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.”