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Growing up Irish Catholic on Queen Anne Hill

“Dig that man with the crazy tan; he’s our Dan from the Irish clan.” Frankie Warner made that up. It was a poster of a big-eared, freckle-faced eighth-grader running for class president. It hung at the back of the classroom in St. Anne’s Parish School in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.

The nuns, like today’s electronic voting systems, never let us use paper ballots. We all put our heads down on the desk and raised our hand for our candidate. It was hard for the nuns to choose—the elections were always so close, a one vote difference. I can’t remember who won, me or Kip Toner, but the loser got to be Vice President.

Queen Anne Hill was my neighborhood from 2nd grade on. We lived on Crockett Street (a grown-up cricket, my Dad said) just below John Jay Elementary. John Jay was a public school, out of bounds for an Irish-Catholic kid like me, just like the public library. But we hid our stash of cigarettes at John Jay in a cigar box under the portables, me and Johnnie Sweet who lived on Newton, my main buddy.

I’d ride my bicycle to school most days. Up past McCauliff’s house, turn right up the hill, past the park with the wading pool full of polio possibilities from peeing children, down past Al’s hamburger place where you could get a cheeseburger and a green river float for 75 cents, to the school to park my bike between the nuns’ convent and the back of the school.

Sister Rachel Ann, my second grade teacher, said I had the hands of the priest… Even though I was in love with her, she headed me in the opposite direction.

Then there was George Vanni, the Italian boy, who would always wear orange on St. Pat’s day. Even though he was kind and didn’t want to fight me, I would have to challenge him. That lead to a few bruises and a “D” in deportment. Frankie Warner tried to give me hints about fighting but I was no good at it, despite my temper.

Yes, my temper. In the 7th grade, I was tripped by a girl on my way to my desk and I yelled out. The sister got mad at me! “When will you learn to control that temper, Danny?” she said. I thought she was talking to the wrong person. How about the girl who tripped me?

Temper or not, I headed for the Seminary right after 8th grade. What else would one want to be but a priest? There were no professionals in our immediate family. My Dad ran a gas station up on Capitol Hill and he never let me be around cars or the gas station. I was not supposed to be him.

I guess I couldn’t be my Mom. My Mom was a church lady, one of a cadre of women, like Mrs. Dalton and Mrs. Salladay, who ran the altar society and helped keep the priests happy and the church clean.

Plus, my Dad had a younger brother who was a priest. Pastor of Christ the King parish in Seattle, the largest in the diocese. Father Lester Leo Leahy. Father Les drove his V-8 Chevy sedan like a madman. He would pass long lines of cars on Stevens Pass while we winced in the back seat too frightened even to pray. I wanted to drive just like him.

I had cousins who were either priests or in the seminary—Terry, Whalen and Pat. Of course, if a son becomes a priest, his mom gets a straight, no stops, passage direct to the pearly gates. Plus St. Edward’s tuition was free. (It was only later that I found out parents had to pay tuition if their son left without becoming a priest.)

Off to St. Edward’s seminary I went. The entrance to St. Edwards was a long single-lane road through the woods, past the soggy football field on the left, curve around to a circle drive with a statue in it. There was a grayish, brick, three-story building, facing west, then an open space, then the woods and further down the hill, Lake Washington. After four years there, I wanted to bulldoze it and salt the grounds – a plan, years later, I reserved for the Rockefeller Estates in upstate New York.

The seminary was a place made to break all the rules. Our freshmen year we were in a barracks away from the main building. Lights out at 9:00 pm. One kid would play taps through a nozzle he had found and then roll out the window and into the woods. Another young recruit knelt in front of his short dresser and slapped himself so hard with the sign of the cross I couldn’t get to sleep.

By sophomore year we were in the main building. The mornings were harsh and, as in the rest of my life, we went by the bell. Obedience training, my friend Rick Fellows would have said.

Up, showered, dressed, with a coin flip on your bunk and off to mental prayer at 6:30 am followed by one-and-a-half masses depending on the speed of the priests. Then breakfast in the refectory with a line of priests staring down at you as they ate whatever the French nuns cooked up. We sat at tables of eight ranked from top to bottom by class.

As a freshman, I sat at the end of the table and got the food last. I and my fellow freshman inmate across from me, were at the mercy of the six unknowns further up the food chain. If they didn’t like us, we got less. If I broke any of the real rules, the ones the seminarians made up and enforced, I’d get “starved out.” Sometimes the ones higher up the food chain would be nice and send down chocolate ice cream laced with ex-lax.

The third Sunday of every month was visiting day. My family could come and they always did. It was human contact and it was great. The whole area in front of the main building would fill up with cars and families. Soon, of course, we were looking out for sisters, the real kind, the ones with breasts like Rufus the Reds’ sisters who not only had breasts, but wore dresses with zippers right down the front! Always a main attraction if you could peek a direct look.

Returning to the building after visiting Sunday was hard, from a loving family to a cruel institution. My Dad taught me a rule. Say your goodbyes once, walk toward the building and don’t look back. I did that and still do.

There was another touch of home during those years—my laundry bag. My mom would do my laundry and drop it off at the seminary. I’d rush down to get it but it wasn’t my fresh clothes I was after. My Mom was a rule breaker, a co-conspirator. She’d stash treats in the bag—date-filled cookies and brownies.

The seminary authorities did weird things. I had to leave my letters home unsealed so they could read them. One of the cruelest things they would do was to “disappear” my friends. Where is Jimmy? He wasn’t at early mass, not at breakfast. Is he sick? Let’s find him. No luck. No explanation. Gone in the night. Gone. Never seen again. No word. No nothing.

I can’t say I had a hard life at the seminary. We were boys. We went to class. Made jokes about our teachers. Played tricks on them. Played hard at six-man, flag football, tennis, handball, basketball, said our rosaries, walked the grounds, played in the woods, made friends, snuck out to Kenmore to read Playboy magazines, drank altar wine, hung wires out our windows to listen to banded music from Seattle, tormented those who broke our rules—and learned Latin and Greek. By the 4th year, only 4 of 43 freshmen who entered with me were still there. Years later, the other three had all become priests.

I wish I knew exactly why I left. Decisions never seem to be clear cut, rational and well thought out. Maybe it was Marilyn Dalton, Jimmy’s sister, who I went water-skiing with on Lake Washington during summer break. I didn’t know what to do with Marilyn, but I liked being with her. That was a no-no for seminarians.

Maybe it was the Seminary’s Rector, Father O’Neil calling me on the carpet at the end of my junior year, telling me that I was a “rascal” and that he was going “to boot me out of here.” I think Father O’Neil suspected me of having smoke-bombed the priests cars and outfitted them with high pitched squealers that blew when they took off for a Sunday mass. But it wasn’t me. Either way, Father Les reportedly said, “No, you are not. Not my nephew.”

Maybe it was seeing really great guys, my friends, disappeared over the years or not coming back and wondering why? Maybe it was coming to the conclusion that the only real criterion to priesthood was answering the bell.

Maybe it was that we all learned we were being taught by priests who themselves could not be what we wanted to be. All the priests at the seminary were, for various reasons, priests who could not work in parishes.

What I think really did it, though, was a conversation I had with my uncle. When I told my mother I didn’t want to go back, she said I had to talk to Father Les before I made my final decision. I went to his big office in Christ the King parish in Seattle. He sat behind his big desk and I timidly said I didn’t want to return to the seminary. His response was: “Do you want to end up like your Father?”

What I ended up doing was hating Father Les for the rest of his life and leaving the seminary that summer. Being like my father was okay by me, even though he didn’t have a new car, a big office or a prestige job like Father Les. My Dad worked hard every day, often for 12 hours. He went to mass every morning and fell asleep every night saying his rosary. He did right by his family and never complained. I wasn’t going to be my Dad but his brother had no business putting him down in front of his son.

My sister, Sister Daniel Maureen, a Holy Names nun, and fourteen months my senior, along with her fellow conspirators at Seattle University’s admission office got my late application to the top of the pile and I entered Seattle University as a freshman in the fall of 1961.

This reflection is excerpted from an upcoming autobiography entitled When the Mayonnaise Ran Red. Dan is the grandson of Eastern Washington pioniers.



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