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Letter: Brother Kenneth Robert Scholarship Fund or Once Upon a Scaffold

(Editor’s Note: Neill Reilly sent this to members of his St. Mary’s 1967 graduating class, a classmate forwarded it to the Manhasset Press and it is printed here with Mr. Reilly’s permission. St. Mary’s is currently establishing the Brother Kenneth Robert Scholarship Fund.)

Since runners ran all year long, I truly believe we were in the gym more and played more hoops than most basketball players. After track practices Brian Hussey and I and many of the other runners would repair to the gym and play pickup basketball games. Sometimes we would have to wait for the basketball team to finish. Runners were not supposed to be playing hoops. If Brother Thomas Joseph saw us playing basketball, he would get frustrated and was correctly concerned that we might sprain an ankle. We would dutifully wait for him to leave and then play.

Brother Kenneth and the basketball coaches controlled the gym. We assumed we could play until otherwise directed. Usually we got away with it and we would play after practices and meets. But Brother Kenneth had the keys and we had to abide by his rules. I always wanted a copy of those keys, but thought it would be automatic expulsion if I somehow managed to get a copy.

One evening after track practice in our sophomore year, Brian and I went into the gym. The scaffolding was up. This meant that some brave soul had volunteered to climb the scaffolding to replace the bulbs in the electric scoreboard. Usually that brave soul was Brother Kenneth. After climbing 20 feet on the scaffolding, he had to reach to take out and replace defective bulbs. This put Brother Kenneth in an understandably foul mood.

Brian and I started to play hoops right near the scaffolding, which brought forth the approbation of said Brother Kenneth. It was Deus ex machina. He led with his signature, “Hey, sunshine!” Which translates roughly into, “What are you idiots doing playing basketball and distracting me while I am up here swinging in the air?” Brian and I looked up. Brother pointed and said, “Sit, over there,” pointing to the scorer’s table. It was clear from his wording and tone of voice that we were not to refuse his order. Brian and I went to the scorer’s table, where John Conroy and Dave Ryan were manning the scorer’s machine.

Now for those of you who are uninitiated, it would be very difficult in the history of St. Mary’s to find four bigger knuckleheads in one place at one time. Each by himself enjoyed nothing more than getting grins from other knuckleheads. So this combustible combination was knuckleheads to the fourth!

The stage is set for our comedy of errors. The scorer’s machine set off the lights as you clicked the dials. Therefore, replacing the bulbs was by definition a two-man job. One to change the numbers, the other to see which numbers did not light up because of defective bulbs and then replace them. It was always the bulbs furthest from the scaffolding that went out. You had to stretch and get on your toes to get those dastardly defective bulbs. Meanwhile you were over 20 feet in the air.

Oh, yes, critical point. The scorer’s machine also had a buzzer to emit an ear piercing noise for substitutions and end of periods. The speaker was located in the scoreboard about a foot from Brother Kenneth’s ears. It sounded like an air raid alarm from World War II. That noise could be heard in Pakistan.

I have often pondered what was going through Bother Kenneth’s mind that he elected to have Dave Ryan and John Conroy man that device.

Brian and I sat and watched as John and Dave made supposed mistakes that were driving Brother Kenneth nuts with their hitting the wrong buttons and not following his instructions. But these were mere minor jabs. Dave waited for the ultimate moment, the full reach by Brother Kenneth to get that last bulb. At full extension just as he was struggling to get the bulb into the socket, Dave hit the buzzer. In my memory, Brother Kenneth almost fell and dropped the bulb which smashed on the ground. Given my hyperbolic nature, that may be exaggeration. He shouted, “Ryan!” Dave looked as innocent as fresh milk. Brother Kenneth was fuming, but he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. Which one of these four esteemed knuckleheads could he trust so he could finish the job and get down from the damned scaffolding? He had to finish the job and did not want to climb up again at a future date. He went with the best choice, John Conroy.

Now time obscures memory and the golden rule is to not let facts get in the way of a good story. Suffice it to say, I am not sure of the rest of the story, but in my mind’s eye it played out this way. Brother Kenneth gets his composure back, selects the last light bulb and reaches the ultimate point of no return. He turns his back on the scoundrels and in an act of pure, blind faith, goes once more into the breach! What a brave fellow! I do believe that John was at the controls and did make a valiant effort to protect the outstretched brother, but Dave was bigger, stronger and funnier. Dave could not resist this daffy duck moment. People wait their whole lives for unique opportunities and not Dave’s best friend or the wrath of Brother Kenneth could stop Dave from his appointed task. He wrestled past John and just as Brother Kenneth was fully extended, Dave hit the buzzer.

Brian and I dissolved into puddles of laughter, which was an affront to Brother Kenneth’s near death experience. I think Dave ran from the gym and John tried to apologize, but soon joined Brian and me in uncontrolled laughter.

What we put those kind souls through! This is why God created scholarships – to assuage Catholic guilt!

Post Script

Years later, I was a CYO coach at St. Mary’s and somehow got the keys to the gym. I was in heaven and my team practiced all the time. Eventually, I was found out and I had to turn in my keys. But for a while I had em!

Neill Reilly