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A Tribute to John Senior


Ten years ago yesterday, an extraordinary man died after having touched many minds and hearts.

SeniorJohn1John Senior

Born in New York in 1923, John Senior grew up on Long Island, studied at Columbia under Mark Van Doren, taught at Hofstra and Bard and Cornell, then made his way west never to return. He found a home at the University of Wyoming, where the stars were bright, and later moved to Kansas, whose motto kept him looking up: Ad astra per aspera ("To the stars through hard ways.") He took the motto to heart. John Senior, like Socrates, had the uncanny ability to get young people to think, to wonder, and to change course in midstream. How he did this owed a great deal to his own sense of wonder and appreciation of Gods presence in our lives. It was an attitude and a mission he shared with his K.U. colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, the three of whom made up the faculty of the university's Integrated Humanities Program.

I think of the many times I encountered Dr. Senior on Mount Oread when I was a student at the University of Kansas. How do we fitly remember people who affect us deeply? How do we express gratitude to someone who touched us and showed us a better way? Speak well of them, quote them, do as they did.

John Senior taught humanities and Latin, among other things. Teaching was a labor of love for him, and one of his goals was to make young people fall in love with many things in our cultural and religious tradition. Just last week I was teaching my eighth-grade English class poetry, song, and calligraphy, three things I learned at K.U. under Dr. Senior. Have you ever heard a group of twenty-two eighth graders sing "Auld Lang Syne"? Or copy "To A Mousie" in calligraphy? It is a beautiful thing.

It is even more beautiful to me because I remember Dr. Senior exclaiming, on the eve of a waltz (organized by the humanities class he taught) where college students in formal attire danced to an orchestra in the university ballroom, "You young people dont know how beautiful you are. But I do."

He was right. He had the vision of an eagle looking down upon earth. He could see the beauty of life in all its detail. He could teach us to seek the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in a palpable way that made us long for it, as Odysseus longed for Ithaca. His teaching was, moreover, experiential, by example, living as best he could the love for tradition that he taught.

Yet he also taught that there were what Virgil calls lachrymae rerum, "tears in things." Life has a certain melancholy that we cannot shake. This was central to his religion, his deep-seated belief in the Catholic Church, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There were no rose-tinted glasses for him. He drew us, his students (his discipuli) towards the Truth, and then let us go, to tread the path on our own. When we stumbled, which was often enough, he was always there with a kind word, a nod to help us on our way again.

John Senior, like Socrates, had the uncanny ability to get young people to think, to wonder, and to change course in midstream. How he did this owed a great deal to his own sense of wonder and appreciation of God’s presence in our lives.

Last June, a packed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception witnessed the consecration of one of John Senior's students and converts, James Conley, as auxiliary bishop of Denver. In the crowd were hundreds of his friends and family from Kansas and elsewhere, many, fellow students from K.U. Ten years ago, in Oklahoma, near Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, Our Lady of Clear Creek Monastery was established by the Benedictines of Fontgombault, France. Several of the monks had attended the University of Kansas and studied with Dr. Senior. Consecrated Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of Jouques in France, a Carthusian at the Grande Chartreuse, and numerous other clergy, including the Bishop of Salina, Kansas, Paul Coakley, and the former rector of the seminary of the Fraternity of St Peter, Father James Jackson, trace their faith to John Senior. His personal influence on the future of various sectors of the Church in America is incalculable.

Many other men and women have followed him, spending their days in the classroom teaching the young. And many families think of him and wish their children could experience what they experienced. For those who never knew him, his spirit is visible in his two books The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture, which have brought his wisdom to even wider circles than his already ample personal contacts.

He once said of himself that he was like an usher who opened the door for many people to many different vocations. Was he a bishop, was he a priest, was he a judge, was he a lawyer? No, he was in a way all those things and more in remaining a teacher, inimitable and memorable for all who were blessed to follow him across Mount Oread in Lawrence and through portals that invariably led to the Church. Requiescat in pace, John Senior -- and thank you for opening those doors.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Patrick Martin. "A Tribute to John Senior." The Catholic Thing (April 9, 2009).

The book Whither the Postmodern Library? by William Wisner, another alumnus of the Integrated Humanities Program, includes a fuller account of the work of John Senior and his colleagues at the University of Kansas.

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

The Author

Following in the footsteps of his old professor, Patrick Martin has been an usher for his own students at SS Peter and Paul School in the Diocese of Tulsa, where he also serves as principal. And he has served as best man for more than one of his far-flung friends, among them the managing editor of The Catholic Thing.

Copyright © 2009 The Catholic Thing

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