Peter Doyle

Interviewed and Written by Patrick Mc Gavin 8/10

PETER DOYLE

Life at Leo

The hundreds of young men he taught and counseled at Leo called him Brother William. He arrived, a young adult himself, at Leo in the fall of 1967, the world gripped in social convulsions and rapidly shifting social mores.

Peter Doyle has sacrificed and given a great deal of his life to the philosophical precepts and intellectual rigor promoted by the Irish Christian Brothers. His narrative, the story of a seeker, a man eager to be part of something and reach a higher calling, is the kind of incident filled, jam-packed life worth knowing.

He has given a great deal of his life to Leo. Even when called away, or when life or history intervened, Leo remained firmly in the consciousness of Mr. Doyle. He has been here through the best and most challenging of times. His own beliefs and goals have remained unchanged. His life contains multitudes, and is one worth exploring in greater detail and depth.

Origins

In person he appears a quiet, thoughtful and reflective man. The memories pour out.

“I was born in New York, in Tarrytown, on the Hudson, in 1941,” Mr. Doyle begins. “Now it’s called Sleepy Hollow now. I was the second born of four children. My mother, her name was Alice and she was a schoolteacher. My father worked for Pabst Blue Ribbon, but he lost his job in New York. My dad was a lawyer in New York; he never practiced law in California. He was the director of labor relations on the West Coast, so he did the negotiations with the labor unions.

“I don’t know a lot of the early history, but first one, I believe his name was Thomas Doyle, came over during the potato famine around 1848. The reason they settled there was a lot of the Irish worked for the [oil monopolist John] Rockefeller. The Rockefellers liked the Irish, to work for, not to associate with them in any other way. A lot of Irish émigrés worked on his estate, in Mechanical Hills. Rockefeller had mostly Irish workers. Both of my grandfathers were carpenters. They knew one another, and I’m pretty sure that’s how my [parents] met. My mother’s maiden name was Power.

“When I was seven, we moved out to California. We almost moved to Milwaukee, but we ended going to Montebello, the first town east of Los Angeles, like the way Evergreen Park is next to Chicago.

“Growing up I played a lot of golf. My dad liked golf and we lived just two blocks from a public golf course. Of course you could play golf every day in California. I worked at the pro shop, I caddied for the pro; I wanted to be a local pro. I finished sixth in the state golf tournament. I shot a 72 at a course called Fox Hills. They had a playoff, and it went two holes, six guys, I remember it as though it was yesterday. I knocked in a chip shot to win the sudden death.”

A new day

He was, like a lot of California kids in the fifties, a bit of a free spirit who avidly sought out experiences of fun and excitement. He made a critical attachment as a young kid. His high school was named Cantwell, after the first archbishop of Los Angeles. “I admired what the Brothers did; I admired the work they did. The part of town where the school was [located] was a poorer part of town. It was right next to East Los Angeles.

“I’ve been in Catholic schools my whole life.” As a young man on the verge of adulthood and taking on greater responsibilities, Mr. Doyle took his own metaphorical plunge. It was the critical decision of his life, his identity, his sensibility, and would impact the next three and a half decades of his life and work. Rather than simply express his admiration for the Brothers, Mr. Doyle did something about it. He joined the order following his high school graduation in the summer of 1959.

“I went by Peter when I was a young man at home. I joined the Brothers in 1959. In those days, when you joined a religious order, as a symbol of changing your life, you had to change your first name. I changed it to William. They used to call me Brother William.”

“Five of us [from my high school] joined the Brothers, and we went to New York, where the training house was, a couple of weeks after our graduation. We took the bus across the country. We showed up to join on the fifth of July. It was a four-year training period. After that period, we graduated and we were assigned to one of the schools that the Brothers run. I went to college at Iona College, in New Rochelle. The college, or training house, was about seventy-five miles from where I was born, on the Hudson River.

“I didn’t have any desire to be a priest. The Irish Christian Brothers are a religious order of laymen. They’re never ordained, they never become priests but they take the same three vows—poverty, chastity and obedience and they live in the community. A layman named Edmund Rice founded them. He was a married man whose wife died and a few years later he started the Brothers to teach poor boys in Ireland. The order spread all around the world.

“I was just an average student, good enough to get by in high school. I spent most of my free time on the golf course. I didn’t really start studying until I joined the Brothers. That was our life’s work. We devoted a great deal of time to it; it was a very disciplined life. I didn’t have choices in my schedule. I had to do what I was supposed to do, and what all the other Brothers were doing. We studied every day, and on weekends. There were certain times we had to study. It was regimented, and that was good for me. I needed that, and I thrived in that atmosphere. I became a good student. I made the dean’s list, which shocked my mother.

“During my time in college the social protest period had not really started yet. We were involved in Vietnam, but just as military advisors. Of course we lived a sheltered life in college, being at an all-male school. There were never any protests, and things were still very conservative. There were about one hundred Brothers on the campus, and the lay students had to wear jackets in class.

The only thing I really remember was the Cuban missile crisis. I remember the chapel being filled because people thought there were nuclear weapons aimed at New York, and we were right next to New York City. The other tradition I remember was the [ringing of the] Angelus Bells. Everybody, no matter where you were, in class or out, would stop, a prayerful time.

“I graduated from college in 1963, and the first [school] that I was assigned was called Damien High School, named after Saint Damien of Molokai, in Honolulu.

Changing the guard

“When I went out to Hawaii, the [Vietnam] war started to ratchet up. Hawaii was a major port, both for training and delivering munitions. I had a friend from high school who joined the Marines, and I remember when I was out there, finishing my second year, my friend was on leave. In those days, Hawaii was a very pro-military state. It had only been a state for four years by the time I got there. All the public schools had ROTC; you’d always see high school kids in Honolulu walking around in uniforms. I taught English and religion.

“On my first day as a teacher in Hawaii, the principal who was also the superior of the Brothers said to a couple of us, ‘You’re going to be the track coaches. You better learn.’ I just started reading. That’s how I learned. I learned all the events, because we had to learn how to coach every event. I did it over the years. You go to clinics and talk to other coaches. Some of the skills were very technical. I liked that from golf, because it was very technical, the grip and the stance and where you put your feet. It came naturally to me to learn, even though I couldn’t do some of the things myself. I could demonstrate the proper technique.”

A new town

Mr. Doyle found his métier, living, teaching and coaching in Honolulu. Then he received the fateful news. The Brothers were re-assigning him to the South Side of Chicago. “In those days you didn’t request to go anyplace,” he said. “I really didn’t want to leave. I really liked it. It was the first place I taught, and I was really comfortable there after four years. I had almost ‘gone native,’ not in a bad sense, but I loved going to the beach, on Sunday afternoons. I was used to the school, I was used to the kids. I didn’t want to change.

“Looking back it was the best thing for me.”

Whatever misgivings he had at the start, Mr. Doyle quickly wiped away any reluctance.
The move initiated the next phase of his life, and more important, marked the beginning of a life long love affair with Leo High School. Even before he arrived, in the summer of 1967, Mr. Doyle knew about Leo.

“I was in Chicago twice,” he recalled. “When we took the train out when I was seven, I remember the train stopped, we had a three-hour layover and I remember my mother left us with a lady she knew and she went to Marshall Fields. That was my first experience in Chicago. When I joined the Brothers, in 1959, we came back and we stopped in Chicago and we spent three days here. We stayed with young men who were joining from Leo. I stayed with Ralph Paul, a 1959 graduate. I was with three guys that joined the Brothers, and we stayed with Ralph Paul. He was a great football player here, and he turned down all of these scholarship offers to join the Brothers.

“The guys that I came with, they went up to Leo and went swimming, but I was close to a golfing family in Los Angeles, the Jacobs, Johnny and Tommy. They were both great golfers. Tommy was playing in a big tournament in Chicago. My family also knew a Brother who was teaching at Brother Rice. This Brother picked me up, and I went out and followed Tommy around the course. So I never got to Leo. I never saw Leo High School until 1967.”

The cultural transition was significant though not severe. Mr. Doyle adapted quickly to his new environment. “I had come from a poor section, in Honolulu, but in those days Honolulu didn’t look like a mainland city,” he said. “I’d never really been in a big, industrial Midwestern city before. Everything was brick. That was one thing I was shocked with. Even though I’d been here in 1959, I was amazed how flat everything was. There were no hills or mountains, and I’d been used to that growing up. It didn’t take me long to get used to everything. I really liked the city. I liked the politics. Chicago was very Catholic. The kids talked about what parish they were from. We were in the Catholic League. Leo had a great history, a great tradition that I really liked. The school in Hawaii was a new school, and it had no tradition.”

Many Leo alumni have spoken of the almost fear and terror the Brothers struck through their demeanor, toughness and discipline. Mr. Doyle offers the reverse perspective. “I got involved in a reading program at DePaul University, and I started that at Leo as well. People tell stories about the corporeal punishment, but I never saw a lot of it. The strap was used sometimes in the dean’s office, and when I first started teaching, by some of the Brothers. I thought, ‘Never to excess,’ in Hawaii.

“By the time I got here, in 1967, the use of it declined, and in fact, we were told not to use the strap and not to do corporeal punishment, though it would happen once in a while. Those were the times. Parents at home used corporeal punishment, not every parent. At the conference meetings, some parents would say: ‘You have my permission to deal with my son however you want. 

“The Brothers lived right across the street from the school, where the parking lot is now. The house went from 79th Street to the alley. We just walked across the street. It was a thee-story building with a full basement. It was made for about, I think there were probably thirty-two Brothers’ rooms in there. I think at one time Leo had twenty-six or twenty-eight Brothers. When I came here, there were seventeen. I always remember that number.

“Everybody had their own room. They weren’t big and not very elaborate, just a bed and desk, a hard chair, a closet and a sink. It was plenty; it was enough. We had a nice sized chapel and a big dining room. By my last year here, there were six or seven of us.

I coached track and cross country, plus a full schedule of classes. In track, I was very pleased with how competitive we were, especially because we didn’t really have facilities. When I first came here, we used to practice in the winter over at the Armory, Cottage Grove. When the weather was decent, we’d run outside. We could throw the shot put down underneath the swimming pool up against the wall. When the weather got better, we’d go to Dan Ryan Woods. We just make do.

“I met a number of alumni, and then two years later I became the recruiter for the school. Then I only taught three classes in the morning, and then I went out and visited grammar schools. That’s when I really started to learn about the city, because I didn’t really know where anything was. I would visit schools from 18th Street to South Holland, and I went as far west as Palos. There were a lot of Catholic grammar schools on the South Side.”

On the move

By the dawn of the 1970s, Leo was the center of its own cultural revolution. By now, the first two full four-year classes of black students had entered and graduated from the school. A school that was historically predominantly South Side Irish and émigré communities was now far more reflective of a rapidly changing social and cultural order marked by diversity. “I remember when I became the recruiter, we recruited all schools, both black and white,” he said. “Admissions were not based on race. The Brothers of that period did the right thing. As the area changed [socially and racially], the Brothers said Leo was going to serve the neighborhood. That was a great thing. Leo didn’t do any kind of social engineering to maintain racial quotas.

The Brothers were sometimes criticized for the absence of political engagement, related to civil rights, but Mr. Doyle says it was regarded as losing their mission and focus. “I just think the Brothers, whether it was right or wrong, they did their job in the school. They didn’t get involved in political [activities]. When I first joined the Brothers’ mission was to run schools, and really nothing else. I think it was preserve the faith, that immigrant idea of needing to hold the faith together. We were a part of that. Originally the Irish Christian Brothers came over to work with the Irish immigrants.

“It was time for me to go some place else. In 1972, I was sent to Salinas, California, and I taught school and coached. The Brothers didn’t get involved either there with Cesar Chavez and what he was going through with the growers in the central valley of California. There were big things going on in Salinas. The Brothers didn’t get involved; they were involved with working activities and what was going on at the school.

“There were a lot of the Brothers in the Seventies who were leaving. I didn’t think about leaving at the time. There were still enough where we didn’t feel we were some kind of vanishing or dying breed. If anything, we pulled together and we were even stronger. The Brothers that remained were being faithful to the mission, teaching and working in schools.
“The school I went to in Los Angeles was primarily Mexican. The school I went to first teach, in Honolulu, was made up of Hawaiians, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and whites. I stayed in Salinas from 1972 to 1977.

Back home

“In that year, I became the vocation director for the Brothers. From 1978 to 1981 I lived in Lewis University, where the Brothers had a training house. I traveled to other Brothers’ schools and I recruited students for the Brothers.

“After four years of doing that, I came back to Leo. I was here the second time until 1988. I went out to take care of my parents in California. They both died. I was principal of a Catholic elementary school when I was out there.

“In 1993, I came back to Leo. I was here from 1993 to 2003, and I was principal from 1998 to 2003. I went to St. Gregory on the North Side; I went to the learning resource center, students with learning disabilities or maybe had behavioral problems. I would assist them with their homework, assignments and work on their skills.

“When I came back to Leo in December of 1993, I was still a Brother and I was living at a house. I left the Brothers in 1994. I was discharged from my vows. When Bob Foster hired me in 1993, I was thinking of leaving the Brothers at that time. I asked him if he’d hire me as a layman or would I have to be a Brother in order for him to hire me. Bob said, “I don’t care whether you’re a layman or a Brother, I’m going to hire you.” It made it easier for me because I already had a job.

“A couple of years later Bob made me the dean of faculty, but I was still teaching and coaching. In 1998, he asked me to be the principal. I was very honored. It was great. I found the administrative pressure was getting more and more difficult for me to handle. Then I said I had to get out of it. Bob offered me a job to stay here, but I said it would probably be better if I wasn’t here, the next principal wouldn’t feel awkward or the pressure, and I just thought it was better in my case to get away.

“I’m really grateful to be back. I liked my stay at St. Gregory, but I missed Leo. This has been a big part of my life. I look back, and the Brothers, Leo and my wife are the biggest parts of my life. I’ve really been influenced by the Brothers and by my experience at Leo High School. And by my experience at Leo, I mean all the people that I’ve met and been associated with at this school. I think the person I am today, how I think and how I view the world has been influenced by the Brothers and Leo. I think I had a social conscience that has been influenced by the Brothers.

Beliefs

“Even when the Brothers were teaching and doing their job and maybe when they weren’t involved politically or they weren’t activists, they were activists in their own way. They lived by the fact that every child that was sent was sent by God. And they had to educate that child, and that was more important than anything, more important than any political issue. If they educated that child and told him what was right and wrong, that child in turn would go on. I see that now. Students that were here when there was a lot of racial tension here in the city, both white and black, they have become the leaders in this city at ending that racial tension and ending racial animosity. I think it’s because they were here at Leo High School.

I’m not saying maybe I shouldn’t have done more, but I know what I do now and what I have been doing has been influenced by my experience at Leo High School. I’m more aware of it now. I like teaching more now than ever before. Recently I was at a Leo alumni outing and it was fantastic to see graduates all the way back from the seventies. They came in from all over the country, just to see that part I played in their lives, however small, was something special. I think high school years are very important to people, particularly young men. My experience has been mostly with young men.

I’ve been here in every decade from the sixties to the present. I haven’t been here all the time. I don’t know all the students that have gone here, but many of them I do.

After he formally left the Irish Christian Brothers, Mr. Doyle moved to Hyde Park in 1994. Two years later, he bought a condominium there. More significant was the profound personal transformation.

“I got married four years ago. I was the 65, the oldest Irish bachelor. My wife’s name is Pamela. She grew up in Gary. Her dad worked in the steel mills and her mom worked day care. We met outside a church in Milwaukee. I met her when I was up there for a meeting. She lived nearby. She got out of church one day, I walked by and we just started talking. Then I went up to visit her. Like any other couple, we started talking and dating. I was 65 when I got married. She has three children, so I have three stepchildren and I have ten grandchildren. I never thought I’d have any grandchildren.

Coming home

Perhaps most important, Mr. Doyle remains forever attached to Leo. With the retirement of Mr. Foster and the ascension to the presidency of Dan McGrath, Mr. Doyle is returning to the school, by his own admission, for the fourth time. He is going to be teaching science and helping coach track and cross country.

“Leo’s home to me. Over the years the mission at Leo is what I really like. I can see where the graduates who have careers, they’re teaching here at Leo, like Noah Cannon or Mike Holmes. I’m well aware of all the good that’s been done at Leo and I want to see it continue.

“I couldn’t do anything else with my life that’s more important than working with young men. I see the importance of high school and how it influences someone’s life. It influenced my life. I joined the Brothers, and my whole life has been better because of that.

“I have no plans to retire. My mother taught until she was seventy-two, so I at least have to go that long. I want to go much longer. My hero is Brother Finch. The Brothers had an expression when a Brother died and he was still teaching: ‘He died with his boots on,’ like the old Westerns. I’d like to die with my boots on. Brother Finch did. He taught right up until he got sick the last time, and he went in the hospital and died. I was privileged to give his eulogy. He was one of my heroes.

“I can’t talk enough about the Brothers. If I had a list of the ten most influential people in my life, they’d all be Brothers, except for Bob Foster and my wife. Bob was like a Brother; he was a product of Leo and the Brothers.

“Brother Finch was I believe eighty-four when he died, and he was still a great teacher. He didn’t want to do anything else. That’s what he wanted to do. I don’t know if I’ll make it that long. For me, being at Leo has always been a blessing.”

Comments

  1. George J. Sperekas II says:

    Bro. Doyle – I can never thank you enough for the care and interest you showed for me and my family. I met Bro. Doyle when I was in 7th Grade at St. Thomas More. We started to address the Chrisitan Brothers respectively as “Bro.” Bro. Doyle was already recruiting my brother, Jeff, who was one year older than me. Although St. Laurence was on my list, it was Bro. Doyle who helped me make my decision to attend Leo. He epitomizes ‘Facta Non Verba.’ My classmates and I enjoy doing our best Bro. Doyle impersionation. They are all filled with inspirational words of wisdom and stem from the bottom of his heart. I, too, was nto a good student coming into Leo. Yet, I had Bro. Doyle as a coach and a teacher – I didn’t want to let him down on or off the field the so I worked hard at both. Before I realized it, I was in honors classes and had earned (2) Gold Medals at graduation; (1) English & Scholastic Proficiency (2) School Spirit. That spirit and consistent performance started my freshmen yr with Bro. Doyle as my football and track coach. When my mother, who was ill frequently due to being on dialysis, it was Bro. Doyle making sure that we had frozen pizzas and pop to take home since our Dad was already at the hospital with our Mom. I was glad to visit Bro. Doyle in California when I moved out there in 1990. He was the only person I knew in California and I had suprised him on the playground while he was tending to the wonderful kids at his school in East Los Angeles. I just want to say from my brother and sisters, and behalf of my Mom and Dad, “Thank you, Bro. Doyle…We love you!” – Regards, George Sperekas

  2. Robert Lunsford 88 says:

    BRO DOYLE i agree with George, you are to LEO what peanut butter is to jelly, what up is to down, LOL!!!! I remember the day Bob and yourself were in my kitchen telling me if i choose Leo it would be one of the greatest decisions of my life, one specific thing i remember you said the difference between Leo and the other schools that were recruiting me is when i older in life i would look back at my time at Leo and wish it would of never ended. I find myself looking back and having those exact feelings. I cant thank you enough for the things that you molded into me me as a young man, i love LEO whole heartedly it was because of you, and all of the other Christian Brothers and Bob Foster that made Leo what it was then and what it is today. GOD BLESS YOU BRO. DOYLE with much respect and LOVE ROBERT LUNSFORD 88

  3. Clint Coelho says:

    Brother Doyle,
    I remember that you was my home room teacher back in 1963 at Damien High School. You taught us religion also. I was just entering 9th. grade. I remember coming to school on Saturdays to work on the track field and you gave us hot dogs for lunch. Those were the days. I was a pretty good student staying out of trouble till one day I did something wrong and got sambo from you. I respected that type of discipline.
    I hope all is well with you and thanks for all your dedication to education. Take care and God Bless.
    Aloha,
    Clint

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