RIP Captain Jack

St. Ann's School, Brooklyn Heights

I still have them. Herodotus, Plato, Thucydides lined up on a bookcase in my living room. The black spines of the Penguin Classics versions creased from use. Well, except for Herodotus’ The Histories — I guess I never finished that one. The books have traveled all over the country since being assigned for my 11th grade Ancient Politics class at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. They’ve been to San Antonio, Baltimore, Chicago, back to Baltimore, back to New York, and now Massachusetts.

I took a look at them for the first time in a long while this evening after learning that my teacher, Jack McShane, died yesterday. Mr. McShane — I’d still never dare call him “Jack” — was the single most inspiring teacher I’ve ever had. On any level. I took his classes every chance I got which translated into three full years if memory serves. He taught American History and politics which were my two passions growing up.

But to merely say he “taught” them would be to limit what happened in those classrooms. He broke open the world of the past and the present and brought them to life with a quick, dry wit and a passionate enthusiasm for his subject matter. You never knew what you’d get when you walked into that classroom — he might lecture a bit or, more likely, draw you into the midst of a lively debate. He made you think, not regurgitate which is a rare quality indeed at any level of learning.

Walking into his classroom was like walking into a sacred space. Unlike other rooms were we’d go bounding in like trapped monkeys, you entered Mr. McShane’s room with respect and building anticipation. It didn’t hurt that his whole existence was shrouded in mystery. We didn’t know much about him except that he came in from Hoboken, New Jersey. Being arrogant, young New Yorkers we deemed it our God-given right to mock those from the Garden State. To paraphrase Nathanael’s question to Philip (John 1:46), “Can anything good come out of Hoboken?” Evidently.

The other thing about his class was that everybody wanted to be there — or at least most of us. Mr. McShane was either someone you “got” or you didn’t. Those who couldn’t keep up with the repartee and humor often left the room bewildered. He was either your favorite teacher or a complete mystery. But I adored stepping into his class, as did my close friends, because we knew we’d laugh and learn and be challenged in creative and life-giving ways.

The most memorable classes began with Mr. McShane sitting with his feet up on a desk reading the New York Times. Once everyone had arrived he’d throw out the relevant topic of the day — whatever was happening in the news in the mid-1980’s — and away we’d go. 

It was in part because of Mr. McShane that I majored in Political Science at Tufts and went on to a career working on and running political campaigns for 3 1/2 years. I even met my wife Bryna while serving as the Field Director on a 1993 Westchester County Executive race. I like to say that although our candidate lost, we won.

But this is only a portion of the influence Mr. McShane had upon me. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth famously said that you must read “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” While I rarely bring politics into the pulpit I always seek to bring theology and spirituality into the everyday and visa versa. Mr. McShane had the unique ability to integrate the classics with the modern world which is not dissimilar to my approach to ministry. 

I stayed in touch with Mr. McShane for a number of years after I graduated in 1987. He even kept talking to me after I joined Army ROTC at Tufts — not exactly the usual St. Ann’s career path. But in time life moved on and I lost touch with him. I’d get reports every so often from my friend Chris Mellon, a St. Ann’s classmate who returned to teach at the school soon after graduating, like me, from Tufts. I hadn’t talked to Chris for many years until he called to share this news with me this afternoon and I look forward to renewing this relationship. Deaths like this often pull people together.

I can only trust that Mr. McShane knew the impact he had on me and countless others over the years. I wish I had told him in so many words before he died. But this is also a good reminder to do just that for the people who have touched you and shaped you and help make you into the person you have become. Family members, teachers, mentors, clergy, friends. We’re all who we are because certain people along the way cared passionately. Jack McShane was one of those people.

May the soul of John Shelley McShane, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


8 Comments on “RIP Captain Jack”

  1. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for this wonderful tribute. I was St. Ann’s Class of 1989. Mr. McShane expressed all that was best about the school. Who else would expect 6th-graders to read Plato? And not laugh at us when we thought we had something intelligent to say about it? I can’t believe he’s gone.

  2. Father Tim says:

    Thanks, Jendi. He was truly an amazing and unique man. And I do remember you!

  3. Wendy Lebowitz says:

    What a lovely tribute to a unique and special man. Both my boys, and our Swiss exchange student, were in his classes at Saint Ann’s (one is back at Saint Ann’s teaching), and Mr. McShane (EVEN the parents had trouble calling him Jack!) had profound effects on all of them. And, consequently, on us. How impressed we were that our rambunctious boys came home from school compelled by ideas. The hole left in our local universe by Victor Marchioro’s passing last year, has been deepened by the loss of Jack McShane now — I do think, though, that perhaps those two are somewhere, reading and talking . . .

  4. Aaron Pellman-Isaacs says:

    A beautiful tribute to Mr. McShane. An odd connection of wikipedia and google searches led me to your post, and I just wanted to say nicely put. I was class of ’04 and I can tell you that nearly 20 years later he still had the same impact on students. To this day I carry a pocket constitution from my sophomore american history class in whatever bag I’m using, leave one in my car, etc. From that class… Know your rights, know your history, and remember “marbury vs. madison”!

    In ’87 did he have the “speak low most of the time, then raise your voice and swat the desk to make a point” action down pat yet? Of all the teachers and professors I’ve had, that man made the best use of cadence and volume I’ve ever seen in a lecture.

    RIP Mr. McShane.

  5. Michael J. Sweeney says:

    John McShane taught me in the seventh grade at St. Bartholomew’s School in Yonkers in 1971-72. He had a full thick head of red hair and he carried a stick he called “Otto” which was used to emphasize points in his lecture — never for physical punishment. He drove a two-seat MG convertible. He was a charismatic and inspired teacher and showed us something of the magic and art in literature and politics. His favorite form of punishment was making wayward students stay after school for “jug” and write the Declaration of Independence in red and blue ink.

  6. Michelle Morley says:

    I was also in Mr. McShane’s seventh grade class at St. Bart’s but in 1969-70. Isn’t it something that despite 40+ years passing, we not only remember the impact he had on our lives, but we remember his full name! Next to my mother, Mr. McShane had the single most powerful influence in my life. I just lost my mother on April 2, and grieving her compelled me to google Mr. McShane’s name. What a disappointment that the result was to learn of his premature passing. The beautiful tribute written by “Jendi” smacks of the same teacher I knew. I believe my class was his first teaching position after graduating from Fordham. From the start, he was gifted with whatever it takes to snatch children up, hold them by the throat of their attention, command every ounce of respect they have, and without ever loosening his grip, compel them to inhale deeply the pungent air of new knowledge. God! I still remember the Viet Nam War debates he put us through, the daily vocabulary tests, the mandatory “New York Times” subscription and its attendant current events quizzes. Ah! The quizzes! Not to be confused with tests! I could go on and on. He was remarkable, truly remarkable. I only regret not having ever sought an opportunity to share with him the difference my experience in his classroom made in my life. May God bless his soul with eternal peace.

  7. Michelle Morley says:

    P. S. Not only dare we not have ever called him anything but Mr. McShane, he never called us anything but our surnames, either!

  8. mmgcordone says:

    I just now learned of Mr Jack Shelly McShanes passing and find myself reeling in the the years this evening.

    I know that I am only one of so many unspoken students whose lives he helped to positively shape and change.

    I was 11 years old in 1971, when Mr. Mc Shane somehow talked me into joining his forensic club at St Batholomews School in Yonkers, NY. – and I can still remember the looks that I received after telling my folks around the dinner table that night that I had joined up for his club !

    Because of my speech impediment, and thinking that it was some kind of cruel joke, my parents arranged to meet with him the next day, right after school ended.

    Mr. McShane explained to them that he sincerely believed that I could become one of the best and successful members of his newly – formed club, simply because I was so motivated to overcome my stuttering,

    I later joined him in after-school picketing and protesting around the old cherry tree about to be chopped down at St Bart’s (to help break down the earth for the new church ), and when members of our 7th grade class wrote fake applications to the Yonkers Herald Statesman for employment as local bicycle / newspaper delivery kids under female names ( they did not allow local “news paper delivery girls” at that time – only boys ).

    He opened my mind and enriched my life at such a trying and tender age. . . . thank you can never say enough !

    Rest in peace !

    mmc

    .


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