presence of one of the most unforgettable figures of my youth.
It was during a holiday break that I found myself walking into SCU’s library. A lifelong friend was in town. He had briefly attended Santa Clara and was curious about the many recent changes to the campus he had read about—including this lovely building, finished in 2008.
I had a second motive as well. The University had approached me about donating my “papers” to SCU—reporter’s notes, book drafts, television episodes, and all the detritus accumulated from 35 years covering Silicon Valley … and to close the deal, invited me to visit the University’s museum-quality archives to see where those items would reside in perpetuity. I found the idea both humbling and hilarious—but decided, if nothing else, to get a free tour.
We found ourselves in the library’s basement, two gray-haired men being given a tour by the gracious staff of the archives. It was a disorienting combination of old artifacts and new technology: 19th-century paintings of early University presidents, Church vestments, panoramic photographs of students in letter sweaters and long-gone classroom buildings, athletic and scholastic medals and ribbons—framed by the great pale monoliths of automated storage bays. And all of it encapsulated in the thrum and slightly ozone smell of massive air filtration and temperature- and humidity-management systems.
My friend and I entertained ourselves looking at the various artifacts for longer than etiquette demanded of our patient host. It was time to justify our visit. If I were to donate my papers, I asked, how exactly would they be preserved? I suppressed a smile at the absurdity of donating yellow old interviews with local gray market criminals to sit next to the dignified old Jesuits in their official portraits.
That’s when the archivist walked us over to one of the bays, pulled open a drawer—and flung me back a half-century.
“Here, for example,” she said, “is an old map of the early Santa Clara Missions.”
“I know this map,” I told her. “I owned it for a while when I was a kid.”
Both she and my friend gave me puzzled looks. “But how … ?” the archivist asked.
“It’s a long story,” I told her.
I FIRST WALKED onto the campus of the University of Santa Clara, as it was then called, in January 1967. It was a time of revolution in the world, not least in what would be named, three years hence, Silicon Valley.
I was 12 years old, within days of turning 13—and my father had driven me down for my appointment. Everything about the place was alien to me. I was a suburban Easter and Christmas Presbyterian. Roman Catholicism was to me little more than a dark and musty mystery.
The appointment had been made by my Scoutmaster. All I was told was that I was to meet a “Fr. Spearman,” who had a possible project for me. I readily accepted—only to be filled with doubt later. I had never spoken to a priest. I didn’t even know how to address him. And, when I was told to meet him in the lobby of the “Jesuit Residence,” I was filled with terror.
But I was also determined. A few years before, the Boy Scouts of America, believing that older Scouts needed more managerial training for adulthood, added a new requirement for its supreme rank, Eagle Scout: a “service project” that required the Eagle candidate to identify a way to improve the community, develop a plan for the project, get approval from the recipient organization, and then manage a group of volunteers (sometimes adults, but usually other Scouts) to execute that plan. Finally, the project had to be wrapped up with a professional-quality report.
The Eagle service project would prove to be the single most important requirement change that Scouting ever made. In time it would turn the already iconic award into the “Ph.D. of boyhood.” And it has a profound effect on every young man who takes on its challenge.
Today, the process of conducting an Eagle service project is well-established, complete with booklets and databases of successful examples. Fifty years ago, it was all new; we pretty much made it up as we went along. There was a (false) rumor that a successful Eagle project had to be at least 40 hours long, so I had stipulated that to my Scoutmaster when he contacted Fr. Spearman.
The lobby of the Jesuit Residence was small and gloomy, and I can remember it containing little more than a bench, a chair, and a table with a telephone on it. Other than the ring of my own shoes on the marble floor, it was also eerily quiet; no one came or went. For all I could tell, beyond the heavy oak door was a big empty building. I picked up the phone and dialed a three-digit number. After a couple rings, it picked up … and an aged, but crisp, voice answered my greeting. “Ah, yes, the Boy Scout. I’ll be right down.”
For an old man, it didn’t take Fr. Spearman long to trot down what I assumed was at least one flight of stairs and two hallways. I had barely time to again settle on the bench when the door swung opened. I jumped to my feet and nervously held out my hand. “Father,” I said, fearfully.
Fr. Spearman in old age was intimidating, but this young man is terrifying. No one, and no thing in this world, will meet his approval.
We were about the same height—5-foot-8 or so—though we were obviously growing in opposite directions.
His hair was white and mostly gone, and behind his thick glasses he had an intense, though necessarily unfocused, stare that reminded me of another old man with an oversized personality I’d recently met: Buckminster Fuller.
Like Fuller, Fr. Spearman had a powerful voice and a bounce in his feet of a one-time athlete. The fundamental difference, though, between the two men, was that while the famous inventor seemed half-lost in a different dimension, Fr. Spearman was deeply present in the here and now. That only made him—along with his black suit, shiny with age, and white collar—even more intimidating. Acting like a dreamy and distracted 13 year-old, I realized, was not going to work with Fr. Spearman.
“Well, Michael,” he said, leaning towards me and staring into my eyes, as if challenging me, “I think I have just the project for you.”
FATHER SPEARMAN WAS 67 years old when I met him—and his path to our meeting was more remarkable than I could ever have imagined.
Arthur Dunning Spearman was born in Wheaton, Illinois, in 1899, the youngest of five children of Frank H. and Eugenia Spearman. Frank was an excellent businessman and founded a successful bank. But in the Spearman blood there was a maverick gene. Even as he was enjoying a life of respect and prosperity, Frank Spearman hid a secret dream: He wanted to be a writer.
So intense was his desire—and so understanding was his wife—that instead of pursuing his business career to achieve greater rank and wealth, he quit to devote his life to writing Western fiction. One of these early stories featured the appearance of a character, a railroad detective, with the unlikely name of Whispering Smith. Scenarios like this one usually end in poverty and disillusion. But Frank Spearman proved to be a terrific writer. At age 40, he found overnight success. About the time Arthur was born, his father started a novel about Whispering Smith.
It sold nearly 40,000 copies in just six months. Over the next century it would be adapted to silent and talking films eight times (the most famous being the last, in 1948, which introduced a young Alan Ladd), and as a 1961 television series. The novel remained in print for 40 years. Its plot is so gripping that I expect the story will be remade for generations to come.
Frank Spearman would never again have a success like Whispering Smith—he didn’t need to.
Within a decade, the Spearman family was living in a mansion, Beausoleil, in their new hometown of Hollywood, California.
It was in this world of movie stars and deals, mansions and expensive cars, glamor and overnight fame, that Arthur Spearman was raised—and from which he soon walked away.
There are two photos extant of Arthur Spearman in his late youth. The first, taken in 1918, shows a young swain, his short blond hair brushed back, a long face, small and deep-set eyes flanking a long, straight nose, and wide mouth like a gash straight across the bottom of his face. His eyes are intelligent and penetrating, but also betray fear … as if he is unprepared to deal with this world while he is already focused on another. As the 1920s begin to roar, he is already retreating to another, quieter place.
The second photograph is taken four years later, but it might as well have been 40, or 400 years earlier. Arthur Spearman, now a scholastic member of the Society of Jesus, stands in a Southern California garden in front of an explosion of palm fronds and a manicured edging of flowering stock. He wears a cassock, and on his head is a four-pointed black biretta that suggests a liturgical degree. At age 23 he is probably three years out of the Novitiate and studying philosophy. He stands impatiently with his heels together, hands at his sides, looking like a coiled spring ready to leap out of the camera frame and get back to more important matters.
But it is his face that is the most shocking. It is almost medieval—a skull, as if the prayers and the mortifications of the previous years have stripped it of everything but parchment skin and bone. The eyes are dark, deep-sunk and suspicious. And the straight line of the mouth has now curved down on each side, the lower lip pushing up so hard—in disapproval at the common courtesies?—that it has puffed out his upper lip.
It is the face of an ascetic, perhaps even a fanatic. Father Spearman in old age was intimidating; but this young man is terrifying. No one, and no thing in this world, will ever meet his approval.
For 30 years Fr. Spearman served—not surprisingly for a child of books—as the librarian of Loyola University. And somehow, along the way, he changed. He was still as rigid and uncompromising in his viewpoints; he became notorious as someone who, when he believed in something, brooked no argument, even from his superiors. But something different, warmer and less monochromatic, now characterized this man. Fr. Spearman had found a second love, almost as deep as his faith: California history.
The history of the Golden State, especially the Mission era, is filled with violence and greed, nobility and inexplicable events; it’s hard to imagine anyone devoting their lives to its study and still maintaining an inflexible attitude toward human behavior. Perhaps that’s what happened; in the years that followed, Fr. Spearman remained the maverick troublemaker, but there entered into his personality, his work, and even his face, a greater understanding—even forgiveness—of human frailty, including his own.
LIKE HIS FATHER, once Arthur Spearman, S.J., found his calling in writing, it unleashed a flood of words.
He had flirted with books as early as the late 1920s. Now, having found his subject, he delivered a burst of nonfiction—articles, monographs, compilations of Frank Spearman’s papers, and most important, history books for the public.
One of these books, about SCU’s John J. Montgomery, is credited with restoring that aviation pioneer to his rightful place in history. (I remember Fr. Spearman telling me, with a historian’s relish, the gory details of Montgomery’s death.)
His best book, The Five Missions of Santa Clara, published in 1963, arrived just as the State of California announced its required California Mission history curriculum for all fourth graders. Three generations of schoolchildren, even as they constructed their clay mission models, studied Fr. Spearman’s book—as did I. Though I had no idea the priest I met that day in 1967 was its author. By then, Arthur Spearman had become a fixture on the Santa Clara University campus. He arrived in the mid-1950s to take on the plum assignment of running the new de Saisset Museum.
It was everything he wanted. He devoted himself to zealously guarding and expanding a collection of historic artifacts … and, in the process, making himself a thorn in the side of the campus administration. He took full advantage of the fact that he was now a well-known historian to leverage the money and facilities he needed. He built one of the greatest collections of its kind—but not without creating more than his share of enemies.
I remember, on my second visit with Fr. Spearman, the glee with which he took me down into the de Saisset’s basement to show me just a fraction of the collection—old tools, liturgical vestments, Ohlone baskets. I sensed that he could go on digging out items and showing them to me forever. That day, Fr. Spearman exposed me for the first time to the richness of the history of my own hometown. After a lifetime of writing that history, that first excitement has never left me.
Finally, Father Spearman pulled open a flat drawer and pulled out a pile of maps, some on vellum. “This is how you can help me, if you are interested,” he said. “These maps are of the five different Missions of Santa Clara, beginning with the first one in 1777, all the way up to the present one built in 1928 after the previous one burned.
“No one,” he continued, “has ever combined all of these missions into a single map. And that is because none of them are drawn in the same scale. Perhaps you’d like to try to put them all together?”
I didn’t know enough to say no. And so, for the next three months, to my family’s growing chagrin, I taped a large sheet of paper, covered with maps and smaller sheets of paper, to one end of our dining room table. This being well before the personal computer age, my father, who worked at NASA Ames, arranged for me to visit its art department—men already deep in work on the Apollo program—and get some rudimentary instruction in using a rapidograph pen, overlay transparencies, and handling an Exacto knife to cut out forms in red mylar.
My goal was to create five overlaying transparencies, each showing the buildings of one of the missions, and each in the same scale and in the proper location.
But I quickly ran into a major problem: Not only were the maps not in the same scale, as Fr. Spearman had said, they weren’t even in the same units of measurement. The modern ones were in yards and meters, but the older ones were in such obsolete measures as rods, chains, and links … and in one, they were actually indecipherable.
The result was weeks spent in a nightmare of desktop calculator and hand calculations, followed by a clumsy attempt to act like a professional graphic artist and cartographer. Eventually, 80 hours into the project, I hit a wall: I couldn’t reconcile one of the older maps to the modern city of Santa Clara.
That led to a meeting with the manager of a Sunnyvale blueprint firm. He puzzled out my confused request, nodded brusquely, and told me to come back in a couple days.
I did as I was told—and found that the man had created a series of blow-ups, both on paper and transparencies, that put all of my missions and their outbuildings in common scale. He not only saved my project, but he refused to be paid. “When you grow up,” he said, “do the same thing for some other young kid working on his Eagle project.”
That moment changed my life. I’ve spent my adult life thanking that man, whose name I quickly forgot. I’ve now mentored nearly 100 young men to their Eagles. Yet, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still not payment in full.
TWELVE WEEKS AFTER I began, I finished the five maps, all of them properly aligned atop one another. It looked great. But was it accurate? There was only one way to know for sure. Late one Saturday afternoon that spring, I led a half-dozen fellow young Scouts onto the bright green lawns around the Mission.
Armed with hammers, we drove three stainless steel rods into the ground at scores of different locations, testing to see if they hit buried foundation rocks and stone floor, or just compressed dirt. We used stakes and strings to delineate the overall dimensions of the long-lost buildings.
We must have been an incongruous sight: seven boys in Scout uniforms crawling across a wide lawn behind O’Connor Hall, beneath what was then the tall campus dormitory building of Montgomery Hall (now the site of Mayer Theater), which, from almost every window—many of them draped with peace symbols and North Vietnamese and Cuban flags—blared Surrealistic Pillow and Sgt. Pepper’s. Certainly the students passing by found us amusing—when they weren’t dismissing us as tools of the War Machine. We tried to ignore them by keeping our heads down and focusing on our work.
In the end, we confirmed as best we could that my maps were accurate. I wrote up the report on my project and delivered the results to a pleased Fr. Spearman, who took the maps and immediately stuck them in a drawer. I never thought I’d see them again.
Two months later, the incongruity was reversed, when Fr. Spearman stood in the multi-purpose room of a Sunnyvale elementary school and presented me with my Eagle medal. I worried that he would be too exotic for the audience of suburban moms and dads. He dazzled them.
I figured that would be my last encounter with Fr. Spearman and Santa Clara University. But life has a way of taking unlikely turns.
A few years later, the Boy Scouts of America published a new edition of its handbook. It was decided that the manual needed a section describing the Eagle service project and offering examples. The timing was such that the author of that section grabbed a pile of project reports and picked—out of the entire nation—two from a single troop in Sunnyvale. One was my map project.
The two projects joined eight others in what came to be called “The List,” because, thanks to bureaucratic inertia, it remained a part of future editions of the handbook for forty years. Some 50 million Scouts read the List during those decades; more than one million became Eagle Scouts. But there was more. The other nine service projects on the List were classic Scouting activities: a bicycle rodeo, a bridge at a country park, repairing and distributing used toys to the needy. Only one was different: “Surveyed the remains of an old Spanish Mission and prepared an accurate map relating it to the present church.”
What would it be like to be a 15-year-old Life Scout searching for a service project—and come across that listing? Did they imagine a young Indiana Jones surveying the ruins of an old mission out in the Southwest desert? The truth was seven kids pounding stakes in the lawn of an elegant college campus in the middle of Silicon Valley.
In the years that followed, the Eagle service project turned into something of an arms race, in which generations of candidates competed for the most ambitious project.
By the time, just three years ago, when the List finally disappeared from BSA documents, America’s Eagle Scouts had performed an estimated 150 million hours of work—the largest youth service initiative in history.
It can be accurately said that Fr. Spearman’s little mapping assignment had, in no small part, changed the face of every park, school, trail, and cemetery in the United States.
As for myself, four years after my Court of Honor, I limped back onto the Santa Clara campus for an appointment with the academic vice-president. I had been accepted by the University six months before but turned it down to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. Now it was September 1971, I had pneumonia in one lung and two blown-out knees in need of surgery—and a recommendation letter in my pocket from the mayor of Sunnyvale. Forty-eight hours later I was attending freshman orientation.
That year at SCU would prove to be the darkest time of my life. My dreams had imploded. I was indifferent in class and, because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for a dorm, driving home each night to hide from my responsibilities. My grades couldn’t plummet—they were already subterranean. While my high school friends who attended SCU settled into university life, my father sat me down soon after midterms and suggested that perhaps college wasn’t for me—and that I should consider apprenticing into a trade.
IT WAS WRITING that saved me. I majored in combined sciences (a mistake) but started spending every minute writing short stories—then inflicting them on the only non-science professor I had, a very patient Chris Leviestro. He ignored what was terrible and urged me to keep trying. On an impulse, I walked into the office of the student newspaper, The Santa Clara, and offered my services. Two months later, my column, “The Weekend Wanderer,” appeared—and ran for the next six years. It’s the longest-running feature in the paper’s history. In another mentor, the now-mythical Jim Degnan, I discovered someone who could teach me to be a real writer. He even found me an internship at Hewlett-Packard that would prove to be the first stepping stone in a lifelong career as a journalist.
The column gave meaning to my undergraduate years. Remarkably, for a day student, I was one of the best-known figures on campus—if not in person, then by byline. By my senior year at SCU I had gone from a nobody to a minor celebrity, from the depths of despair to the heights of cockiness. I, along with several other budding writers, had set out to raise the quality of feature writing in the various University publications. Now we set out to shock.
Each issue of the newspaper featured—usually by me—one unprecedented obscenity or taboo topic designed to offend. It became a race to see what we could get away with in challenging the administration, and I was often in the lead. One column drew a sit-in of students at the newspaper. Even faculty members, always happy to fight the establishment, began to write appalled letters to the editor.
Then came serious backlash. Unknown to me, the campus publications committee held a meeting to consider my censure. One of my counterparts—later the movie critic for Apple iTunes but then editor of the campus humor magazine—was suspended, the punishment precisely timed so he couldn’t attend graduation. Rumor was that I survived a similar fate solely by the vote of the single student representative (and future AP White House correspondent).
Rather than temper my behavior, survival made me more cocky. Winning a pair of literary prizes my senior year confirmed in my mind that I was on the right path. That everyone on campus now knew my name only goaded me on to greater heights of outrageousness.
Then came the message, left at the front desk of the newspaper office: Fr. Spearman wanted to see me.
I HADN’T FORGOTTEN Fr. Spearman. I assumed he was still on campus. He retired—to the relief of many in the administration—just before I arrived, and disappeared. Not knowing if he even remembered me, I made no effort to contact him. So the note, coming from a man I hadn’t seen since the end of junior high school, came as no small surprise. As was the fact that I was to reach him at the Donohoe Infirmary.
As he excoriated me for my published sins, I wanted to be that Boy Scout again. But I couldn’t.
I called and Fr. Spearman answered, but in a much softer voice than I remembered. We agreed that I would come right over.
I found him in a small, spare, and private room. He was dressed, as always, in black, with his white collar, and glasses that had only grown thicker.
But he was not the energetic, confident Arthur Spearman I remembered. We had once looked at each other eye to eye. Now, as I stood there, more than 6 feet tall with a corona of black curls, I could see that he had become heart-breakingly small and frail. It was obvious on his face that he had been very ill. He had, in fact, less than two years to live.
It was not a nice meeting, nor a happy reunion. I sensed what was coming when I saw, with dread, on the table beside him, the latest copy of the school paper.
We exchanged pleasantries and reminisced a little about my Eagle project—which he remembered well. But the small talk didn’t last long. “Michael,” he said, “I’ve become very worried about you. That is why I’ve asked you to come.”
“I’ve been following your stories in the paper for the last two years. I had seen the name on top, but it was only recently that I learned it was you.”
“Yes, Father. It’s me.”
His eyes slowly reignited with the old fire. “I’ve spoken with other priests, and heard others still, and they tell me that your columns are immoral, obscene, and un-Christian.” He paused. “And I agree with them.”
“Yes, Father.” I was 13 again, and that was all I could think of to reply.
“I remember when I pinned that medal on you, Michael. You stood there so proud and your parents watched with so much pride. How proud can they be now?”
Fr. Spearman thumped his hand on the paper, “When I had some say at this University, this kind of trash wasn’t allowed. Now, no one complains! And you! When you wrote that this University is ‘The Pope’s School for Incorrigible Boys and Girls’? You were right! And why? Because it is full of students like you.”
That was just the beginning. And as he excoriated me for my published sins, I wanted to be that young Boy Scout for him again. But I couldn’t. Writing had seized me—just as it had seized Fr. Spearman, and his father before him—and it wouldn’t let go. Earlier that year I had even flunked the first class in my life because I had been too distracted working on a long feature for the newspaper.
So I just stood there and took Fr. Spearman’s attack. I felt broken and hollowed out. But not guilty. It was many years later that I came to realize that what occurred in that little room that day was, as much as anything else, an old maverick warning a young one about the cost of taking the wayward path. By the time I finally understood, I had my own share of scars.
Finally, weary at this rare exertion, Fr. Spearman suddenly grew quiet. “I wanted to talk to you, Michael, to see if it is too late. But it isn’t. You still look like the boy I pinned the medal on. So tall and young. And your eyes are still clear. And that is most important.”
He took my hand and whispered, “Give my best to your lovely parents.”
I STUDIED THE old map in the drawer for a while, remembering. Then I pointed to a missing upper corner and said to the archivist: “There, see that? I accidentally tore it off when I pulled the map from the tape on my parent’s dining table.”
The woman leaned forward and peered. “Well, that’s very interesting. We’re always curious here to learn the history of these artifacts. We’ll remember your story.”
My friend and I walked out of the library and across campus. It was a very different place than the University we remembered from our time: twice as large, with big new buildings and even bigger plans for the future.
I’m now nearly the age of Fr. Spearman when I first met him. My oldest son attended SCU—and, unlike his father, he chose to embrace an English major, rather than merely flirt with it. He was part of, for good and bad, a very different generation of Santa Clara students. I know because I now teach here, in my old writing class. This generation is smarter than we were, and more accomplished—but they would also never even think about putting dirty words in the school paper.
We crossed the old center of the University—more glamorous than ever—not least the de Saisset, now foremost an art museum, on this day festooned with banners for a show. As we walked across its lawns, over buried ruins I had searched for as a boy, I spotted a sign and smiled. Years after I gave the results of my project to Fr. Spearman, an official brochure appeared on campus that featured a map of the Mission and campus. I didn’t see it until I arrived as a student—but one glance told me its source. Fr. Spearman had not filed away my work.
In the years since, its origin long-forgotten and its features regularly updated, modified and now digitized and put online, my little dining table effort still endures at the heart of the official map of Santa Clara Mission and University. And it can be found, as I found it that day, on signs around the campus—including one next to de Saisset Museum, where it began.
As I looked at the sign that day, and as I have ever since, I thought: I gave Fr. Spearman a map; but he gave me a direction.
MICHAEL S. MALONE ’75, MBA ’77 is a writer, producer, entrepreneur, the world’s first daily tech reporter, and author of more than a dozen books. He’s also a frequent contributor to this magazine. Check out “Geography and Destiny” and “Silicon Valley Story” for starters.