The Green Knight

Fr. Ted Rynes was more than a professor and a college advisor. He was a beacon that showed students the way to learn and write and live.

“I don’t want you to die,” I told Fr. Theodore Rynes in one of our last conversations. I’d pulled over on a Minneapolis street as soon as he told me about the lymphoma. The grass was newly green, the trees fully leaved. The spring was glorious.

“Everyone has to die,” he said.

Holding the phone to my ear, I stared at the fresh foliage, the blue sky. A woman came out of a house, hopped into a car.

“But I thought you would live forever.”

Ted Rynes, S.J., taught English at Santa Clara for 45 years. A generous teacher with exacting standards, he was dubbed “C-minus Rynes,” a rhymed couplet of a moniker to represent his exacting standards. But no teacher ever worked harder or cared more for his students. “I will keep teaching for as long as I’m effective,” he would say.

When he died May 29, he had been contemplating his fall syllabus, worrying how chemotherapy might affect his effectiveness. For Ted, it was all about the teaching.

From 1979 to 1983, I took seven courses from Fr. Rynes, in addition to two journalism practicums. That might seem excessive, but as he told the class during Western World Lit: “Find an author you like and read everything he or she has written. You might adopt his style. It may help you to develop your own.”

The same holds true for mentors. Thomas Aquinas once said that to live a good life we should spend less time on ourselves and more time contemplating our exemplars, imitating their actions as much as possible.

People like Ted are the hidden curriculum at Santa Clara. I didn’t expect to major in a person when I came to SCU so long ago, but when you find a good soul, you hang on.

Thirty-five years ago, traveling 2,000 miles to attend college was less common than it is now. “How does someone from Minnesota end up at Santa Clara?” people used to ask me. The story begins with a serendipitous meeting with a generous Jesuit and continues with the magnanimity of another many years later.

In 1974, while in his first year of community college, my brother, Geoff Long ’77, attended Sunday Mass at our parish in Minneapolis. When he saw the visiting priest, he thought: He looks familiar.

Turns out, it was William Rewak, S.J., a man who had lived and worked at our parish five years before while earning a Ph.D. in American lit at the University of Minnesota. Fr. Rewak had celebrated the funeral Mass of my grandfather. My brother was 13 when our grandpa died, and that death had hit him hard. Geoff served as an altar boy at that funeral.

Geoff said hello. Fr. Rewak explained he was now an English professor at the University of Santa Clara—in faraway California. He was a member of an order of priests called the Jesuits.

Our father was a social worker, and though college was on the horizon for all seven of us kids, we saw it more as a change of pattern than a destination. We figured that we would all inevitably cobble together a degree, locally—between waitressing or cleaning hotel toilets or sharpening hockey skates, or whatever jobs we’d had since first fudging our birth certificates on the library’s Xerox machine to bypass child labor laws. But then Fr. Rewak appeared. With his help, Geoff received a scholarship and was off to a mythical place called College in California.

“It was total kismet,” Geoff says.

To me, it was a miracle.

While Geoff was away, the rest of us grew up. Subsequent sisters were offered financial help to attend Santa Clara, but when none took advantage it seemed the opportunity might dry up, that the magic carpet ride would be Geoff’s alone.

But in April of my senior year of high school, Fr. Rewak, now the president of the University, called me with a scholarship offer.

I might have fainted. I’d never been out of Minnesota. I’d never been on an airplane. I’d never seen the ocean.

The miracle had been extended to me.

At Santa Clara I found roses big as cabbages, impatiens with stems thick as my wrist, gnarled wisteria vines so ancient they consumed the trellis on which they grew, lemons hanging from trees. During my first week on campus, my brother stopped by fourth floor Swig to say hello. Fr. Rewak was with him, traveling incognito in khakis and a golf shirt. He handed me The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

“Who’s your advisor?” he asked.

All freshmen had been given a slip of paper on which was written the name of an advisor. I fished the paper from my pocket. “Rines?” I mispronounced—rhyming it with Heinz, like the ketchup.

“Oh, he’s very good,” Fr. Rewak said.

And he was. He was also tall, with a Captain Ahab beard and an intimidating baritone voice. Pay attention, the timbre of that voice said. This is serious. He spoke in iambic pentameter, wore knit ties, dressed in a dark green corduroy suit (earning him the moniker “The Green Knight”), and he would offer odd and unexpected observations, such as, “I wonder why these flies are here. Is it honey, or is it dung?”

We would laugh, look at each other, shake our heads. I’d gone to a school of low expectations, and when meeting my more aptly prepared peers, I would say to myself, moving among them: You’re smarter than me; you’re smarter than me; you’re smarter than me.

But then I took a class from Fr. Rynes and he believed in me.

Gratitude is a great motivator, and curiosity lights the fire, but when those two combine with a wise person in your corner, education begins.

Fr. Rynes had a gift for transforming the most awkward bumblings of his students into the questions we’d meant to ask. He would listen and listen, and you would stumble and backtrack and misuse words. Then, like some kind of Zen master, he would pluck the essential idea from your mess of fragments and redeliver it in an artful package.

“Is that what you meant?” he’d ask.

It always was.

One day, Fr. Rynes came to class with a patch over his eye, like a pirate. He’d scratched his cornea. You could feel the entire class wince. No one wanted to see that man hurt.

Early in my years at Santa Clara, a teacher told me, “You don’t speak well. You’re not very articulate.” When I confided this to Fr. Rynes, hoping to avoid oral presentations, he shot back: “Who cares? You can write.”

His indignation, his affirmation—he’d won me over for life.

There are teachers dedicated to their craft and knowledgeable about their subjects, but Fr. Rynes was more; he was kind and encouraging and holy.

Ted’s priesthood and his teaching were inseparable, like double-hung windowpanes Just as literature illuminates God, God is illuminated in literature, and Ted was always seeking God. Up until his death, Ted was reading books that would inform his classes, that would not only teach his students to think and write but to see God in all things. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…,” I hear him say. In lines of Hopkins, Swift, Pope, Donne—I hear Ted’s voice, his iambic, baritone voice: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God for you/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend…”

Eventually, most of us leave Santa Clara, get jobs, become people in the world, but if my brother could be friends with Fr. Rewak, I was determined to be so with Fr. Rynes. I wrote him letters—about grad school, dubious first jobs, sub-zero weather. And he wrote back, telling me about his classes, urging me to hang in there, agreeing to write even more letters of recommendation.

In 1987 he flew to Minnesota to perform our wedding.

In 1990 he met our first born, Megan (who, 18 years later, would take the first of three courses from him at SCU).

In 1993 he met our second born, Paul (who throughout his young childhood would refer to Ted as “Ted” and to every other priest as “The Guy Who’s Not Ted.”

In 1995 he called. “I’ll be passing through Minnesota to visit my sister, Marilyn, and a friend, Sr. Ann Wittman, in Wisconsin,” he said. “I could stop by.”

Of course I said yes.

After that, we saw him twice a year as he made his Midwest swing. Over the years, we took him to swim meets, piano recitals, basketball games, Legoland, the Guthrie. He said Mass at our parish, served meals at Loaves and Fishes, was the star attraction at the SCU-Accepted-Student receptions we hosted each year with my younger sister Catherine (Long) Earley ’86 and brother-in-law Kevin Earley ’86.

He was a gamer, game to do anything we were doing. He read all seven Harry Potter books and discussed them with my children over the years, dressing up as Dumbledore to their Hermione and Harry and greeting everyone in the theater in the droll diction of the learned wizard while stroking the long white beard we’d picked up for him at the craft shop.

When he visited during the winter, along with prepping for his classes, he would help decorate the tree, offer Mass at the parish, bravely parka-up and walk around the lake across the street from our house.

During summers, we would go to our cabin in northern Minnesota where he’d work jigsaw puzzles, say mass on the deck, and fish.

He wasn’t much of an angler, but he would stand on the dock for hours reeling in impossibly small fish. “Think of it this way,” I’d say, as I’d watch him pry the swallowed hook from a bluegill’s throat and toss the poor thing back. “You’re a fisher of men.”

One July afternoon when Megan was 6, she, Ted, and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the Monet exhibit. As the sky darkened outside and tornado sirens sounded, we meandered the inner galleries far from any windows. A small crowd milled about. Ted read descriptions, stepped back to view paintings. I hovered so Megan wouldn’t knock a framed haystack from the wall.

Then the power went out.

The darkness was instant and deep. It covered us like a great curtain. Terrified, I swooped Megan up and cooed to her in that pocket of nothingness between our faces as my own heart pounded.

Then I felt Ted’s arm around me. He leaned in and began singing: “The farmer in the dell, the farmer in the dell…” Megan laughed. So did I. Within minutes, a light appeared: a flashlight held aloft by an usher. “Follow the light,” a voice said. And so we did—me holding Megan, Ted guiding us.

What many of us learned from Ted Rynes was that you don’t have to go out and conquer the world, or be concerned with your own happiness, or make a lot of money, or be important—you just have to labor on in the slow work of guiding others. As with most good priests, Ted never asked what he wanted from life, but what life required of him. Years after I graduated, while winnowing my possessions, I came across some old papers and tests from his classes. In a fit of purging, I tossed them all, except for one sentence he’d written at the bottom of a bluebook essay. I tore it out and have kept it ever since. “Love is the real answer,” it said in Ted’s familiar blue-penciled cursive.

Ten years into Ted’s visits to the Midwest, I took a job teaching high school English. While at the cabin, with my family out swimming and Ted inside reading, I struggled to map out my first syllabus.

“How do you do that daily paragraph thing?” I asked him. “How does that work? How many do they have to hand in?”

He put down Millenials Rising and explained.

“How many weeks will each unit take? How many rewrites of their papers can I expect?” The school year was to start in two weeks and my syllabus was a messy timetable of hypothetical stops en route to an elusive destination called “Will They Learn All They Need to Know?”

“I can’t predict any of this,” I moaned. “I can’t schedule it all. I don’t know what they’ll need from me.”

Ted set his book down and came over. “Your wheels are spinning,” he said. “When school starts and you hit the ground, it will get better.”

His voice was so calm I hear it still.

Ted taught his students to love literature and big ideas and (for those of us who went on to become teachers) he taught us to convey these things with joy and passion. He taught us that every student has strengths to develop, weaknesses to overcome. He taught us to be there for our students for as long as they need us.

The first thing I did after my wheels hit the ground at Saint Thomas Academy was to slap up a poster of SCU in my classroom—right next to Shakespeare. The second thing was to ask Ted to guest lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that December.

His lecture turned into a yearly gig. And it was awesome.

“Are you going to let others tell you how you’re supposed to see the world?” he would ask, explaining Gawain’s shield, the pentangle on the outside, the image of the Virgin Mary on the inside. I would sit at my desk, poster of palm trees beside me, snow pellets pounding the windows, and watch my professor captivate my sophomores as he’d captivated me 30 years before.

“Gawain isn’t perfect. He flinches. How you respond to failure is the greatest test of your character. Gawain is not perfect. But he accepts that.” He’d stab a finger into the air for emphasis. “That’s real integrity. Real character.”

A good number of my students went on to SCU after that and continue to do so. Whenever any them went out to see the campus, I’d always point them Ted’s way. “‘The Green Knight Guy’ gave us a great tour,” they would say upon their return.

With her childhood punctuated by Ted’s visits, it was inevitable that our daughter, Megan, would become a Bronco. When she began her freshman year in 2008, Ted picked us up at the airport. We’d already shipped most of Megan’s stuff ahead, sending it to Ted, who’d stored it in his closet. (“I tried on all the dresses,” he joked.) He drove us to Sobrato Hall, helped unpack boxes. The day I had to get on the plane and leave her behind, I emptied my wallet into her hands.

“What else do you need?” I asked.

Ted was standing by. He was always standing by for her.

“Maybe Fr. Rewak’s coming to Minnesota so long ago wasn’t for Geoff, or for me,” I told her. “Maybe it was for you.”

But I realize now it was for a lot of people. I see now that real kindness—Fr. Rewak’s, Ted’s—has the power to shine on endlessly, like a light.

My husband and I were driving on a county road near the cabin whenTed’s sister called. The sky was cloudy. Between the pines, lakes flashed by as we passed them.

“Ted died this morning,” I heard.

I felt a weird deep-muscle tremor. Back at the cabin, I called Megan (’12) and Paul, and Mary Winklebleck, whom Ted had introduced me to some three decades before. I talked with Barbara Murray, who with others was in the room with Ted. Does he look peaceful? I wanted to jump through the phone line. Hold his hand. But a frustrating 2,000 miles and spotty cell phone coverage lay between us. Fr. Rewak emailed. “I’m so sorry,” he wrote.

We packed up and went home. It didn’t do to sit still. It was dark and raining as we drove.

“What happened?” I asked Fr. Rewak. “Where is he?” Fr. Rewak answered every question immediately, and when I blathered on, he listened.

“Fr. Rewak has been so kind,” I texted my brother later that night.

“He always is,” my brother texted back.

What I wanted was to call Ted to tell him about this sad thing that had happened. A light had gone out and I needed help turning it back on.

Over the years, Ted and I talked often about teaching, and when I visited campus, I would sit in on his classes. It was like returning to the source. In the fall of 2013, I watched him shuffle notecards, lick his fingers, select a few students’ names, ask them to them read their paragraphs on Pamela. I watched him move among the rows, ask questions, jot ideas on the board—a wiry elder statesmen in a cream-colored suit. It was clear how much they admired and loved him.

“Oh my goodness,” I laughed when we returned to the Jesuit Residence for lunch. “If any former student of mine ever takes your class, it will be the biggest deja vu experience.”

I am not alone in modeling my teaching technique after Ted’s.

Ted was humble and giving. You got the sense from him that he understood that the world existed long before him and would continue long after him, that he was just one word in the middle of a lyrical sentence in an ever-evolving essay entitled: “Working Toward the Kingdom of God.” And as his students, we were to do our part in that composition.

Ted’s funeral was held four days after his 84th birthday. While in Santa Clara for the ceremony, my husband and I were returning to the hotel, crossing the new pavers on Abby Sobrato Mall toward the El Camino. The fountain flowed. White carts hummed past. Students sauntered in flip-flops. A group of people asked if we’d take their picture.

“Grandma wants to see if this place is good enough for her grandson,” a woman said. She handed me her cell phone. Before us, three generations lined themselves up at the fountain.

“Did you go here?” the father asked.

I told them that I had—as had our daughter, my brother, my sister, my sister’s husband, and their son, who’d graduated last year.

“So now you’re visiting?”

“From Minnesota.”

“How does a person from Minnesota come all the way out here for school?”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“We’re here for a funeral of a former professor,” I said. “A Jesuit.”

“Oh, no.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“That speaks well for the school that so many years later you’ve come all this way for the funeral.”

This place will kill you, I wanted to say. You will love them, and then they will die.

“You’ll love it here,” I managed.

The Jesuits were so kind while Ted’s family and friends milled about that weekend in a fog. They were there but not there, hanging back like God’s EMTs. Giving rather than receiving. Ted would have loved them for that.

In our last conversation, Ted said to me, “I’m ready to do whatever God asks of me.”

I feel these days like David in John Updike’s story “Pigeon Feathers.” Teetering on an existential abyss, David is desperate for a definitive answer about the afterlife. “I want it to be something,” he rails to his mother, angered at his pastor’s fumbled attempts to define heaven. “I thought he’d tell me what it was. I thought that was his job.”

Teachers don’t tell us all we need to know because it’s not all intellectually knowable. That’s why we have priests and parables and poets; that’s why we have imagery, metaphor, and ritual; that’s why God gives us imaginations and memories—and exemplars.

And it’s why we feel love.

I will not forget Ted’s hands: stabbing the air to make a point in class, gathering as if to tease an idea from our muddled minds, holding the blessed sacrament during the consecration, blessing my father’s head as my father shrunk from Parkinson’s.

And I will always hear his voice. Even when you thought he wasn’t listening, even when he was cranky or tired, Ted’s radar for people in need was keen. And in those moments, he’d stop and a single sentence would shine forth: instructive, tender, true—like a light.

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