From Milwaukee Renaissance

Godsil: Reflections

ALBERT J. MONTESI (1921–2006)

That dull, grey St. Louis November morning had too
little sunlight to enliven the stunning stained glass
windows of the College Church of St. Francis Xavier.
We had gathered this morning, a past middle aged lot
whose lives had intersected more than 40 yrs ago, to
bid farewell to a cyclone of a man-our English
professor, mentor, friend and uncle- Al Montesi, son
of Italian immigrants from the Marche region who had
been brought over at the turn of the century to work
the cotton fields outside of Memphis.

The congregation was sparser than I had expected,
with family, some faculty and his faithful students,
those who had never really left him, in attendance.
We clustered in the pews under those magnificent
Gothic arches. Next to me stood the Medusa haired
Godsil who had come in the day before from Milwaukee.
A faithful friend of both mine and Montesi’s, he had
been a support for me at my own father’s funeral in
December 2004. He sat there throughout the Mass, like
a medieval scribe, recording in his black bound book,
names, comments, impressions, from this gathering to
bid farewell to Al.

Godsil and I had stayed the night at the B&B, The
Lehman House, an immense, rambling red brick mansion a
few doors down from Al’s home on Benton Place. Rising
early, we had time before the Mass to stroll up and
down the street and wander over to Lafayette Square,
filled with magnificent oaks trees now crowned in all
their autumnal glory. We found the statue of Thomas
Hart Benton, Missouri senator after whom Benton Pl.
was named. The bronze figure was done by the American
female sculptress, from St. Louis, Harriet Hosmer. A
number of years ago, Al had written a play on this
group of trailblazing women artists in n1850’s Rome. I
came into St.Louis to direct it and we put it on in
Lafayette Square. Godsil and I then sat for a few
minutes on the steps of #22, and carried on one of our
frequent snap and snarl repartees answering each other
in that Memphis drawl we all learned to love as if we
were Montesi himself. I looked up to the room on the
third floor with the air conditioner still protruding
and thought of the nights I had spent there while
visiting Al.

Jim Barry, a classmate of mine who had been with Al
in the 1970’s when he visited me in Israel, had been
like Al’s son and had bought the house across from

  1. 22, where he still lives. Jim, being resident in St.

Louis, had made the funeral arrangements for Al. The
visitation was on Sunday night at the McLaughlin
Funeral Home on Missouri Avenue, as much a part of
Lafayette Sq. as the homes along Benton Pl. Montesi
had brought so much notoriety to this neighborhood of
St. Louis through his books that it seemed fitting
that it now embraced him on his last journey.
I came straight from the airport and arrived toward
the end of the visitation, after most of those who had
come to pay their respects had left. I knelt on the
prie dieu before the oaken casket and gazed for a last
time upon his peaceful, painted face and tried to
envision it animated as it once was, filled with what
my mother used to term, “piss and vinegar”. His
reposing remains were surrounded by the accoutrement
of his Catholic roots-a crucifix displayed on the
raised lid of the casket, a rosary entwined in his
lifeless hands.

I had the opportunity to speak with Al’s family up
from Memphis, Nashville and Dallas. I had to identify
myself to Al’s nephew and my former freshman year
roommate, Tommy Grooms, now a lawyer with the Justice
Department in Nashville. I wondered if it was more
because of my change of appearance or Tommy’s dimming
memory and I put it down to a combination of the two.
I met Tommy’s lovely wife and two daughters one of
whom had graduated from Columbia and the other who,
like me, had converted to Judaism. I told them that
one of Italy’s most vibrant medieval Jewish
communities was in Sinagalia, the town some of the
Montesi’s hailed from mentioning that old doc may have
had some Jewish progenitors in his family line.
Tommy’s sister, Emily whom I had met a number of times
up at Al’s and of whom I was especially fond, had gone
to dinner, but we met and embraced at the church the
following morning and I hope to see her when I visit
friends in Dallas.

I was introduced to the many nieces and nephews Al
had from his brothers and sisters, the two surviving
whom I met, his lovely sister, Lillian, and his little
brother, the youngest of the Montesi brood, Alec,
about whom Al had spoken often. Tommy’s wife asked me
what it was about Al that made him such a tour de
force in the classroom, a force that could intimidate
and embrace at the same time. I told her it was his
ability to get us to use our imaginations in the
learning process, of discovering connections where we
never thought they existed. Montesi was the
embodiment of that professor, Hector, portrayed in
Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys”. He would ramble,
extemporize in the classroom and often the post
weekend boozy, hung over minds of those young Catholic
men on Monday morning would be, to say the least,
challenged to keep up with Montesi’s circuitous
meanderings to get to his final point. But along the
way, if you endured and had the patience to zigzag
with him, you could be rewarded with a searing insight
into the topic that 10 minutes prior you had thought
he had left in the dust clouds stirred up with his
racing mind. He got us to think and to question our
own complacencies. That was Al Montesi.

Jim Barry had arranged to have one of the few
remaining Jesuit associates of Al and his students
celebrate the Mass-Father Brennan. I remember him as a
lean, black haired Irishman, a native of St. Louis,
who was then the director of the SLU Honors Program.
Now 81, like the rest of us on the other side of the
altar, he had gained in girth what he had lost in a
tripping lightly step. I approached him before the
Mass had begun and introduced myself to him, as
“Seamus”, the name I was known by during my two years
at St. Louis University. He said he remembered me and
asked what I had been doing in the intervening years.
I told him that soon after leaving SLU for McGill
University in Montreal, I had converted to Judaism. He
responded with a Jesuitical” “well, that’s alright”.
I wondered if a rabbi would have been as tolerant if
it had been the reverse.

The congregation, scattered throughout that cavernous
ecclesiastical space, had gathered around the casket,
now draped in an off white pall. Our thoughts and
memories must have been so dense that morning that the
arched ribbed ceiling was weakened by the weight. All
of us present had been a part of this man’s life over
more than 40yrs- John and Carol Hake behind me, along
side of Mike Cinner, who illustrated many of Al’s
books and Stephen B. Clark, the looming presence of
Dennis Hannon and in front of him, Dennis Weeks.
During the Mass, as a stooped figure, holding on to a
walker, returned to his pew from having received Holy
Communion, Jim Barry turned around and whispered that
that was Van Moomjian. There was a round of hugs,
embraces, and kisses. It was Al Montesi that had
brought all of us together again on this misty late
autumn morning in St. Louis.

Father Brennan delivered the sermon/homage to Al,
followed by a moving eulogy given by Jim Barry, in
which he referred to Albert J. Montesi, Al, Alberto,
doc, all the names he was known by, as above all else
“a man for all seasons”. Father Brennan read from
the Hebrew Scriptures, Book of Wisdom, and from the
Gospel of John, the story of the raising of old
Lazarus. He spoke of Al as educator, academic, friend
and supporter of a great number of charities. He
addressed the sense of loss he knew we all felt, of
the finality of it all, of his doubts and keen sense
of his own mortality now at age 81. He declaimed his
faith in the resurrection and told us it was that
faith which had brought us together in that space of
lit candles, stained glass and Eucharistic gifts. He
concluded with John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X-“Death be
not proud”…concluding with its final words: “one short
sleep past, we wake eternally, and Death shall be no
more; Death, thou salt die.”

After the Mass, Jim Barry and his wife, Elaine
cordially invited the congregation to gather at their
magnificent home at 21 Benton Pl. just across the
street from where Al had lived for 40 yrs. And there,
family and friends told stories, amid the parquet
floors, the fine art work on the walls and the fire
glowing in the marble fireplace. There was food and
drink and a conviviality this assembled crowd had
known on this street during those heady days of the
1960’s when Al would hold his infamous parties. And
here we were again, brought together one last time, by
that life force that will go on being an inspiration
to so many scattered around the country, better
prepared, better grounded because of this dear man we
are seeing off on his final journey. God giveth, God
taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.

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Page last modified on November 10, 2006, at 08:05 AM