Domesticating an American Eagle

A Eulogy for Br. Benedict by Br. Armin Luistro FSC

It was during one of those rare occasions when I dared linger inside the DLSAA office of Br. Benedict that he proudly showed me his collection of memorial cards of deceased Brothers on his desk. He had vignettes for each of them—brutally frank recollections of their personality quirks and other tales passed around as urban legends around the Brothers’ communities. For those with whom he lived, he had stories of their long-standing disagreements or heated discussions on particular issues. But even with those whom he obviously disliked, he always had a good word to add for each—distinct contributions and commitment to the Lasallian mission, loyalty to the institution, or good memories of their fraternal warmth and concern for himself or for someone in the community. He had boxes of other memorabilia and files that he kept and intended to pass on to the archives “so that the next generation of Brothers and Lasallians would understand better their history”. Of course, his interpretation of that history had the unmistakable bias of someone who considered it his duty to be the guardian of the Philippine Lasallian tradition and who watched over it with eagle eyes and, once threatened, would not hesitate to defend the territory with every ounce of his strength.

I got to know him belatedly and only during the last seven years of his life in my capacity as Brother Visitor. Prior to those years, self-preservation required that I stay as far away from him as possible. In fact I never really had the opportunity to live with him in community since three months before I was to move to my new assignment at De La Salle University, he passed away. I now occupy his bedroom at the farthest end of the north wing, thus giving me a view of the campus from where Br. Benedict would start and end his day during those 45 years of residency in his one and only community in the Philippines. Before I ended my term, I would have a better understanding and appreciation of the perspective he was coming from and so, in one of my last few letters to him as Brother Visitor, I wrote:

“Thank you for all the notes, questions, suggestions, and even complaints which you send to me regularly on matters that you feel are crucial to the life of the University, the community, or the District…I am sure that you recognize that your influence in the life of the community is such that it has the power to divide or unify, ostracize or welcome, intimidate or reassure. Beyond the roughness, I know that many Brothers are able to sense your own warmth, sincerity, and affection.  I ask you to continue to exert an effort in becoming more at home with expressing what is deepest and truest, and to learn the graciousness that comes with the assurance that ultimately God is in charge and we can trust that He will never fail us. I know that while you have very strong opinions on certain matters, you can still remain open to new possibilities and that while you can disagree with your brothers, you will still be there for your brothers when push comes to shove.”2

Born John Wenceslaus Lidinsky on July 7, 1927, it is clear that the most influential people in his youth were the Brothers at St. Mel High School in Chicago. The impact they made on him went beyond classroom instruction as can be gleaned from his account of those years: “I came from Brother Jerome Benjamin’s famous ‘Freshman3’ group at St. Mel High School. Brother Ben Hartigan coached me in ‘peewee’ basketball, and Brother Harold Robert taught me how to play the clarinet...”

Athletic activities included almost every sport popular among typical American teenagers of the last century—basketball, handball, ice skating, and hockey. Sports played a formative role in his search for identity as these gave him the opportunity to experiment on his strengths and limitations, and play out his need for achievement, as well as face the reality of defeat in the competitive arena of athletic activities. In the process, he established life-long friendships with his peers and sought out mentors who could guide him in his search for identity. The Brothers were his coaches and the impact they made on his adolescent identity would certainly leave a potent seed for him to subsequently discover his life-long vocation as a Christian Brother. He relived this moment in his adult life many times over and in a variety of ways during community recreation in his early years of formation as a young Brother—during his coaching assignments in school, throughout his tour of duty in his home district in the Midwest, and in those early years of his missionary assignment in Manila. This was especially when he had direct engagement with the athletic life of his students, and during those later years when he had shifted his athletic passions to golf while spending quality time with his alumni friends.

Christened Brother Josiah Benedict FSC upon his entry to the Novitiate in La Salle Institute, Glencoe, Missouri in 1944, his formation as a De La Salle Brother created an imprint that will mark his long journey as a religious, an educator, and a missionary. He was most appreciative of the fact that he joined a religious community that strengthened his commitment to education and molded him into the Lasallian tradition that will now become part of his identity for the rest of his life:

“It was then the fastest-growing district in the history of the Institute. In the late fifties and the early sixties, the St. Louis Brothers…were leaders by responsibility of position and by natural talent and ability. They were movers and doers. They were a group of hardworking, multitalented monks, typical of the Brothers of the mid-1900s.”4

By his own account, Br. Benedict acknowledges that his training in pedagogical and administrative skills came from the Brothers who formed him or with whom he worked with. While I knew him only in his work with the DLSU Development Office and Alumni Affairs, I did not quite realize that he was in charge of the Computer Center when I took my first computer course as a college freshman. Now I remember that one of the bonus questions during our final exams included the item—“What does the ‘J’ in Br. J. Benedict’s name stand for?” Of course, none of us ever imagined that it stood for Josiah.

Perhaps the older alumni and faculty would remember better his contributions as the faithful steward as he moved up the ranks, beginning as a high school principal just barely six months after arriving in Manila, a position he kept for four years. He then took on the position of dean of the College of Engineering for eight years while serving concurrently as chair of the Mathematics Department and alumni moderator. Later, he moved on as Executive Officer, handling registration and other data systems, then serving as founding director of the Computer Center in 1975, and finally capping his years of service in the University as Vice-President for Development and Alumni Affairs. All throughout those years, he always held an administrative position not only because that was the best use for his talents and skills, but also because it kept his passions at bay. I think people knew that if he was not in charge of something, everyone would have a more difficult time.

He counted 45 years of very productive and passionate service to De La Salle University, which was his only real home in the district. During his active years in the University, he lived out the work ethic of the Brothers he knew and loved from his home district, and that could be the reason why he kept those memorial cards on his desk. Those active years were only interrupted by a three-month renewal program at Sangre de Cristo, New Mexico in 1970 followed by an interesting 18-month computer apprenticeship program with San Miguel Corporation, which he chose over an offer to take a full-blown doctoral degree in either Ateneo or UST. He also skipped a year’s sabbatical for church leaders in Notre Dame, Indiana in 1987 and another short renewal program for Brothers in later years in Narooma, Australia in 1998. His work ethic was such that he relayed to me his criticism for sending close to 20 young Filipino Brothers to a formation program in Pattaya, Thailand since he considered it a mere “safari”. I had to write him back and explain that this was a formative experience for them with a solid week-long program that comes only once in a lifetime as it was the first regional gathering of young Brothers in Asia-Pacific. He definitely had strong opinions about the Lasallian mission in the Philippines since all of his energies during those generative years found meaning in his engagement with the growth of the University. This legacy he sought to pass on to his loyal flock of alumni who called him Aguila “probably because of [his] ‘eagleeye’ discipline as well as [his] large nose”. 5

Those who were closest to him knew that beneath those eagle eyes was a soft spot in his heart for the Philippines and for all those who cared for the Lasallian mission. For all his faults and strong opinions, he was an all-bark-no-bite Brother who loved his vocation, committed to his work, and was faithful to his vows. This gentle side of Br. Benedict was expressed in his love for music and in the warmth and affection which unfortunately he could only express to a select few. As we remember him fondly today and miss the man with the big nose, we thank the Lord for the gifts that he has shared with the University and to the Lasallian family in the district. I am sure that even today, he looks on all of us with a kind gaze so he could raise us up on eagle wings as he holds us on the palm of his big hands.