Wit, Wisdom, and Dedication
Brother Leo Christopher Uicker, C.F.C.
January 31, 1916--May 26, 1994
by John E. Dornbos, C.F.C.
As I write the life of Chris Uicker, I am
I am aware of various segments in Chris'
John July 23, 2000
Psalm 133: New American Bible.
Behold, how good it is, and how pleasant,
Psalm 133: Psalms Today
O God, how precious it is for us
It is in the measure that we do this
Daniel 12: 3. New American Bible
But the wise shall shine brightly
These scriptural quotations describe the life of Leo Christopher Uicker. Under his tutelage, it was this latter quotation that inspired me to be a Christian Brother.
Brother Greg O'Donnell cut to the heart of Chris Uicker in his eulogy: "He was a man who loved people." And he loved to interact with people. That is how he grew.
Loving someone, and being loved in return, is at once one of the most natural things to do and at the same time, one of the most difficult. To say, "I love you," even indirectly, is a moment of risk and vulnerability. In response, the one who loves is going to realize something about himself or herself, just as the one who receives the love will realize something. Also, the word love and the word has a variety of meanings, and thus the risk is even greater.
Given all of this, Chris Uicker was both a lover and one of the beloved. Somehow he had learned how to make people know he cared, without being ostentatious. Sometimes in great good humor, he had a way of letting people know how much he cared for them. He would poke fun at himself: "I must be the only man on earth with a 52 inch waist and a 26 inch inseam."
Chris also deeply loved his God and his family Out of this love came his own love for others. The love that Chris had was deeply tested from his earliest days. These tests were not simple: the death of his father, sparse income, a World War, and a sleeping disorder. But life had taught him that he was loved at every moment. And so he loved. Neither race, creed, color, nor nationality could keep Chris from loving someone especially if the person was a young man.
Chris had also learned that often life demanded some straight talk. His language could be earthy but not in a harsh way. And when one was the recipient of his directness, it didn't take but a few minutes to realize that his straightforwardness came from deep honest simplicity and care, and not from prejudice. And if people disagreed with Chris he would listen and reflect and continue to talk. But dislodging him from his beliefs was not easy. How does one argue with, "Ma told me never to eat anything green."
There was another aspect to Chris’ love. It came very close to being unconditional. Other than the joy of caring about someone, Chris wanted nothing in return. His love was unselfish. He didn't want to change people. He wanted to walk with them and to help them and be helped by them. The motto of New Hampshire is, "Live free or die." Chris lived this way and treated others this way.
On February 5, 1999, George Bernard Uicker, Leo's older brother, wrote of the family: "Brother Chris came from a real family. Our mother was a real lady who was left with nine kids when our dad passed away. Anna was born the week my dad died. John, the oldest, was twelve. Our mother raised us as a family and taught us well. We had only debts to start but with a communal spirit we survived. We had no government help, just family cooperation. The four remaining today are still family. I'm sure Brother Chris passed on the good features learned at home as did the rest of us.
"Leo was the next youngest to Anna. Joseph Uicker, his father, was a carpenter. His mother was Katherine Rau Uicker. Leo Uicker was born January 31, 1916 and baptized February 6 in St. Thomas Aquinas Church. The father built three big houses on Griffin Street in Derry, N.H., one of which was his home. Joseph had a horse and wagon and used it to go to his job. One morning as he went to work, his hand came in contact with the moving steel rim of a wagon wheel and it cut his finger. Carpenters did not pay much attention to scratches, slivers and small cuts and so he ignored it. He worked all day and returned home in the evening in a sickly condition. His finger was swollen and infected. He and his wife tried all the home remedies they knew but no useful medicine was found. Since he could not return to work, the doctor was called.
"The doctor had no remedy either and by this time Joseph had developed a general infection. The doctor did what he could but the sickness just got worse. Joseph did not work from November, 1916 to May, 1917 when he was hospitalized. Two weeks in the hospital did not cure the infection and Joseph passed away. The death of Joseph Uicker forever changed the destiny of the family and the death formed Leo in many ways. Here was the wage earner of the family, unable to work for the major part of six months. There was no income, no insurance, no government or union benefits, no source of income. And the reality of the bills became a problem: groceries, doctor, hospital, funeral, taxes, etc.
"Katherine had to manage the family in a difficult situation and try to keep the family together. She had nine children below the age of twelve and a considerable debt. Katherine relied on God’s help and basically used a communal way of living. Without the concept of a Christian family we would never have made it. With the common effort we shared, each became a strong individual.
"John, who quit school after grade 9, went out to work. After working a few years, he went back to school and finished at the University of New Hampshire. John was the number one engineering student in his class while continuing work. John began teaching and he later earned a Mechanical Engineering degree at New Hampshire which was equivalent to a doctorate at that time. Meanwhile, Katherine worked as much as she could, often until 2 A.M., and getting up at 6 A.M. She did not have a new dress in thirteen years."
Meanwhile, George, the third in line among the boys began high school at age 22 and finished in two years, graduating from high school the same year as Leo He, too, continued in engineering at New Hampshire. Scholarships were offered him but he had to pass them up as part time work paid more. George had to drop out of school a second time for two years to help the family. He was nearly 30 when he finished his bachelor’s degree and he went to work as an engineer in the steel mills of Donora, Pennsylvania. During the war George went to the University of Pennsylvania and then started teaching at the University of Detroit.
In another letter, George continues, "In spite of adversity, at no time were we hungry or afraid of being hungry. At no time did we fear losing our home. We had a home and that was due to the family operation managed by our mother. The older ones, down to and including me, the fifth, really faced the starvation. We went into the factory for regular jobs at age 14. But the next part of the family had it a bit differently.
"When Al graduated from grammar school, he was allowed to go directly to high school. The family was, by this time, approaching more normal family living. The younger children, Mary, Leo and Anna never quite saw the starvation level of living. By the time Leo came along he went all the way through the public school system. It is no wonder Leo considered his older brothers as father figures."
In those days, Derry did not have a separate public high school system and so Leo went to a private school, Pinkerton Academy, and the city paid the tuition. This is the same Pinkerton that started the detective agency, and the school is quite prestigious. Leo told me about a school reunion he had attended where all the people he knew were now the wealthy people of the area. He was very proud he went to that school. One of the teachers at Pinkerton Academy was Robert Frost, the poet, but that was before Leo’s time.
Even then, Leo liked the outdoors. On a visit with him, he recalled the fishing ponds and showed me his fishing spots and told the stories of himself and his dog, "Jip." He took me to the family burial plots and they were holy places for Leo. He then told me the stories of his parents and those who had preceded him in death. Joe, his brother, was in a nursing home. Leo brought me there to visit Joe. Leo also wanted to show me a portable, walk-in and close-the-door hot tub. He had hoped we could get such a tub in the brothers’ residence but the cost was prohibitive.
Finally, we went to the parish church for mass and we sat in the same seats the family had used. Leo had saved his own money and collected some from the family and had a stained glass window dedicated to Joseph and Katherine Uicker. It was not long after this visit, when Leo had returned to Chicago, that Joe, his brother, died. Joe had been Leo’s fishing and traveling buddy and Leo's spirits were down for a very long time. He kept repeating to me, "I don't know why he is gone. I thought the Uickers were made of superior clay."
Another facet of Leo's life that began early was his ability with mechanical things and his skill with hobbies and crafts. His sister, Mary, wrote of him when he was 16 or 17, "Leo was keenly interested in model airplane construction. He did extensive and painstaking work on a particular plane. Everyone in the family knew of the hours of meticulous work he had spent in the construction of the model airplane. As we lived in town, there was no proper place to do a test flight.
" Leo drove the car with myself, our mother and a couple of others to a paddock away from the town of Derry. Everyone was so proud of Leo as he readied the plane for its maiden flight. Leo patiently wound the rubber-band powered propeller and then carefully launched the craft skyward. It flew well at first but when the rubber band lost its energy, the plane began to descend, circling to the left. A few feet from the ground, the left wing dipped sharply causing the plane to cartwheel and crash. The whole family felt miserable for Leo when they saw all the damage. However, Leo wasn't dejected. He left the crestfallen group, picked up the wreckage and vowed to get that plane flying again. He did that by using a gasoline engine of the proper size. He was such a wonderful boy."
Years later the brothers and his students saw his many skills. As a labor of love, he would make individualized leather covers for each of the brother's prayer books.. He made leather bags, jewelry and woodwork. In more than one community, he decorated the chapel and used these same skills to supervise building projects and to implement technical departments in the schools. One of his great projects in the early 60's was to help the brothers build a sailboat for vacations. In all of this, the effort was to help and please others.
There isn’t much of a written history of Leo’s time in the United States Navy although it left an imprint on his character. What we have is a flood of "navy stories" all of which had either a worthwhile or interesting point. Almost all of them were funny: none were obscene but a few were irreverent, often pointed at the structure of the Navy. For example, when an authority would speak, Leo would chime in, "Aye, aye sir!"
Leo was 23 years old in 1939. He was working in a factory with his high school education and earning little money. Leo was deeply patriotic and New Hampshire borders on the Atlantic Ocean. John Paul Jones had founded the U.S. Navy at Portsmouth, N.H. and there was a big navy base there and another in Boston. Neither was far from his home in Derry, N.H.
When war came Leo didn’t just join the U.S. Navy, he joined the submarine force. When asked why he did such a thing, given the heat and confinement in the work space, he said, "I made extra money for that duty to send to help Ma." The naval school for submarine mechanics was in Boston. The main submarine base was in Connecticut. But one of Leo’s greatest hurts was that while he was on duty, mostly in the South Pacific, his mother died and he could not attend her funeral.
Wentworth Institute was the Naval Training School in Boston. Leo trained to be a Machinist Mate-third class and with his mechanical ability he excelled in this school. He specialized in submarine diesels. He graduated with honors on November 8, 1943. This diesel specialization lessened his danger. He was assigned to repair submarine diesel engines with the Tender, Shark II (CSD 222), in the South Pacific off the coast of New Guinea. In this capacity he was not allowed to go on combat missions but he told Br. Enda St. Martin that at one point on a shake-down cruise to test an engine, they actually sank an enemy freighter.
Leo had a sleep disorder, apnea, most of his life, although it wasn’t diagnosed until much later. Being of stout frame and short of stature he learned to wedge himself into a comfortable position while standing, and promptly go to sleep to get the rest he needed. Later in life this sometimes brought smiles: he could do it while teaching a class, while taking his turn reading to the community, or while everyone else was walking and saying the rosary.
Brother Arthur Walsh, from Iona College, also a veteran of the U.S. Navy, writes, "Leo entered the Christian Brothers in 1950. He was short of stature, large of body, and full of heart and wit. Leo would say, ‘It’s the wine at mass that bothers me.’ Then he would go on to tell me a sea story of life on the submarine. They had been at sea for months and pulled into Guam for rest and recreation. Leo, who kept a bottle of scotch for such emergencies, took the bottle ashore, set up his cot and gear in a screened hut and awaited the fall of night. He would have a little drink, and then a little more, awaiting the coming of dawn. Even in the dark Leo was aware of the eyes of a group of thirsty marines who were quiet but were near the tent watching. Leo’s heart went out to them. He invited them in and offered to share the scotch."
Another story about shore-leave relates how Leo came ashore intent on relaxing at a movie. Knowing Leo, he might have been aiming for a snooze as well. In any case he got on a long line and was trying to find out what was showing and his fellow sailors were teasing him. Suddenly he realized the line was not for the movie but for the bawdy house. Inventive as always, Leo used one of his patented excuses to get out of line and go elsewhere.
Leo often spoke of getting fresh eggs, which "came his way" as they were loaded aboard the submarine. Leo had figured out that with "torpedo juice" which was pure alcohol, and with a little metal plate, he could fry the eggs from the heat coming from the compressor.
It was after his discharge from the Navy Leo parlayed his knowledge and the financial help from the G.I. bill into a fine education. His brothers taught at the Jesuit University of Detroit. Having graduated with honors from the Naval Submarine School and with his Navy experience, he enrolled at U of D.
On his death in 1994, his shipmates from the Shark II sent a certificate that read: "Leo Uicker is hereby entered on this 26th day of May, in the year of our Lord 1994, into the log of the honored crew of the United States Submarine Veterans who are on their last patrol. May their names be cherished and remembered by all their shipmates and those who are to follow in the best tradition of the Silent Service."
So Leo enrolled at the University of Detroit to get a degree in Civil Engineering. His grades had always been about B’s except when he enjoyed something or really saw a use for it. Then his grades became A’s. There were even some humorous sides to his Civil Engineering preparation. One of his minors was highway planning; another was sanitary engineering. This latter area provided many hilarious conversations when he would somewhat seriously describe the density of various effluents.
Father Edward Montvale, S.J., was chaplain in Leo’s residence hall. He had known the Christian Brothers of Ireland from earlier contacts, probably Leo H.S. in Chicago, and he became Leo’s counselor. When Leo mentioned the possibility of a religious vocation, the idea of a priestly Jesuit vocation did not seem to fit, but the possibility of teaching with the Brothers and helping needy students was very attractive. Some forty years later, in 1992, Leo had an emotional reunion with Father Montvale at the Jesuit residence at the University of Chicago.
Father Montvale’s letter of recommendation (July 22, 1949) is important. It is interesting to see Leo’s spiritual development even at this time. "Mr. Uicker has been with us at Holden Hall for two full years. During this time, his spiritual habits, his scholastic aptitude, his spirit of cooperation and his practical philosophy of life have made him an ideal resident.
"To elaborate, Leo is a Sunday communicant, has a solid devotion to our Blessed Mother and shows a happy facility in making those about him appreciate the spiritual. Scholastically he was regular with his hours of study. Never a bright student, he did manage to average 80% over his five year course. Here it might be added that Leo learned the material on his own. He rarely asked for help despite the fact his two older brothers are professors of engineering at the University of Detroit.
"When speaking of Mr. Uicker’s cooperation, I refer specifically to his strict observance of dormitory regulations as well as his generosity with manual help. A skilled carpenter, he donated months of free time to pine-paneling the Hall’s recreation room. Finally, his philosophy! It’s a practical outlook on life that has coined many a ‘Uickerism’ in our midst. He is never ruffled, always at peace with the Lord and His world. He has my highest recommendation." This is the same Chris we all got to know and love.
While at the University of Detroit he was asked to be the roommate of the only black student in the dormitory, a young man from Jamaica, West Indies. Leo Uicker, the ultimate Christian, immediately said yes and was genuinely astounded that the hall rector would even have to ask. "Why wouldn’t everyone say yes?" Such an open attitude predicted his success in the various foreign missions.
Later he would get teaching certificates in Montana and Michigan. Since Montana required student teaching, Chris enrolled in the University of Portland (Oregon), even though he had
already been teaching for some time. Not surprisingly, Chris performed well under the watchful eyes of master teachers. In 1963, he went to Bradley University to get more teaching preparation, and an undergraduate minor, for various shop classes.
Leo graduated from the University of Detroit in May, 1949 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering. He had written to the Christian Brothers in West Park in July asking for information. His letter of July 17 asks, "Would you kindly send me some specific information as to the requirements and duties of the members of your congregation? I am a Catholic, single and 33 years old. I am at present employed as an Airport Designer by the Michigan Department of Aeronautics ( he had taken this job at graduation). Teaching interests me and for some time I have been thinking of offering my services to a congregation of Brothers such as yours. Possibly, I am over the age limit but I hope not."
To his amazement he did not receive back information from Brother Austin Gleeson, but rather an acceptance to the Congregation and a date to report in three weeks, August 10. Leo’s clear, honest response of August 7 follows; "Though sincerely interested in becoming a member of the Irish Christian Brothers, my letter was intended to be one of inquiry rather than a letter of application. You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I learned that you had accepted me for postulancy this month. If anything, I had hoped that a possible acceptance would allow me three months or so for my leave-taking. August 10 would have given me three weeks. In that time I have managed to quit the engineering job (aviation) in Lansing, but this is all. Now, with but three days remaining, I find that I cannot manage the speedy takeoff.
"Briefly, Brother, here are my worldly reasons. First, I am mentally fatigued. The determined push for an engineering degree immediately after my years of Naval service proved quite a strain. I would like to relax my brain a little with some physical distraction. Just such an opportunity offers itself in a one-year probational job with the Michigan State highway program. It’s an opening I have waiting for me should I wish to start again this coming week. There are seven departments in this program, with the students spending seven weeks in each.
"Perhaps my vision is very distorted, but I can see that this highway program would help me as a Brother insofar as it would enable me to offer vocational guidance in such lines to future pupils who might be interested in such work. If ever I was thoroughly vexed with my professors at the University, it was when I realized that theirs were strictly book answers to my questions concerning the practicality of some of our courses in civil engineering. Please bear with my untrained logic, Brother. It is just that my wearied brain was taken by surprise. Since your age limit is thirty-five I would appreciate a little more time to get straightened out.
"To mix a few figures of speech, it isn’t a question of keeping a taut line on me lest a little slack be a gamble on losing me. I’m determined to that extent. I want to be an Irish Christian Brother. It isn’t a Gospel plea of going home to bury my father, but a little more time to pray to God that I’ll never turn back once my hand has been placed to the plow. With heart deep sincerity, /s/ Leo Uicker."
After World War II, active religious congregations were flooded with vocations. In the North American Province of the Christian Brothers of Ireland, Brother Patrick Joachim Reilly was the vocation director and he was a go-getter. Each year he had gotten larger groups supported by the enthusiasm of the brothers. His goal for 1950: "Fifty in ‘50." Forty-six postulants arrived and Leo was one of them. But on Feb. 8, 1950 Leo was still getting his affairs together. He was planning a trip to Israel with his brother Joe from New Hampshire and trying to estimate how much money he needed to pay his expenses once he finished. He made the trip and it included Rome, the Holy Land, Oberammergau for the Passion Play, and Dublin (since these were the "Irish" Christian Brothers). He was seeking more information "about the general scheme of things in the brothers" and adds, "My family is very much pleased with my plans and asks me all kinds of questions. Thus, my requests for information."
By June 5, 1950, he is writing again, this time sending a check for $100.00 for his black suit and habit and setting a date to see the tailor in New York. He adds, "At present, I am working out my notice. My job terminates June 15. On the 17th my sister is to be married and I am to be the best man. Then I want to spend a couple of days in New Hampshire to visit my brothers and sisters there, so you can see I’m pretty busy right now. If possible I would like to drop in at New Rochelle on June 24. Would that be agreeable with you? The line-up of the day’s novitiate duties have not cooled my ardor."
The parish priest wrote an encouraging recommendation on Sept. 20, 1950. "Although I am not well acquainted with Leo personally due to the fact that he has been employed outside the parish, I am morally certain that he deserves to be highly recommended. He has several brothers and sisters here and they are all fine people." And his physician adds an interesting note for those of us who knew him, "Height, 5 feet, 5 l/2 inches with shoes, weight 221 ˝ pounds; physically fit."
When he joined the brothers, at 34, he was the oldest in his group of mostly teenagers. He was given the name, Brother Christopher, and he was told that being a Brother meant being part of the team. That was all great until being part of the team meant playing sports--all kinds of sports. As Greg O’Donnell observed, "Chris could adequately be described as a right fielder. No matter what the sport was, even hockey, Chris was a ‘right fielder’ (a position in baseball where very little happens). But he played right field with a smile."
Brother Bosco French from his group writes: "Most of us were Juniorate (high school) kids filled with idealism, enthusiasm, devotion and ignorance of the world. As we entered the novitiate, we were joined by Chris Uicker and Artie Walsh who had served the United States in the military service of the World War II. You can imagine the awe with which we held these two ‘old men.’ You can also imagine how they must have seen us as we enthused constantly on subjects such as sports, singing, prayer, rumors and our vision of ‘important’ things such as converting the world and eradicating all evil.
"Chris was usually most patient with the immaturity surrounding him. Our Novice master, Brother Victor Chapman, was very supportive of his contemporary, and brought him through a most difficult time. How we enjoyed Chris’ unease when some neophyte would explode with some idealist theory unaware of the real expectations of human nature. It is with brotherly love and appreciation I recall all the times Chris set us straight on what to expect when we faced the vagaries of real human beings. May he be eternally rewarded for his total giving of a life precious to God and to those fortunate enough to have known him."
George Fitzpatrick from the group adds, " When I first saw him in West Park I thought he was one of the drivers delivering new candidates. He looked so much beyond us in years and ways. I then felt a certain satisfaction that such an older person would choose our way of life. Everything about Chris was attractive. His slow gait, portly appearance, slow New England accent, all these made him an immediate favorite with the group. Wherever he was he drew a crowd. People liked conversing with him. When there was a situation that needed a ‘name’ he could be counted on to supply the ‘bon mot.’ He had a wit and enough experience to realize that he was at times dealing with those just out of high school, ‘kids’ as he called most of us. But he was not one to let his ways ‘lord it over’ the rest. He took part in all the common activities. He did not beg exception.
"He genuinely liked people and if someone brought up a topic he had an opinion. But he was not mean or overbearing in spite of his occasional ‘swipes’ at the foibles and nonsense of some novices. He was like our ‘father-figure,’ willing and able to listen to whatever topic we proposed. He would react but I think he liked to have his ‘ways’ challenged." Jerry McCarthy adds, "Chris would always refer to ‘New York Shitty’ because he felt the city was so dirty."
Others in his group add to the picture. Tom Conlan, a former brother, mentions, "Artie Walsh, Chris and I became roommates, in ‘the Old Timers Room,’ because the three of us were older than most." Bernard Kane adds, "It is not surprising to me that he was so much loved in the Brothers. He always had such a genial disposition."
Dennis Clancy had a unique relationship with Chris. Dennis was just barely seventeen years old, half the age of Chris. "My clearest memory of Chris in those days was at the group recitation of the rosary along ‘rosary walk,’ a sidewalk that went quite a distance from the house to the cemetery. We had completed two decades of the rosary when we turned to walk back toward the cemetery. There in the distance stood Chris, sound asleep on his feet." He had learned to sleep like that in the Navy, but the novices wondered how he did it.
Dennis also adds, "Chris felt at one point he should ‘respectfully disagree’ with the novice-master’s suggestion on mortification, that ‘we some-times might eat food we disliked.’ Chris’ response cited the fact that he couldn’t stand onions in gravy and that if he were to eat them, he would become physically ill and unable to perform his duties to the community and in school. The laughter ended the lecture." Darce Fardy mentions that when teasing came Chris’ way, " rather than be the butt of the joke he joined in unabashed. I think in his years in the military Chris found a peace that eluded many of the rest of us."
Dave Villecco says: "Using his engineering skills, he was able to survey the several baseball fields the group needed for recreation, and supervise the work to see they were done just right. Although he wasn’t the athletic type, he was very exact in making sure the fields were correct. He had an earthy sense of humor that wasn’t vulgar. For example, ‘A good concrete mix is like fresh cow manure.’" Brother Jack Driscoll, the long-time president of Iona College adds, "We always thought the novice-master liked him the best. And why shouldn’t he? The rest of us all did. Chris never asked for relief from duty because of age or infirmity or the glories of former wars. But he sure knew how to take a nap."
And so, as Dennis Clancy adds, when the novitiate was finished and vows were taken, "we watched Chris drive off in a car headed for a trip to Butte, Montana, and we wondered if he would finally get a cigar after a year with none."
The Butte Years: The Teacher
At first Chris was to teach in Leo High School in Chicago because they had a drafting program in place and it was felt this would be a natural for him But at the last minute it was decided he that he would go to the high school in Butte, Montana. The new principal needed help with the science and mathematics classes. And it was agreed that Butte would benefit from a drafting program and Chris could inaugurate one Since Chris’ novitiate didn’t end until after school began in Butte he arrived late.
In those days, if one was considered as "clergy," a priest or religious, he was allowed to get a clergy pass to travel more cheaply. One sent in credentials and a fee to a clearing house in Chicago, and a clergy book came back in the mail. Then the bearer went to get a ticket for the train, the clergy book was presented and the discount allowed. When Chris boarded the train, he did not have a lot of documentation about his status, and so the conductor doubted his ticket. But Chris’ explanation finally won out. It made for a great story on arrival in Butte.
I was a student in Chris’ first classes and of course was enthralled with the story of the clergy ticket, of his novitiate and of his stories from World War II. The brothers originally came to Butte in 1924 following a wave of Irish immigration. In 1951, the school, Boys’ Central High School, was booming. The school was filled with the post World War II exuberance. All of the teachers were brothers except one who was the athletic coach. Clem Mahoney was the new principal, the first Butte native, and there were nine other brothers.
Chris was a sight to behold almost everywhere he went. He was filled with WW II and submarine stories, his practical New Hampshire outlook and a lot of talent to build things and to do it. He began by rebuilding the brothers’ chapel with an inlaid tile floor and paneled walls, and then he set out to build every piece of drafting equipment in use in the school. He built all the tables and got stools from a bar supply company. Then he used all his wile to get the necessary supplies. By the second year, drafting was well under way and Chris was master of this domain. He struggled a bit to teach Chemistry and Physics for the first time, but he had Clem Mahoney to teach him along the way. He got better and better as a teacher, but drafting was his first love. At one point in Butte, Chris got pretty discouraged with all the challenges. Clem Mahoney took him aside, Chris says "as a father and told me to hang in there." He never stopped thanking Clem for this help. I heard it repeated in 1993. Chris never forgot a kindness.
It was about this time, that Chris got the urge to go to the foreign missions. The brothers from the American province had opened a high school in Kimberley, South Africa, and the brothers wore white habits. This was music to Chris’ ears. His letter of January 17, 1955 to Brother Loftus, the Provincial, states: "I wish to offer my services for God’s work on the foreign mission field, at St. Boniface’s mission in South Africa. I have a degree and four years of teaching experience in religion, math and the sciences. I would also like to add that if a handy man is needed, God willing, I am sure I could fill the bill. I certainly would appreciate the chance to try this work which is so dear to the heart of Christ." It would be a number of years before Chris got his wish, but it was another of the loves which filled his life.
In Butte, Chris also was given the student yearbook to moderate. I was one of his choices as a student leader to do the work, and it was an assignment that helped form my own vocation to the Brothers. Chris was so good, so approachable, and so down to earth. Along with the other brothers , a great impression was made on me. I do remember when I was a senior in high school we earned enough surplus money on the yearbook to give the brothers a nice little vacation that summer. The yearbook, although done primarily in the boys’ school, also covered events in the girls’ school. One of the sisters complained about equal treatment and wanted to meet Chris. His opening line, "What’s your beef, Sister?", left her so confounded, she could only mumble a response.
In 1952, I was a sophomore in Boys’ Central, and Chris’ brother, George, stopped in for a visit. Chris brought him to visit his classes. George had been working in Los Angeles on an engineering project to reduce smog pollution. As always when the Uickers gathered, family resemblances were obvious. It made Chris all the more real.
Chris’ penchant for sleeping on his feet had not deserted him, nor sleeping in general. I had him for a study period which came right after lunch. He would ensconce himself in the chair at the teacher’s desk and promptly doze off. Since we happened to be a very good class, we chose to use the quiet time to get a lot of work done and decided to make life easy for Chris. One student decided to take advantage of the situation. But a few other students told this young man to calm down. It worked.
In class Chris would get the students working and then sort of park his backside on the chalk ledge of the blackboard. Within moments he would be sound asleep and would gently wake up when the students came to him with questions. It wasn’t until years later that he discovered he had sleep apnea and couldn’t control the frequent snoozes. It was also in these years that Chris fell asleep while reading a book to the brothers before mass in the morning. It was a morning when the brothers were tired from the night before, and it took little time for all the listeners to dose off in comfortable chairs. Chris looked up and saw them snoozing and without much effort joined them. When the superior, Clem Mahoney, woke up a bit later, he found the entire room asleep.
Religious life could be quite strict in those years. It was decided since the brothers lived near the center of town, that they should not have an automobile. So they could not travel to various events except by intercity bus nor take advantage of the recreation opportunities in the area (for Chris, this was fishing). Chris found out that the photographer for the yearbook had an old truck which was available most weekends so he, Ted Beyer, Louis Frick and Ben Hueller used to borrow the truck and go fishing. As with all Chris’ endeavors, stories followed. Ted Beyer writes, "Fishing trips were an experience. We left after the 6 A.M. mass to go to Thompson Creek about 100 miles away. You could tell when Chris was about to fall asleep. He began to slow down and take his foot off the accelerator pedal. It never was a problem but the first time it was a little frightening. It was a chance to get out of doors and relax. We usually went once a week, weather allowing." Ben Hueller adds, "Once when he was driving returning from a fishing trip, we began to slow down and then stopped completely on the highway. Chris was asleep." Louis Frick: "One time when Ted Beyer was driving, Ted turned the car over on its side as it rounded a curve. There wasn’t much damage to the car, but the way the car landed. Chris fell on top of Ted. It took some time before Ted could get his breath back again."
And Chris did have some pet peeves. One of them was his feeling about the uselessness of education courses. He disliked them all the more because he was forced to take them. Ted Beyer tells the story about how Chris would enter the men’s room with a copy of Time magazine. When he would get to the section on education, the door would fly open, and though Chris remained seated, the comments would come flying out about how these educators were ruining the schools. On another occasion, Chris, who was short of stature, was opening the classroom door and some of the students didn’t see him. One student asked another student from the previous class, "What did he do in class today." The other student replied, "The same old s---!" A few minutes later as class began, Chris stated with, "Well here we go with the same old s---!" The student was mortified and the others laughed heartily.
The brothers in Butte loved Chris. Their comments are universal. Ted Beyer: "Chris was a good friend. He helped to make an otherwise isolated, slow-paced house, more enjoyable. From the day he arrived in Butte we knew we had a real ‘character’ living with us. He was a GREAT MONK. What else could you say about a brother that would be better. He was very human, enjoyable, loved his work, had strong opinions." Charlie O’Donnell says, "To have such a man as Chris was a great blessing. He brought with him a stability and good humor that was rarely matched. He was ever conscious of the feelings of others and would never take advantage of anyone." Ben Hueller adds, "We were fortunate to have Chris with us in Butte. He added considerable variety and zest to our community in the fifties." And Louis Frick, "Chris was great. We all loved him. He rarely got upset. Truly he has a high place in heaven."
Later in Africa, Chris became known for the letters he wrote requesting help for some project. I know that I got many of these in my various years in various schools. He just expected that everyone would help him out. Ted Beyer comments. "I know Chris worked very hard in Africa, but I hated to get a letter from him. It was usually thick and loaded with a list of things that he needed for the school. Once I sent him some slides that could be shown in daylight and did not need darkness. He was thrilled because the African students had never seen such things."
His last year Chris was getting ready for his transfer to the new school in Chicago. This school would have shops and drafting facilities and he wanted to be in on their planning and design. When the time for his final vows came, he asked for permission to have his extraordinary vacation (seven years), and on return from New Hampshire, to stop in both Detroit to see his family, and in Chicago to check out the new school facilities. As it turned out, they transferred him to Brother Rice, Chicago, to begin working with the new shops as planned.
Brother Rice, Chicago
Although Chris was headed to Chicago, he still had this intense desire to go to Africa. But that was still on hold. His years in the Midwest, 1957-64 and 1971-75 may have been the years Chris was the most forceful in his educational ministry.
Of all places, I ended up being stationed in Brother Rice Chicago five years after I finished high school. Here I lived with Chris in community and taught with him in the school. I was one of his "products." He was in the middle of everything going on. Chris had the new drafting classroom going very well and the other shops had been planned, executed and staffed. His students were winning drafting competitions regularly. As if his professional presence wasn’t enough, he had a supervision post outside the drafting room between classes at a junction in the main part of the school. With his physical build he just stood in the hallway intersection and "held his post." The students could go around him. And, whereas he had to sleep when standing in earlier times, he now had soft music, a soft chair, and a happy spirit when awakened with questions. As in Butte the students worked right along and respected Chris very much.
Chris was as big as life in community as well. Greg O’Donnell’s comment about Chris’ saying, "I never met a meal I didn’t like," surely was true here. Chris was very happy indeed. At community recreation he organized scrabble games, and concocted all kinds of new words to make sure he won the game. Actually, he liked the camaraderie as everyone talked and laughed about the veracity of his words. Huge dictionaries were unearthed. His dislike of organized sports became evident when he opposed the building of a football stadium behind the school, which meant a lot of extra travel for teams. The Brothers prepared sailing boats for vacation: Chris was right in the middle of the preparations, "the old Navy man." Vacation was fun for him. He particularly liked Eagle River, Wisconsin, where he could sail, go fishing, have cookouts, snooze and enjoy the brothers. He used to go up to Wisconsin early for preparations to make sure the proper focus was set for vacation. The golfers would just have to fit in later. When grilling dinner he would have a big apron and a chef’s tall hat. The hat almost doubled his height but not his width.
In 1958, he made his final vows in New Rochelle and went home to New Hampshire. New Hampshire never left his heart. His parents were buried there, his brothers and sisters lived there. He always invited Brothers to come and see him in New Hampshire. He would bring friends to Frosty Acres, where the great American poet had lived while he taught English in the school Chris attended. Frost needed the teaching because his poems weren’t selling at the time. In his practical wisdom, Chris would remind everyone that Robert Frost was always a dreamer. Frost’s cows would low from the weight of excess milk because he would forget to milk them. And the neighbors would have to come over and do the milking chores for him. Chris always figured he was smarter than Frost.
Chris ended up in the hospital this summer also. He had his navel removed. He reported to the Provincial that he was happy in the hospital but he certainly could not go swimming or golfing with no navel. He insisted he needed to go back to the woods for fishing. Since no group went this particular year, he tried to go with another community, but his request was denied. So he went down to Grand Beach with the swimmers and the golfers, but they couldn’t take his grill away.
In the Spring of 1960, Chris got involved in supervising the construction of Brother Rice, H.S., Michigan, outside of Detroit. I know he did some work there, with his engineering skills, and he was assigned there in 1964, but I don’t know how much of his time it took. Because in the summer 1960, he was studying in Bradley University, Peoria, doing shop classes and such. In his letter to Austin Loftus about supervising in Detroit, there is vintage Chris. "I could stay at the University of Detroit. They have mass there every morning. I might need the use of a car, however." Then he adds, "I wish to renew my application for the African mission. I have discussed this with you and I still feel strongly about it."
These were great years teaching for Chris and of sharing with community. But the Africa itch was strong, and Michigan would have to do without him. . His days here might be summed up by this summary. He was a unique man in so many ways. He wasn’t one to occupy positions of power but he had a powerful voice in so many decisions. He was a tremendous force in the lives of the young men he taught. a real force for good. He had no airs about him. He was a man, like Nathaniel in the gospel. He had no guile. He was down-to-earth, nurturing, loving and lovable.
In 1962 and ‘63 his requests for Africa became more pointed. "I like it here at Brother Rice, Chicago, and I would like to finish out my seven years here. I already have finished six so that leaves one year to go. If I can’t go to Africa, maybe you can send me to the new school in Hawaii, to start a drafting program there. But his message was getting through. Ben Hueller, who had lived with Chris in Butte, and then in Brother Rice, Chicago as well, was the new principal of the school in Michigan. He asked if Chris could come up and help plan the drafting room and outfit it with furniture and equipment. And Chris was headed for the second novitiate, during the summer of ‘63, in New York as part of the updating process for community members. Whether Chris saw the new provincial, Cel Penny, who had also come from Brother Rice, Chicago, he was assigned to Brother Rice, Michigan for one year, and was told at some point he would, indeed, be going to Africa in September 1964. This was a good place for him to be to plan his journey to Africa. He had many friends there from his college days and brothers and sisters living there. And so, the next adventure begins.
The Beginning of the Africa Years
By November 9, 1964, Chris was living in Power Memorial Academy in New York, near the docks. Although Chris went by airplane on this trip, he loved to travel by ship, and returned by ship in 1968. He wrote to the Provincial. "I have not yet received my visa but my application is in for a month now so it should come in the next few weeks, God willing. You asked me to write and remind you that I would like to spend a couple of days in Ireland on the way. I would also like to spend a few days in New Hampshire with my family before I leave."
At this point I would like to insert some of the history of St. Boniface Mission in Kimberley, South Africa. Most of this was prepared by Brother Enda St. Martin who was stationed there with Chris. It bears directly on what Chris was doing.
"The Mission was started by the German Oblate Fathers and named after the patron saint of Germany. It was the German Oblates who staffed most places in the Kimberley Diocese. They were the ones to greet James Hayes and I when we arrived to start a high school in January, 1951. The school year began in January. The nuns at the mission were German Dominicans (Oakford) and there were several Dominican sisters’ communities in the area.
"The parish priest at St. Boniface was Fr. Hartjes, OMI. And, of course, an old Irish Brother of ours, Brother Paul Dundon, taught in the St. Boniface grade school (grades 1-7). Probably Paul was the original contact who helped the brothers get there. At this point Paul was the grade school principal and made continuous efforts to get food, blankets and food to the people who were extremely poor. He unashamedly begged help for the black students from his many contacts with Christian Brothers’ College Old Boys Alumni, many of whom he had taught prior to going to the mission. CBC was a very high class boarding school for whites with an Olympic-size swimming bath (no such things as pools down there), top quality tennis courts, a prime cricket pitch, a chapel bigger than the parish church, a chiming clock tower, brick buildings, etc.
"In those apartheid years, the area was known as a compound and it had a diamond mine in its adjacent environs. Blacks came from all over Africa and applied to work in the diamond mines. It provided very low pay, but then the tribal Africans had no pay at all in their villages. These compounds were surrounded by double wire fences with razor coils on top; guards and attack dogs patrolled the fenced ring around the mine complex. Natives signed up for 4-month stretches of mine labor. There were no females in their living areas so homosexuality was common among the workers.
"The other area where the black people lived, was called a location. This was an urban native township and there was one in this case next to the compound. Location was their original names but by this point the government called them Bantu Townships. Natives could only live in a location or if living in a white area, they had to live within the servant quarters on that plot. Some locations had thatched huts but the ones near St. Boniface had simple brick houses with one or two rooms, mostly no electricity or plumbing. They used candles or oil lamps and water from taps located about a block or two away. There were common laundry tubs with taps of only cold water. There were public toilets which used a ‘honey bucket’ system.
"The locations were separated from the white areas by what was euphemistically termed a ‘green belt.’ There was no grass however. It was a semi-desert and the students of the mission could use it for soccer fields. The were also areas for ‘coloureds.’ These were people of mixed blood. Everyone carried a government ID card with his/her classification: white, Bantu, coloured, Indian. Asiatics did not have a classification. The people in the location, who usually had jobs in the white area, went into town each day to work at whatever jobs they were allowed to have. All technical and skilled jobs were ruled out, ‘job reservation’ it was called. The blacks did the laboring jobs: digging, carrying loads, cleaning, gardening, etc. Some were allowed to be doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers and police but only in their own areas. A sad example; if a white person collapsed on the street a black doctor could not attend to that person.
"I don’t think it was any easier for us Americans to work at St. Boniface than it would be for the Irish, or any other whites even if South African. Chris came to South Africa to replace me as the science and math teacher when I was reassigned to Zambia for the school year 1965. But I did get a chance to know him during my last year in Kimberley. After three years in Zambia, I was going to leave Africa for the American provinces but I was asked to go back to St. Boniface for the year 1968 because they were short one brother for that year. So I lived with Chris for that year. Later, I got to live with him at St. John mission in Arizona and at Brother Rice in Chicago. Chris did not return to the United States at the end of 1968. It was when I was transferred to Vancouver College for three years." Actually Chris returned in 1969.
When the American Provinces split into three in the 1960's, Chris went on record with the new provincial, Louis Frick, that he wanted to be considered a member of the Western Province, as he had never taught in the east. I think at this time, he wanted to leave Africa because the mission would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the provinces in the United States.
At this point it would do well to quote Greg O’Donnell for a bit who enjoyed visiting and talking with Chris after these tours of duty. " He loved those years working with God’s destitute poor, doing with nothing for himself, but seeking better conditions for the victims of injustice. When he talked of those years he would become impassioned, not with blame for anyone, but with compassion for everyone. He could not bring himself to judge, feeling that the work of judgment was God’s and not his.
"During long car rides when we would just sit and talk, I’d ask him what it was like teaching in South Africa. His face would light up and he’d begin a monologue about paradise. His recollections were of students most eager to learn, always prepared and with their homework done meticulously. Then he would slow his talk and go into a ‘whisper mode.’ The listeners had to bend over to hear. The most important recollection would be about discipline. Chris would talk about how he was never a good disciplinarian: he was just too gentle. He could never bring himself to shout or get angry: he felt the students interpreted this the wrong way. But, in South Africa where the students were keen to learn, there was no need for discipline. And that was heaven on earth for Chris.
"His memories were of a people as gentle as himself. He told story after story of how they were oppressed by apartheid and yet flourished in a system that guaranteed them jobs--if not dignity. He made himself a student of their unique social problem. Slow to judge and quick to learn, he saw all sides of life in South Africa and vowed to do everything in his power to right wrongs but to do so in peace and understanding. He told of visiting people in jail and bringing them food and blankets. He knew about prison systems because he had visited people in prison.
"One funny story about Chris had to do with his New Hampshire accent. At the mission, each of the brothers would take a group of students to teach them English. In the recitations for the exams, the students had to read and speak in English, and Chris’ students would all speak with a New Hampshire accent (where horse might sound like hoss). But this was a real tribute to him and to the students who loved him." But in 1969 he prepared to be reassigned to St. Laurence High School in Chicago. He decided to return by freighter, back on the sea he loved.
He writes to the provincial; "Freighters do not set sail on exact schedules because they are held up by their cargo now and then. But I will leave about November 15, give or take a few days. Sailing time is two weeks so I should arrive in Boston about December 1 (near New Hampshire). I’d like to visit my family. I want to stop in as many schools as I can across the country to talk about the mission." And the provincial replies, "By all means see your family and give me a call when you arrive. I hope the journey will be restful and interesting. (Louis was also a sailor in World War II). I wish I were on one of those boats that go around the world. No phones and lots of reading time."
Bert Darcy speaks of Chris from Bert’s years on the General Council. " When Chris was stationed in Africa, I happened to be there on visitation. The brothers, as usual, made me most welcome and Chris who was very proud of his cooking, announced that he had a special treat prepared, strawberry ice cream made with fresh strawberries. This would be a treat in warm weather. At the appropriate time the dessert came out with great ceremony. Unfortunately, as he dished the ice cream out, these frozen hard balls of strawberries appeared, which were, of course, inedible. Chris has forgotten to slice the strawberries. We all had a good laugh and no one more than Chris when he recovered from his embarrassment."
St. Laurence : Chicago
"My earliest recollections of Chris Uicker," writes Greg O’Donnell, "revolve around his teaching mechanical drawing at St. Laurence. He was a man with a purpose. Better yet, he was a man driven with a mission. He had been at Brother Rice, Chicago, and at Brother Rice in Michigan. Each of these schools had excellent facilities for mechanical drawing. He had designed and equipped them. And he was going to make St. Laurence just as good, no matter how many arms he had to twist in the process.
"It was only a matter of months here before mechanical drawing became known as drafting, and each teacher at St. Laurence was indoctrinated with the idea that the future of drafting and the future of St. Laurence were intertwined. He had his students enter contests and when they didn’t bring home first place, Chris would tell us that all of this would change if only the equipment were improved. He promised the principal at the time, Br. Regis Murphy, that if the school purchased literally thousands of dollars worth of drafting machines, then he, Chris would make a commitment to stay there for an indefinite time, teaching drafting and raking in the prizes."
Chris’ weight was getting pretty high and in 1970 he decide to go on a medically supervised diet during the summer. He checked into the hospital and began his "period of starvation," basically very little food. He did not want visitors. As Canisius Berndlmaier writes, "A few of us decided one day to visit him. We were warmly received but we were told ‘don’t make it a habit.’ While there a nurse brought Chris a glass of orange juice. Chris asked her, ‘Is this really for me?’ That night he thanked the doctor for the orange juice, and the doctor replied, ‘What orange juice?’ It had been a mistake. Chris laughed about it and explained how good the juice was. Chris was a man of infinite patience and always stood as a friend for all." When Chris left the hospital he had lost one hundred pounds. But the weight came back, and he just resigned himself to being heavy.
Food was a big part of life for Chris. He was not a glutton and he really didn’t eat much. Chris really enjoyed the taste of food. He liked the camaraderie of friends as much as the calories. His analysis of food was simple, "This is good stuff." There were exceptions. He liked brown food, yellow food, red food and even white food. He had no love for green food. Green vegetables and salads were for rabbits. But even then, he would eat the greens if integral to the meal. And he would add, "Ma told me never to complain about the food put before me."
In 1970 he developed the Africa-itch again and is writing to Louis Frick to talk to the South African provincial, Brother Southwell, because now the mission was under the jurisdiction of the South African province. On May 12 he writes, "I talked to the Superior General (Austin Loftus) and I told him I would like to go back to Africa. Maybe I could be loaned to the mission and not be a member of the South African province." By November 30, Louis writes back to him and says, "It’s time for you to start making preparations for your return trip to South Africa."
And, of course, the brothers at St. Laurence got wind of all of this. Br. Murphy had reluctantly made money available and got the finest drafting machines available. The awards had started to come and the drafting lab was full of excited students with a very excited teacher. But the call of Africa was too great. As Greg O’Donnell continues, "All I remember is that Chris was so happy with the chance to go back that no one, not even Brother Murphy, could get angry with him. Chris was like that. His simple enthusiasm was so infectious. He won over everything and everyone in his path with his gentleness and generosity."
And so on July 13, 1971, we find Chris back in New York on a Farrell Lines freighter headed for South Africa. He writes to Louis Frick, "The sailing date was put off but finally we are under way. That’s how it is with freighters. I had to get some clothing for Africa so I took the liberty of charging it to you. So when you see bills for white habits and white clerical shirts you’ll know it was I that got them. I trust this is okay with you. I went to Newfoundland for some fishing with my brother Joe and Bernie Rohan . I’m glad I went up there to see all the places we always talk about." At some point, during one of these summers Chris and his brother Joe also drove the Alaskan highway beginning in Montana and fishing all the way to Alaska and back.
In 1974 I was finishing up my term as the principal of Damien Memorial in Hawaii. For two years, Louis Frick had been trying to get me to go to the renewal program, the Roman Tertianship. Unknown to me Chris was applying for the same program from South Africa. I had gotten out of touch with Chris to some degree: most of our mission efforts from Hawaii had been directed to Monsefu in Peru. By now, Felix McGowan was serving as Provincial.
There were problems for Chris getting lined up for Tertianship. The South African province had an age limit of under 40 years on participation and Chris was approaching 60. There was also questions as to who should pay. The fact that he was "on loan" from the Western U.S.A. province was a two-edged sword. Because he was of another province, the age could be waived. But because he worked in South Africa, the finances for travel would have to come from the West. So Chris is writing to Felix trying to get Felix to "take the ball" on both accounts. He adds a nice comment: "I don’t envy you your job as you get into the why’s and the wherefore’s of all of this stuff. Keep up the good work, Felix. A stiff upper lip helps, they tell me."
In the winter of 1974, Felix stopped in South Africa to see Chris. The visit seems to have cemented the Tertian program for Chris, and Felix provided the ticket to Rome. In 1974, Butte celebrated 50 years of the brothers presence there and Chris was also itching to go to that event. I was visiting Butte for that purpose from Hawaii, and, of course, Chris wanted to visit Hawaii as well. As it turned out we both met at the Butte celebration, set our sights on Rome, and then he went east and I went back to Hawaii to finish up my work there and then travel on. More and more South Africa was asking Chris to join their province, and that meant moving to an assignment other than St. Boniface. This was not attractive at all to Chris.
The next thing Chris writes, "Had a nice flight on an Alitalia 747 to Rome and I am in my room at the generalate. There are 16 of us here including John Dornbos from Western U.S.". He likes all of his teachers: "These guys are top of the barrel." And Chris really did enter into the program. Richie Glen, from New Zealand, who was in the group writes, "I found Chris such a lovable person. He gave me the impression he had known me for years. And I found his directness quite child-like and sincere. I still remember his reply to Fr. Dermot Cox in Old Testament, ‘Don’t you like theologians, Chris?’ ‘Oh,’ replied Chris, ‘It isn’t the theologians in the Old and New Testament I worry about, but it is these modern ones.’ (These latter included Dermot Cox.)"
There was also a famous scene in Colm Keating’s New Testament class. Colm had been elaborating on the Holy Trinity from the N.T. point of view and he crossed wires with Chris’ more fundamental stance. Chris told Colm that he was off base, and Colm started reading out of the Vatican documents word for word, the same thing he had. Chris was so angry he called Colm a "g---d----- heretic." As class was near the end, the brothers were laughing and went off to lunch. To Colm’s credit he stayed with Chris and they talked for about thirty minutes. When they finally entered the dining room, both smiling and the differences resolved, Chris and Colm got a standing ovation from the brothers. But Chris kept snooping around for heresies that he wished to unearth. His practical experience was fighting with the teaching that was new to him.
Since he was short he would sit in the front of the class, and he had developed a little system of scratching his head with his forefinger wiggling around. The point was that his radar was alert, and he had detected another heresy. Those in class were to help him and begin to ask questions. A few others were even more conservative than Chris. Sometimes his system worked. But one particular day, Chris was itching his head ferociously, the fingers were going, but because of an outing the previous day, most of the brothers were resting in class. So there sat Chris, emoting all kinds of signals and the only one watching was his teacher. Of course, the teacher wanted to know what the problem was. Chris told him he was swatting flies. Of course, there were no flies in the room and Chris was mortified. He took a good-natured ribbing over this one.
We took a trip to Israel and Chris asked me if I would share a twin room with him. I knew this would be a challenge. One night in Nazareth, I didn’t sleep a wink. Between the Arab minaret blasting away at night, donkeys bleating and carrying the loads up the road beneath our window, and Chris snoring, there was little peace in the room. I fell asleep the next day in the tour bus and resolved to go to bed later when I was good and tired. I asked for a room on the quiet side of the building. After visiting Jerusalem, we went to the mountaintop village of Ain Karim. Tradition has it that Elizabeth lived here expecting John the Baptist, and the expectant Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to Elizabeth’s aid here. In any case, the group had to walk up a long hill from the tour bus, and Chris took a long time to come up the hill with a few others. When he arrived at the top, some scholar was explaining the story of the Visitation when Chris arrived, all his radar humming and bristling for action. As the class stopped the professor asked Chris what was on his mind. His answer: "No one is going to tell me that some pregnant woman walked up this hill." And again the class ended in laughter.
In the Roman system of schooling, Thursday is a day off and Saturday is a school day. This allowed the students to go into the city on Thursday when the shops and museums were open. After breakfast the brothers used to stand around the big map of the city and plan their outings. Chris would be in the middle of the discussions and often creating an argument about some disadvantage. A big discussion would ensue. But when the group looked for Chris, he had vanished and gone to bed. When we finally got him to go, we had to remind him to enter the back of the Roman buses and gently push forward, saying "Permisso" until he got to the forward exit doors. The first time I ended up in front of him. He kept saying "Permisso" and then bumping me with his ample belly. I felt like a wounded veteran by the next stop where I managed to get off and get behind him.
The food in Rome was very good but it could be routine, bread, coffee and an egg for breakfast, deep fried meat or fish and pasta at midday, and salami and cheese in the evening. Chris started whining for ham and eggs, a T-bone steak, baked potatoes, corn on the cob and ice cream. To help his discomfort along the brothers used to leave ads for American meals at his dinner place and this would just provoke even more desires. Finally in preparation for Christmas, Chris volunteered, with a number of us to cook an American breakfast. We had to slice ham to look like bacon, fry the eggs instead of boil them, make toast and pancakes. Chris had great fun with this, and then sat himself down to a real U.S. Navy breakfast. At the opening of the Holy Year the crowds were enormous and Chris wanted to meet the Pope. No strategy would work: he found he had to push too hard against the crowd. He finally found a nice chair on a raised platform and watched from a distance.
Vianney Corrigan’s quote fits well here, "Chris was a man’s man. He had learned to be a real man, probably his life working, the Navy and engineering had helped him. He build on the solid foundation he got. His strongest characteristic was his faithfulness. Chris was very human. He was also dedicated to an ideal. One source of happiness to Chris was bringing joy to others. He loved the brothers and the brotherhood. Chris always kept an eye on the kitchen. He wanted a good meal, but also he wanted to help out. He certainly was not a hermit."
Back to Africa
The call of Africa continued. Chris’ missionary activity was the major achievement of his life in terms of ministry. He was aware he left St. Laurence "holding the bag." "I liked it at St. Laurence and I hated to leave there, but there is great work to be done here and that is how it is." This time he went back from 1971 until 1974 when the tertianship intervened. By 1971, after another trip by sea to Africa on a freighter, Chris reports, "I am back in my old room and the place hasn’t changed a bit except the school has a new science lab" and "there are three chiefs and one Indian." He is referring, of course, to the fact that one man was the superior, one man the principal, another had the money as treasurer, and he was the Indian. Down deep he was probably quite happy not to be in charge.
There were many letters from Chris at this time. Part of it was that he felt more and more attracted to his own province and his old friends. Some of it was he needed money for his projects. He also wanted to "grease the wheel" with a little flattery for those who did have money. Chris knew how the system worked. I know when I was in St. Laurence, Chicago, at this time, and I was not in a position where I managed money. But the requests kept coming. Along with a few others, we got the students to increase the mission donations at the school and then asked the province to send some of the excess to Chris. The system worked. But Chris could also be very straightforward.. There is another story told of him, that one time when he went for a job interview, he was aware that the man who interviewed him was not too impressed, mostly by Chris’ facial expression. So Chris simply said, "Don’t let this nose fool you. I am not a boozer." The man was so taken back he gave Chris the job.
Chris walked into a difficult situation in St. Boniface. He was sent to replace a brother who had been sentenced to prison for sexual indiscretions with a native girl, at a time when the South African color barrier was firmly in place. Rather than be judgmental, Chris made it a practice to visit the young brother in prison. When he was taken to task for this, he gave a characteristic reply: "I would like to think if I got into trouble you would visit me."
Ushering in new ideas was always part of Chris’ philosophy. Dominic Devane wrote of him, "This was so obvious. When the voting list for the brothers offices would come out, Chris would tear off the page with the names of older men and always vote for the younger brothers."
Tommie O’Brien and Mel Dolan lived with Chris in these years. Tommie writes, "I used to enjoy working with him. On one occasion he was stripping down a lawn mower to repair and clean it. He was in his element and I was the learner. His practical side allowed me to learn to put the pieces back together under his watchful supervision. I learned a lot from him, basic electricity, plumbing and all kinds of repair. All the while he kept this most interesting conversation going covering an extraordinary variety of topics.
"We had an African cook whose name was Mrs. Dithebe. Chris managed to supervise her cooking and help her a lot. After a while, she was able to turn out all kinds of special dishes unaided and most of them were what Chris liked. Let it be said that to the delight of the community this friendship endured. Later on, Chris asked to fix her house which was far too primitive. The community had to make a choice between rebuilding her house and buying a new car. We chose to rebuild her house. We got a local black builder who built around the old house and gave her a new kitchen, three bedrooms, a sitting room and electricity. This had to be one of the high points of Chris’ life, but for him it was just another good turn for someone who needed help.
"As he got older, sometimes he had to just sit down in class and doze off for a while. The youngsters remained quiet and when the rest was over, the lesson continued. One boy stood outside the room to tell those who might interrupt that Brother was resting. They understood Chris and they loved him and his unusual ways. They saw that his religion was the same as Christ’s. The commandments were followed in touching simplicity.
Mel tells how "Chris taught some of the brothers to do leather tooling, and they in turn, taught the children how to do this. As a teacher he was well-liked by the students because of his friendliness. He was able to teach them because he was interested in them. They called him ‘Papa’ which was really appropriate. He was great with little kids running around the mission. I can see him laughing as a little boy holds his hands and trying at the same time to climb up on top of him. With Chris’ girth, the little boy must have thought he was a mountain. At least one graduate later named his son Christopher."
After the Roman tertianship, Chris returned to Africa from 1975 to 1977. But he was slowing down. He reminded our leadership that he was 60 years old, and "he didn’t want to waste any heartbeats." Again he was looking for money, and although some were slow to give, they know he needed the help and they relented. He was a little hurt that no one paid any attention to his 25th year in the brothers. He felt that maybe the oversight occurred because he belonged to another province. "My 25th came and went without so much as a ripple in the usual placid water. Fortunately for me, I had myself a little party on the way down here or else I would have felt really out of it." Later when he was in Brother Rice, Chicago we celebrated his 40th anniversary as if it was his 50th and he deeply appreciated that. It is interesting that his group celebrates their 50th jubilee in the year 2000.
He was complaining that the curriculum kept changing to newer and newer material, his blood pressure was up and he just needed a lighter load. As he said, "Some guys can do it, but ‘my machine’ is kicking up. I’m just over my head." Paul Hennessy, who was provincial in the Eastern USA at the time, was busy trying to get musical instruments down to him. He writes, "Chris arranged to have tubas sent from St. Laurence, Chicago, to me in New Rochelle in large crates which were unceremoniously unloaded on our lawn. Jack Driscoll who was president of Iona College, and in Chris’ habit group arranged to have the Iona truck bring them to the dock in Brooklyn for shipment to Africa. Chris just expected someone would do all of this."
"Chris loved the long boat trips to and from Africa, but the only trouble is that no one knew when they would arrive. One time Henry McKernan and I had to go to the docks three days in a row, before we finally did meet Chris. I had remembered him from West Park. I was assigned as his ‘guardian angel’ to help him with advice. I never remember him asking for any advice. Life had given him so many situations to adjust to, that nothing ever came up that he couldn’t handle."
By 1976, the South African Province gave him an ultimatum. Either join that province or go back to the Western USA. This seemed a little harsh, but control for the mission had transferred over to that province and they probably wanted to staff it their own way as best they could. So Chris started arranging to come home to the USA. He was worried about his classes in the mission, but Tommie O’Brien assured him that he can get a science teacher to replace Chris. This encouraged him a lot.
By August 1976, Chris was making plans to go home by freighter again. He planed to arrive about his 61st birthday which was January 31, 1977. He returned to Brother Rice Chicago where he filled in part of the day for one of the brothers. It was the end of one of the big chapters of Chris’ life.
The Sunset Years
Chris’ life would go on for a good while yet and there was still much to do. But the African experience was behind him. Africa always remained with Chris. The last few years of his life he used to don his white habit and comes over to talk to my classes about the missions. He was only good for one period at a time, and usually one every other day. But the old fire and clarity would come back and he would spell-bind the students. He had them as thrilled as I was 40 years earlier by the beautiful stories he told in class. I would sit in amazement in my own classroom. As the students in Africa called him "Papa" the students in Br. Rice, seeing the white habit called him "The Pope." To be honest he looked a lot like John XXIII.
Why did Chris understand the disadvantaged and the young so well? I think it was because he was so vulnerable at the beginning of his life, and his mother, brothers, friends and the Navy reached out to help him. He knew how a helping hand could save a young person. He also knew that it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. With a little help there was plenty of room for everyone.
There is a short funny story of Chris in 1979. Vianney Corrigan was superior in Brother Rice. Chris was elected sub-superior, the first community office he ever held. His comment was rich, "You guys spoiled my record."
Later Chris would move out to the Arizona Indian reservation, and Tim Smyth was superior and principal out there with him. Tim recalls having Chris as a teacher in Br. Rice. He says that "there was something in the way Chris presented facts that made them stick in my mind. It had a lasting effect from the point of view that I knew the Brothers were real people and they enjoyed what real people enjoyed. This was definitely an historic moment in my own vocation journey. From then on, I knew the brothers were approachable.
"As superior of the house on the Indian mission, I knew that things were not always easy. I felt that I could always rely on Chris to help me work something through. He was like an older brother, encouraging, helpful, kind, loving and wise. Chris could give advice in a tongue-in-cheek way: very homespun and very brother-to-brother. I will try to describe his smile with some sense of justice. His eyes would close, his cheeks would rise, his nose would scrunch, and the corners of his lips would curl high and higher. A noise came out like ‘Sheesch" or ‘yah.’ No matter what, it was easy to be pulled into the enjoyment of life as Chris lived it."
Between 1980 and 1986 Chris went back and forth between Brother Rice and the Indian Mission. He taught a bit, but more and more, he spent his time helping the brothers. He got thrilled by projects as usual. Adding a room or two at the mission was right up his alley. By 1986, he was ready to come back to Brother Rice for good.
He wasn’t feeling too well when he first arrived back, but he gradually regained his health. Getting a regular routine for naps was helpful. He was still himself. When we ordered new chairs for the chapel he was upset because his short legs wouldn’t touch the floor when he sat down. He enlisted all other short-legged brothers in his campaign which ended up with two sets of chairs at different heights.
He loved the kitchen and Jeanne and Mary who did the cooking for the brothers. When they couldn’t cook, Chris would. He enjoyed Chinese dinners and he and either of the cooks, Mrs. Andrick or Jeanne, would head out for a good meal. When he would drive the car, our only fear is that he would go too slowly. The crossword puzzles and public television became the center of his day. He would arrange himself near the dining room door before breakfast was over so that every one could pass by and help out. He would force impossible words into spaces and then get thrilled when someone came along to help rectify the puzzle. Chris just wanted to talk and be with the brothers. After school began, he’d take a nap, but he’d be back "on duty" for lunch, and after another nap for dinner and for evening recreation. If the puzzle was bad he spent time trying to figure out the lottery and finding ways to get tickets or by making comments about programs on public television. Most of these showed animal life which thrilled Chris in his simplicity. He wanted extra money to support public television. Greg O’Donnell used to enlarge the crosswords puzzles to make Chris’ ministry more effective.
He invited me to come to Derry, New Hampshire and stay in his family home with Harvey Cote, his nephew. This was a real experience. He took us to every family site in town with a story for each. He worried about his brother and buddy, Joe Uicker, in the nursing home, who was as pleasant and opinionated as Chris. When Joe died, Chris was really hurt. Did it portend his own death? In some ways he never got over Joe’s death. He’d keep saying, "I thought the Uickers were superior stock." He’d go to confession regularly and then he would come to me to discuss his confession. "Why do I confess these same old sins," he’d say. "I haven’t committed a sin in years." All I could say was maybe he was still learning from his mistakes. And on feast nights for the brothers and visitors, Chris was the head of the hors-d’oeuvre brigade. He wanted everyone to enjoy the evening. John Hay from Australia, who lived in Brother Rice with Chris, writes of him, "I was drawn to his rough warmth. His sense of justice was so strong and his biases were so obvious. He loved to be generous, and magnanimity embraced him."
One of the great stories of Chris’ final years concerns a fishing trip through the Puget Sound area. Greg O’Donnell knew that Chris wanted to catch a few more one more time and so he set up the whole trip. Greg writes, ."For Chris, the was the ‘trip of a life-time.’ Charlie Joyce Chris and I went on the trip starting at O’Dea in Seattle. We fished nearly every day from sunup to sundown, rarely missing our limit. Chris had never caught so many large fish in so short a time, and with so much flare. Circumstances dictated that we use several different guides and each guide took a bigger liking to Chris than the one before. He was so happy to be out on the water doing something he enjoyed. As was always the case, his spirit was infectious.
"At the end of each day, we would meet for a social hour in the motel lobby and then seek out a restaurant for the evening meal. To Chris this was definitely heaven on earth. To fish all day and have a fine meal in the evening was akin to the second coming. We were fishing ‘off season’ so the crowds were small. By the end of the week, everyone in the town of Campbell River (B.C.) knew Chris: the big fellow with the wonderful smile.
"Chris relived that trip for the final two years of his life. The supply of frozen salmon never seemed to run down even though it was a staple at feast days and other events. He would tell everyone who would listen, every detail of how he caught the big ones and how the even bigger ones got away. From the first-class airline tickets we had (thanks to frequent flyer miles) to the restaurants to the fish, Chris felt this trip could never be duplicated. He had a dream and the dream had been fulfilled. What he never realized was that Charlie and I enjoyed the trip equally because of Chris’ infectious enthusiasm."
A few final remarks about Chris. He seldom got angry but his irritation could show. When working on a project that seemed useless he would say, "this is about as useless as a pee-hole in the snow." Or maybe when most irritated trying to give advice to someone who would not listen, "Arguing with you is like pissing into the wind." But his basic life philosophy was optimistic. When he would always buy the lottery tickets and win very little, the brothers would ask him why he did it. His reply, "You can’t catch a fish if you don’t have a line in the water."
In the final years, Chris began to develop all kinds of health ailments: sometimes he just didn’t feel well. In point of fact, his heart was weakening and congestive heart failure was in the wings. Greg says, "When Chris was taken to the hospital with one of his ailments, it was obvious his heart was failing. When I went to visit, him he was in the intensive care unit and barely conscious. His demeanor was peaceful, something I would expect from him.
"A few days later he started to recover and was moved to a standard room. The doctor was talking about recuperation and even the dreaded word ‘rehabilitation.’ Chris told others this was a ‘carrot.’ This meant, the doctor felt, that with diet and exercise, Chris could leave the hospital and nursing home in about a month. And when the superior asked Chris to cooperate he said he would. He was transferred to physical rehabilitation and did begin the program. But excess weight and simply old age made him a poor candidate for physical therapy. Even more so, Chris saw his quality of life declining with little hope of ever regaining the quality he felt he needed. One afternoon when I was visiting him, and I quote verbatim, he said, ‘Greg, all my life I’ve prayed for a happy death, and I’m going to have one’. He was more than ready to come home to the God he loved so much. There was no fear of death in Chris Uicker. He lived a good life and Jesus was his friend." I know I saw Chris the next day and the message was similar. "John, don’t hold me back. I’ve waited all my life for this, and I’m ready to go." The next morning Chris Uicker died, May 26, 1994.
St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote: "I am writing to all the churches and state emphatically to all that I die willingly for God, provided you do not interfere. I beg you do not show me unseasonable kindness. Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, which are the means of my making my way to God. God’s wheat I am, and by the teeth of wild beasts I am to be ground that I may prove Christ’s pure bread. I do not wish to be a burden to anyone.... Until this moment I am a slave, but once I have suffered, I shall become a freedman of Jesus Christ and united with him. I shall rise a free man." Live free or die!