Of all the teachers I have had in my life, Old Joe stands out. He was an excellent teacher, a  kind and caring person, and highly unusual. He had a perpetual twinkle in his eye, even when angry. He taught basically a boring subject and made it fun.  Like I said, he was highly unusual.  

Brother B. Josephus was a Christian Brother at CretinHigh School. (The school was founded in 1871 and named after Bishop Cretin, not the malady or the insult.)  We called him Old Joe for two reasons. One, he was old, a little one side or the other of seventy. And, two, to differentiate from the other Brother Josephus, who we called Young Joe.

Old Joe taught Latin. I had him my freshman year for basics. My sophomore year, Virgil’s Aeneid. My junior year, Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

At first I was lost. Amo! Amas! Amat! Conjugation. Declension. And the verb ‘to be’. To be what? In my first 5 years in the one-room schoolhouse, we were taught the basic 3R’s, reading, riting, ritmatic. I don’t remember anything about the verb ‘to be’ in my 3 years in the city school. As far as Latin was concerned, I never made a mistake as an altar boy reciting the responses in Latin during the Mass. But I just memorized them. I didn’t have to translate them! I was lost!

Old Joe suggested that I and a few others eat our lunch in his classroom so he could, in effect, tutor us. After the first hour, I had the verb ‘to be’ down pat, and wondered how stupid I was, not to know what they were talking about. It didn’t take too many of these lunch hours to get me caught up to the class. He had done this private tutoring before and after. That is the kind of teacher, person, that he was.

In my junior year, he entered me and a few others into a Twin City Latin contest. A few months prior he offered an A for the quarter to anyone who would do the extra credit and translate, what he considered the hardest part of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. It concerned the building of a bridge. I was the only one to take him up on it. He was ecstatic. He said that every now and then, this would be the article to be translated, and if they picked it this year, he knew I could snow it.

But it wasn’t picked. Our team did okay, but the girls from Our Lady Of Peace took the championship. I felt sorry for Old Joe and apologized for letting him down. He just laughed and said he was proud of us. After all, he explained, we beat the team from Minneapolis DeLaSalle taught by his old rival, Brother Eustice.

He never talked about his past, but other brothers told us that Old Joe had been an AllState athlete in high school and All Conference in college. I remember how one kid found out the hard way, that Old Joe hadn’t lost it, even at his age.

The kid told Old Joe to perform an act that was anatomical impossible, and then made a run for the back door of the classroom. He had a good head start on the old man, who was further handicapped by the heavy cossack he was wearing. But Old Joe bulldogged him before he made it to the door. Then he marched the lad to the washroom and washed his mouth out with soap.

Old Joe also had a wonderful sense of humor.

The Old Hand:

It was about ten minutes into the class when the boy in the third desk, row closest to the front door, succumbed to Morpheus, (It was freshman Latin.), and began to mumble in his sleep. Old Joe motioned us to leave the boy sleep, and then, while conjugating a Latin verb in a dull monotone; he went to the blackboard and wrote out our next assignment.

We were to silently remove everything from our desk tops and go stand in the back of the room. And not make any noise until given permission! We did as ordered. The lad continued to mumble in his sleep.

Old Joe, wiped the blackboard clean, then took the eraser and threw a high- hard strike that bounced off Sleeping Beauty’s forehead.

The boy jumped, said something he shouldn’t have, and began to cough from the chalk dust. Somehow we managed to remain silent. Desks in front of him were empty as were the ones to his immediate left. The ominous black clad figure of Old Joe, arms folded, was starring down at him. He mumbled some sort of apology, scooped up his book and notebook and ran out of the door.

The boy told me later that he didn’t stop running until he had burst into the room where his next class was to be held. He went right to the desk where he usually sat. Someone was sitting in it. He looked around, expecting to see his classmates and saw only the faces of upper classmen. The class exploded in laughter; but Brother Wilfred, whose history lecture had just been disrupted by this crazy freshman, found nothing amusing in the intrusion.

Brother Wilfred grabbed the boy by the ear and dragged him out in the hall, where he gave him a promise of umpteen hours of extra homework, a direct order to get to his proper class, and a boot in the rear to help him on his way.

In the meantime, Old Joe had given us a few minutes to laugh and get back to our desks, before he held up his hand for silence and gave us further instructions. When the door slowly opened, and the lad looked inside, all he saw was class going on as usual. He went to his desk and sat back down. Old Joe continued his teaching. None of us even looked his way. The class ended as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Old Joe had proved his point, nothing more to say.

I did well in Latin. I think for two reasons: Old Joe was a great teacher, and I never fell asleep in his class.

Those of us who attended Cretin in those long ago years, are now at an age where it is hard to remember all those dedicated teachers we were blessed with; but I can safely say, not many of us will ever forget Old Joe.

Published 9/29/04 – St. Paul Pioneer Press, Bulletin Board


In those days, Cretin was an all-boy high school. The students took 4 years of Junior ROTC and wore Army uniforms. It took a high test score to enter the school. To leave was much easier. You could quit on your own accord, if the scholastic requirements proved to be too much, or if you couldn’t take the discipline. Or you could get the boot by the Brothers.

Now it is a coed school. Cretin-Derham Hall. The school is cosponsored by Christian Brothers and St. Joseph Sisters. And because, religious vocations are not too popular now, the majority of teachers are lay people. The scholastic requirements are the same, but I imagine that the discipline has been toned back.

I know one thing though, there’s nobody like Old Joe on the staff.    

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