Working my first black tie dinner as a very junior public relations person, I learned virtually nothing about my chosen profession. The scale, pace, and glitz of the fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City during the early 1980s overwhelmed me while also reinforcing how much I had yet to master in the business of communications and fundraising.
The night, however, was not a complete loss, as an after-dinner experience taught me a more valuable life lesson. As the gala wrapped up, my boss took me aside and suggested we take a detour to Brooklyn instead of returning to Yonkers where we were staying with his relatives. My boss was Rev. Bartley MacPhaidin, then the president of Stonehill College.
Father Bart wanted to visit an old friend who was not well. I yearned for sleep. Keeping my grumblings to myself, I drove out with him from Manhattan to Brooklyn where our destination was a neighborhood bar owned by an Irish immigrant who, like Father Bart, hailed from Donegal. While he visited with his friend in the apartment above, I sat solo at the bar sipping beer. In my tuxedo, I cut an awkward figure. Out of place twice in one night – inexperienced at the Waldorf and way overdressed at a bar that catered to working folks. No wonder the minutes ticked by slowly as my frustration festered.
After about an hour or so, Father Bart came down the stairs. Finally, we headed for Yonkers and the prospect of sleep. Breaking his silence as we drove, he spoke about his friend’s terminal illness but in such a compassionate tone that guilt gnawed at me for having been so grumpy about the detour.
My mind had been on relaxation and recuperation after a difficult professional baptism. His was on an act of mercy and kindness, tending to the sick and the dying. The gap between us humbled me.
In the first half of the evening, Father Bart had charmed a banquet hall full of prosperous benefactors in an elegant hotel. In the second part, he sat in more everyday surroundings with a family coming to terms with the prospect of a devastating loss.
He had raised a lot of money for the College that night, but success did not distract him from his pastoral mission or loyalty to a friend. He found the energy, time, and care to reach out to someone in need at the very moment he could have been basking in professional glory.
That was an instructive lesson for me about priorities and balance in life. I have never forgotten its moral or the example of its teacher. In the years that followed, I was blessed to have Father Bart as a mentor, a friend, a Sherpa guide to life in America, and the best man at my wedding.
He died in 2016, but every so often that detour to Brooklyn plays in my mind. A jarring lesson at the time, it will be in my heart forever.
Originally from Dublin, Martin McGovern lives in Mashpee and works at Stonehill College in Easton. An earlier version of this piece was published on July 22, 2016, in “Anchor,” the newspaper of the Fall River diocese.