Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Lioness Passes

The Chicago artistic and historical scene lost a bright fixture with the passing of my aunt, Mary Therese Griffin, 82, on February 6, 2010. Mary, who retired from a colorful career as a teacher in the Chicago Public School system in 1987, had turned her passions for art, history and lifelong learning to a higher calling as a docent at the Art Institute, the Loyola University Museum of Art, the Chicago Architectural Foundation, the Field Museum, the Lyric Opera, Old St. Patrick’s Church, and the Chicago Historical Society. Among her effects at the time of her death was a pin denoting 500 hours of volunteer service at Resurrection Hospital. The CAF honored her for fifteen years of service.

The world may never again see a docent so well-read, or broadly educated, or so lively and genuinely enthusiastic. “Her feisty spirit and her knowledge of scripture always added a wonderful dimension to our program,” said Ann Meehan, Curator of Education at LUMA.

A Chicago native, Miss Griffin was the daughter of Irish immigrants, and always cherished her Irish roots, becoming an active member of several Irish American groups including the Friends of Irish Literature. Father Tom Hurley, pastor of Old St. Patrick’s church in Chicago, had these words of praise. “We will remember her here at Old St. Pat’s and pay tribute to the energy and love she had for the Irish ancestors who built this wonderful church and the great people whose faith and prayer sustain it today.”

Mary would certainly have enjoyed her own funeral mass, which was presided over by two priests who knew her for most of their lives—her cousin Cmdr. Brian Simpson of the U.S. Navy’s Chaplain Corps, and Father James Kinn, who had been a friend since childhood. Most everyone assembled in St. Ferdinand’s Catholic Church for the mass cracked a smile when Father Brian stepped down from the altar toward the end of the ceremony and launched into a eulogy that was tender, and touching, and laced with humor and fond remembrance.

Mary had teaching in her blood, and found inspiration in the example of my great-grandfather, Joseph Griffin. He had been headmaster of the Templetuohy Boys School in Ireland’s County Tipperary, and was recognized three times by the British Government for his teaching excellence during a time when Britain still ruled Ireland and held no great fondness for recognizing native achievements across the Irish Sea and St. George’s Channel.

However, Mary’s vocation was not always apparent at an early age. According to a knowledgeable source who shall remain anonymous, Mary routinely earned good academic grades as a student at Maternity B.V.M. school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago…but was constantly subject to reprimands for infractions of classroom decorum. And the reason?

“She could never stop talking in class!”

Nonetheless, Mary graduated from Chicago Teacher’s College, and then went on to earn a Master of Arts degree from Loyola University. Her instinctive refusal to be boxed in by convention as a teacher became a source of inspiration cited over and over by her students at the news of her passing. One man who attended her wake had become both a doctor and a teacher, and came to pay his fond respects to his former fourth grade teacher at Mozart School in Chicago. Mary Griffin, he said, had shown him at that early age what teaching could be, and he said her example had paved the way for his own teaching career.

For all her own clashes with authority as a youngster in school, Mary insisted on order and respect in her own classroom. One memorable example which was cited by several of her students was a certain day in 1972, at the height of anti-war protests and youthful self-expression, when the students at Foreman High School planned a “walk-out.” They may have walked out of other classroom…but not Miss Griffin’s.

“She placed herself across the classroom door and refused to let us out,” one student wrote. “That’s how much she cared! She is still alive in each of us! ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ has nothing on her!”

Mary’s subject matter in the public school system was often varied, but teaching Advanced Placement Modern European History classes at Foreman High School was a passion very dear to her heart. One of her keepsakes was a “thank you” letter written by a former student TWENTY THREE YEARS AFTER being in her history class. The student noted that Mary’s love of travel had inspired her students and captured their imaginations. “The year I had you for history class you had traveled to the U.S.S.R. after studying the language for several months in advance,” the former student wrote. “This made us realize that learning continues throughout life and can stimulate it beyond formal education.”

Another student wrote of “our beloved ‘Miss Griffin” in a condolence note, and described “the 'teacher extraordinaire’ who challenged her students to explore and question and see beyond our little corner of the world.” She “brought history alive” in the words of yet another student.

That love of travel ran as a constant thread through Mary’s life, and her trips abroad included China, all corners of Europe, Egypt, and South America. Her most recent passport bore stamps from Argentina, Ireland, England, Istanbul and Munich. She thought nothing of flying across the country for a weekend trip to take in a major art exhibition that would by-pass Chicago.

I was along for several of these excursions, and remember flying to New York City to take in the “Dresden Exhibition” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (we stayed at the Plaza Hotel, of course!), traveling to Washington D.C. by train to see the “Great Treasure Houses of Britain” exhibit at the Smithsonian, and driving to Pittsburgh to see the illuminated Irish manuscript known as the “Book of Kells” on tour from Trinity College in Dublin in the late 1970s. I believe that the statute of limitations has probably run on the speeding tickets we should have earned in that dash across several states, but that’s all I’m going to admit to in print.

A more recent jaunt was to Washington D.C. to see U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—one of Aunt Mary’s staunchly conservative heroes—preside over a reenactment of some historically significant federal case whose name and import now escape me. In 48 hours on the ground, we managed to squeeze in an exhibit at the Smithsonian, the shindig at the U.S. Supreme Court, and a tour of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate and Gardens. I came away from the adventure with a photo of me with Justice Scalia that looks like I’m on a date with Danny DeVito, and a picture of a terra cotta statue from Hillwood of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, with her bow and arrows and her faithful dog. I still post it on my office door occasionally when I’m working on an appellate case, since it illustrates my gut feeling that appeal work is a lot like bow-hunting in a thicket. And it reminds me of our mile-a-minute adventure.

Once she “retired” from teaching in 1987, Mary just turned her natural talent to a different direction. Freed up from the responsibility and routine of grading papers and earning a paycheck, she launched herself into the world of volunteering at anything that caught her interest with a historical bent. Never without a book in hand or at her side about art or history or politics, she brought her combination of intellect and passion and humor to giving tours at art museums and historical museums and doing book reviews for the Irish Literary Society group.

Without question, though, among all the tours and talks she gave, her favorite was to lecture on the architecture along the Chicago River and the lakefront from the deck of one of the tour boats run by Chicago From the Lake. The experience combined her love of the outdoors, and her love of being on the water, with the grandeur of Chicago’s skyline and the colorful richness of its history. Her audiences loved it, and so did she. As her health declined in the last couple of years and frailty finally stood as a barrier to doing the boat tours anymore, there was a genuine sense of mourning when she spoke of the experience.

In a moving, witty and eloquent note of condolence, one of her favorite Chicago From the Lake boat captains, Rich Dalton, paid tribute to the docent he called “my favorite, the best, an original, one of a kind.”

“We loved working together,” Dalton wrote. “Mary told it the way it was, or at least the way it was according to Mary, and I can’t say that I very often disagreed. That was our bond. A highly opinionated, unfiltered, yet well thought out point of view, and a willingness to tell anyone who wanted to hear it, and even more so, those who didn’t.”

Sherry Avila, co-host of “Avila Chicago,” met Mary when they were docents at the Loyola Museum of Art, and became a close friend. She described herself as being “devastated” by the news of her passing. Avila said she pictured her friend giving “grrrand tours of Heaven” on horseback with her beloved Irish wolfhounds and Dalmatian at her side, and “knocking the wings off” the archangels with her “grrrand” spirit.

Mary had a “larger than life” quality about her that extended to her love of physical challenges as well. In her younger days, she was passionately devoted to horseback riding, and loved to ski and swim as well. And those who knew her well knew that she regarded shopping for bargains in quality clothing—Talbots was a favorite label—and jewelry as something of a primal sport. We often traded victory stories (and laughs) over the spoils from the hunt hanging in our closets.

The world is now a little less bright, and a little less colorful for Mary’s passing. But she leaves behind memories that cannot be erased. To echo the words of Captain Dalton who accompanied her so often down the Chicago River…

God Bless, Fare thee well Mary.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe Aunt Mary's spirit is alive and well in you. Now I understand where your stubborn,spitfire streak originates!--Liz