|Augustus & Ellen Brunelle, 1970|
A year or so ago I became very interested in the life and career of one of my high school teachers, Augustus H. Brunelle, who taught me Latin I, Latin II, German I, English I, English II, English III. I did a lot of research, a lot of traveling--with stops in the town where he was born (Anthon, Iowa), where he grew up and went to college (Sioux City, Iowa), and where is is now buried (Bristol, Illinois, next to his wife, Ellen).
Mr. Brunelle was a scholar. He had completed his coursework for his Ph.D. in Classics at the University of Wisconsin and in the 1930s Hiram College hired him to teach Latin. Things didn't work out. I'm not sure why, and I have several versions of the story. But he left the college and soon established himself at Hiram High School as one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable teachers on the faculty.
Though not always the most beloved. He had a temper (it flared my way a few times--deservedly so), and by the time I had him, he was nearing the end of his career. He retired, in fact, at the end of my junior year--then returned a couple of years later to teach the final year that Hiram High existed before its consolidation with nearby Crestwood High in Mantua.
A few things. Until I looked at that program last year (for the first time in nearly a half-century) I had completely forgotten his presence that day--his important presence. Second, I did not remember (or ever know?) that he was an ordained minister. I remembered that he sometimes did the communion mediation on Sundays. But that was all. (I confirmed with the Disciples of Christ Historical Society that he was, indeed, an ordained Disciples minister.) Third, I could not remember a single word of his sermon that day. (As I said yesterday, that is a humbling thought since I have twice spoken at WRA's baccalaureate service.)
In the course of my research, I interviewed a number of people, including Mr. Brunelle's son Norman, with whom I spent a great couple of hours one afternoon, madly typing notes on my laptop. Near the end, I asked him if he had any of his dad's old sermons. He said he would check.
Some months later, I gave a talk about Mr. Brunelle at WRA, and Norman came to hear. He came a little early, and as we were talking, he gave me an amazing gift: his father's baccalaureate sermon from 3 June 1962. I didn't have time to read it then, but I did later--of course! And, sad to say, I couldn't remember any of it--just one flickering moment I'll tell you about in a minute.
Mr. Brunelle had typed the text of his sermon on 4x6 index cards--26 of them; in a few places he'd made some changes with a red ballpoint, the very sort of red ballpoint that used to roam freely over my essays ("themes," he called them).
His Biblical text that day was from Joshua 24:14-15. Our church used the Revised Standard Version for the most part in those days (with occasional forays into the King James). In the passage he focused on, Joshua, aged, is addressing the Israelites. He tells them he doesn't have long to live--and then he says, "If you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve; ... but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
The rest of the sermon explores this idea--Mr. Brunelle urging us to live spiritual--Christian--lives. In the text he alluded to Joan of Arc, Cotton Mather, other Biblical texts, the Peace Corps, Khruschev, and others. And he asked the question: "Why do good people have trouble and bad people seem to flourish?" Now that's a question still demanding answers.
Then--perhaps knowing he was addressing a room of adolescents--he talked about sex. Not too explicitly (this was 1962, Hiram, Ohio, after all)--but clearly. He urged "self-control before marriage." He railed against contemporary literature--the sort of books that "omit scarcely any disgusting detail of unlawful intimacy or physical perversion."
He reminded the older audience members of Adam Bede and its portrait of "the terrible consequences of seduction." And he worried about us, our "being subjected to this barrage of appeals to physical gratification." He said we shouldn't worship Aphrodite. Really. Too bad: I always thought she was kind of hot.
Then he dropped sex and focused on "the worship and service of Mammon." (Still a bit relevant, eh?)
Near the end, he waxed a bit personal. Talked about his time at Hiram High. He said he missed us, the students. Then offered this complicated compliment: "In all sincerity I assert that I believe them [us!] to be an above-average group." Oh, yes, the youngsters of Hiram, the youngsters of Lake Wobegon--all above average!
Then another exhortation: "Let's not yield to those who would have us revert to the jungle, to promiscuity ...."
He ended with the only part of this I vaguely remember. He noted that some of us might already think we have found "that sweet and lovely girl, that manly boy" whom we would marry. You probably won't, he said.
I have a flicker of a flame of a memory here. Because, you see, I was certain I would marry the girl I was going with at the time. Absolutely certain. (And--confession--I was also, you know, sort of interested in "disgusting detail" and "unlawful intimacy" and "physical perversion"--whatever that was--and jungle promiscuity.) I may have smirked at Mr. Brunelle's words. Of course I'm going to marry this girl! Old Guys just don't get it!
Less than a year later, she broke up with me. Oh well. Maybe Old Guys do get it?
Mr. Brunelle died in May 1978. By then, I was teaching English in Aurora. Eleven miles away from Hiram. Not only had I forgotten his words at baccalaureate; I had forgotten him. Not once did I visit him or think to call or talk with him about teaching English. What could he possibly tell me?
Not much, I guess. Just ... well ... everything.