Jan 28, 2008

John S. Becker, S.J., 1925-2008

Fr. Becker wasn't just a beloved high school English teacher and inveterate punster. He was also, for all intents and purposes, my first journalistic editor. At the monthly high school paper The Round-Up (now in an online version), for which he served as sage advisor, I covered the school's theater department (even for shows I was working on), started a pretentious literary supplement with poems and short stories, and wrote features and editorials about faculty and students (I also "covered" Brophy's football games without bothering to attend them, which in turn led to the only time I was almost beat up for something I wrote).

As both a teacher and advisor, Fr. Becker was a gnomic, solitary figure with a squinting smile and quietly exacting standards. He once glimpsed the copy of Brideshead Revisited I toted around most of my sophomore year and declared, "I knew there was something I liked about you, Kendt." He elaborated: "That's the best novel in the English language." The best novel "in the American language," he added, was Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, which I promptly and gratefully devoured.

I cannot lay my disgraceful love of punning entirely at Fr. Becker's feet, but I would remiss in memorializing him without mentioning his most-repeated signature phrase. It was typically delivered as a deadpan reply to a query from a student along the lines of, "Would you like me to turn it in on Friday?"

Fr. Becker would say, without a trace of a wink but with a certain twinkle behind the eye: "I'd be like a firefly in the rain."

It was left to the attentive student to do a double-take and inquire what Fr. Becker meant (I knew of a few students who were too intimidated or baffled to ask, thus depriving themselves of the punchline).

The priest's reply happens to sum up how I feel now, looking back fondly on him and his idiosyncratic tutelage: "De-lighted."

UPDATE: My ever-sensitive iPod just played one of Fr. Becker's favorite songs.


Anonymous said...

John Becker, S.J., or as he signed his letters, Jay Argh Bee, Ess Jay, was a giant in the lives of many boys who had him in high school. The world is diminished by his passing.

In closing, I am reminded of the line from "Goodbye, Mr. Chips":

I thought I heard you saying it was a pity... pity I never had any children. But you're wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them... and all boys.

Rest well, dear priest.

Michael T. Terry, S.I., Class of 1977

Anonymous said...

Fr. Becker was my best saviour at S.I. I graduated in 1970. He was my senior English teacher and counselor. I did not get along with many of the other guys in my class. So, he asked me if I would like to go on the retreat with the junior class. I went and had a wonderful time. He gave me a place to study some evenings and listened to me. He was truly my mentor. I adopted some of his facial expressions, laughter, and dramatic mannerisms in my teaching -- which is community college ESL. I also never miss a pun, which drives my wife crazy. I remember him riding his bicycle without holding on to the handle bars. What a wonderful person, teacher, and counselor, mentor, among many other things.
Les Rivera '70