Patrick Conway was a jock.
Gaetano Santa Lucia loved opera.
Conway was an 18-year-old senior at Deering High School, itching to get on with his life.
Lucia was a 65-year-old English teacher on the cusp of retirement.
Yet somewhere, somehow, something clicked.
“His was the first class that went beyond just what I had to do as part of school,” Conway, now 31, recalled in an interview Thursday from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. “He was a different kind of character.”
Lucia, known to his students as “Doc” because he had a Ph.D. in English literature from Case Western Reserve University, died Jan. 28 at the age of 77.
Gaetano Santa Lucia
To appreciate his skills as an educator, one need look no further than the two dozen online remembrances stacked up beneath his obituary, most from his long-ago students, first at St. Francis College in Biddeford and later for two decades at Deering in Portland.
“I still remember so many of his assignments … writing a review of the movie ‘Psycho’ and another dissecting the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire,’ ” wrote Daryl Finkelman, now of Deerfield Beach, Florida. “I remember how passionate and animated he got when he described his favorite line from that song, ‘The time to hesitate is through, no time to wallow in the mire.’ ”
But to appreciate Doc Lucia’s staying power as a mentor and friend, we look to Patrick Conway.
He knew from Day One that Doc was different: The coffee maker and day-old doughnuts in the back of the classroom. The opera records that Doc often played during class. The wild black hair. The wilder denunciations of the “confederacy of dunces” who ran the school.
And this: “He was also approaching literature from the angle of what it means to lead a good life, what it means to deal with the world,” Conway said. “That was something that all of a sudden felt like, well, this isn’t just schoolwork anymore. And that kind of stayed with me.”
Upon graduating from Deering in 2003, Conway went to Bates College. There, as he began his sophomore year, he found himself contemplating an English major – and so he called Doc.
“I just started realizing a little more he had had an impact on me and I thought, why not let him know that?” Conway said.
They met for lunch, as they would every two or three months for the next 12 years – mostly at Doc’s favorite Indian restaurant in Biddeford and later, as his health began to fail, at his home in Biddeford Pool.
They’d talk about Conway’s writing, about his post-college work as a criminal investigator for the public defender’s office in Washington, D.C., about his decision to earn his master’s in English from Boston College, about his current job teaching English composition and American literature to male and female prison inmates in Massachusetts.
They’d even talk about Conway’s just-completed crime novel. It’s about a young man who moves to Washington, D.C., in search of purpose and adventure …
“I write quite a bit,” said Conway. “He was always trying to push me with that, to follow my own interests. It’s nice to have someone positively pushing you forward.”
Last week, as he and his wife were headed back to Quincy after visiting with his parents in Portland, it occurred to Conway that he hadn’t heard from Doc in a few months. So he broke with his tradition of calling before visiting, turned off the turnpike and headed for Biddeford Pool.
His knock at the door went unanswered.
Then a neighbor came over and delivered the bad news. Conway introduced himself, and the neighbor instantly recognized his name from Doc’s cellphone – it turned out the neighbor had been a student of Doc’s back in his St. Francis College days.
“We spent the entire afternoon trading stories,” Conway said.
Conway had long worried that Doc’s retirement might be a lonely one – he lived by himself and his family all resided out of state. But as Conway met others up and down the street that afternoon and then noticed the neighborhood flag flying at half-staff, he took comfort.
“They were all huge fans of his,” Conway said. “Doc liked food a lot, and he liked wine a lot. And when you like those two things, people will eventually gravitate toward you.”
Still, gratified as he felt as he left that day that Doc had indeed died a happy man, Conway drove back to Boston knowing he had unfinished business – no, make that a final assignment – to complete.
And so, upon arriving home, the onetime student sat down at his keyboard, pictured his all-time favorite teacher, and began to write …
Gaetano Santa Lucia died last week. That’s a name you might not know. For many years, he was a high school English teacher in Portland, Maine. He was one of the few teachers at the school with a PhD, earning him the nickname “Doc” among his students.
To some, he was a stodgy eccentric. He hated administrative red tape and wasn’t afraid to make his opinion known when he thought higher-ups were acting like a “confederacy of dunces,” or perhaps had become “afflicted by a dangerous and rapidly spreading case of idiocy.” He was short and fat (his words, not mine), walking with a hunch and a severe limp. His sparse black hair often stood in tangent curls, at strange and varying angles.
He taught AP English. He never taught toward the exam, though, instead fixing his efforts upon passing on his love for Dante’s Inferno and the entire Shakespeare folio. He was attentive to his students’ writing, returning back essay drafts with comments, and suggestions, and questions. He didn’t care much for grades, but used them in order to ensure effort, intent upon preparing his students for the rigors of college.
Gaetano Santa Lucia
He often played opera albums on an old record player during classes. He’d have a pot of coffee brewing in the back of the classroom, sitting out next to a box of day old donuts picked up in the morning from Tony’s Donut Shop. The stained coffeepot and the day-olds left behind a stale smell that became as characteristic of his classroom as the student artwork that hung on its walls.
He enjoyed learning about the lives of his students, pushing them to pursue their own interests. He was full of suggestions for music, and food, and books. Literature was his calling. He preached on its importance, but tried not to impose his opinions. “You don’t have to like everything you read, but try to learn to appreciate what the author is attempting to do,” he’d say. “It’s fine to criticize, but only after you’ve made an honest attempt to understand.”
Often students would ask if he’d ever attempted to write anything of his own, a novel perhaps, or a short story, or a poem. The question was an obvious one. It seemed natural that someone who loved literature in the way that he did would attempt to create it himself. “It takes an organized mind,” he’d answer. “God forgive me, but I’m too scattered.” He mentioned once being moved to write a poem when his mother died, something about the imagery of the funeral procession crossing over a bridge above a river: pooling water easing its way toward the ocean, the black hearse with the coffin inside, the long line of cars. “It wasn’t much good,” he lamented. “It never really worked in the way I wanted.”
I was a student in the last class he taught before retiring. I was eighteen and didn’t much know the effect he was having on me at the time. I contacted him a few years later after I’d decided to major in English, just to thank him for his influence. Since then, for the past twelve years, I’ve met with him every few months for lunch. Almost without fail, we’d eat at a family-run Indian restaurant down in Biddeford, not too far from his home in Biddeford Pool, usually with a good friend of mine who’d been similarly impacted by his class. Each time, I’d leave the restaurant feeling a little better about myself and the world, reenergized by his enthusiasm. He had a way of reminding one about what was important in life: friends and family, good work, good wine, good food, music, and, of course, literature.
A memory that remains vivid comes from my senior year in high school on an early day in spring. It was a day of blue skies and sun, when the snow had finished its melt and the ground had opened up again to breathe. Doc brought in a simple flower for each student, handing them out at the end of class. I remember teasing him for the act. “You’ve gone soft on us, Doc. What’s next, ribbons for our hair?” He joked back that if you can’t appreciate a flower, you can’t appreciate much.
Stopping by home before tennis practice, I tossed the flower aside near my schoolbag and books. While I was gone, my mother saw it and put it in a simple glass vase, placing it on the kitchen table. I came back at the end of the day tired and hungry, happy to have been practicing outside. Making myself a bite to eat, I sat down at the table. The sun was setting, coming in at a slant through the kitchen window. Orange-tinged and brilliant as it descended, its light came through the kitchen and refracted through the little glass vase. Tiny particles of dust, exposed by the sun, floated in suspension above the flower. I think about Doc when I remember the way those tiny particles seemed to dance around the simple flower’s stem and petals in those early days of spring when I was eighteen. If you can’t appreciate a flower, you can’t appreciate much.
Gaetano Santa Lucia died last week. That’s a name you might not know, but I’m glad that I did.
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