A conversation with Fr. John R. Smith
Thanks to Thomas Aquinas Burke, class of '63
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Father John R. Smith O.P. Quotes
December 4, 1967

Background:
On December 4, 1967, at 3:30 pm, Father John R. Smith O.P. called me at the
store where I worked in Frederick, Maryland. Father asked me to come down to
Washington and have dinner with him. Previously, he had driven from
Washington to see me, completely surprising me since I had no idea he knew I
was working in Maryland. The following is a nearly verbatim transcript of most of
Father Smith's quotes and observations during our dinner at the Flagship
Restaurant, and later at St. Dominic's Priory and Church. Sometimes he was
answering questions that I asked him, while at other times he just made
observations.  As soon as I got back home, I wrote them down.  Now I am glad I
did.
Thomas Aquinas Burke



Beginning at 6:50 PM at the Flagship Restaurant:

JRS: Fr. Segren would be glad to know you are so interested in history. I
never cared for it, and never bothered to learn, but it hasn't seemed to have
hurt me much.

I was born in 1903, graduated from high school in 1919, went into the
order, and took preparatory college courses until 1920. I was ordained in
1929. In 1930, I was called "a new dad" or student priest, and was Chaplain to
the District of Columbia Jail. I was then working on my Masters Degree. In
1931, I went to Aquinas. In 1932, I had my right eyelid operated on for a
malignant growth. In 1953, 56 and 59, I also underwent surgery on my colon,
and it was malignant. If I was in any other city, I might never be here
today. Dr. Hamilton operated on me in 1932--that was the son of the Dr.
Hamilton who founded Mount Carmel.

-As I recall, Dr. Hawkes and Dr. Hamilton founded Mt. Carmel, and I believe its 
corporate title is: Hawkes Hospital of Mt. Carmel. 

-In 1932, I was appointed Dean of Discipline at Aquinas and held that
position until 1965--32 years.
I guess after the first four years, I got used to the job. As time went
on, if they would have replaced me, it would have been pretty hard on the
new man. It would only take 10% of my energy, compared to 100 % for a new man
to do the job. There is no substitute for experience. It got to be that I
knew what the boys would do, given the right circumstances, and they usually
did. Part of the job was being in the wrong place at the right time, or when the
students least expected. Sure, I got to help a lot of boys from ending up in the Pen, but some
went on anyways.

I guess the best excuse I ever heard for being late was from a boy who
lived near Whittier and Lockbourne Roads. You know how we had storms which
broke trees, and the trolley wires used to ice up and not make contact, and
when they did they sparked like firecrackers?  Well on a day like that, this
boy was late and I asked him why? He said, " The juice in the wires was
frozen so he was late". I imagine he believed that some kind of fluid went
through the wires, so naturally, when the outside was iced up, the fluid was
frozen. Ben Franklin would have liked that explanation of electricity! I had
to let him go. Sometimes I used to laugh about those excuses, but in private.


-The discipline was tough, but most boys took it as good sports. They
knew they were wrong. Of course, they would have liked to get out of it, but
this time they didn't. And you know the ones I hear from the most, are those
boys. Yes, I did make mistakes, and when I did, I told the boy "I owe you an
apology since you really didn't do this, but this was for the time I didn't
catch you. As I said, most of the boys were good sports.

-I could have been President of Aquinas several times but I did not want
it for many reasons.

-Sure the boys kept me busy, but parents also called me for advice and
help. I sleep better here than at Aquinas, I don't have all those things on
my mind.

-Hoster! - Why, wasn't that the Brewery down by the Armory, and isn't the
building at the southwest corner of Fourth and Broad named Hoster.

-When I was leaving Aquinas, I could have gone anywhere almost, but I did
not want any more challenges. I just wanted to take it easy. Now the only
problems I hear are in the Confessional.

-When we left Aquinas, we couldn't take everything with us, so we threw it
out.

-One time, when Fr. Segren and I were alone in the House, we went out
and bought a bottle of I. W. Harper Bourbon 86 proof, and one 100 proof, plus
a bottle of vermouth. We combined these, and it made an excellent Manhattan.
You see, 86 proof was too light and 100 proof was too hard, so we combined
them. We called it the "S & S 93". Segren and Smith 93.

-One priest was a boat enthusiast and his brother gave him a big
outboard motor, so we built a boat in the shop and used to run it up on the
river.

-How long did it take you to get from Columbus - Oh I mean Frederick to
here today? I lived so long in Columbus, and talking with someone from Columbus
just made me forget where you live now.

-Oh! I should know Washington pretty well. I've lived here two years, and been
coming here since 1926 when I visited my brother here. I have been here many
times. You know my brother Ignatius preached in almost every church in
Washington and surrounding Virginia and Maryland. He was here almost 50
years.

-Bishop Sheen once said that his friends use to accuse him, while he
attended Catholic University, of imitating Fr. Ignatius Smith. He said,
"Well, at least I am imitating the best". Bishop Sheen was one of my brother's
pupils.

-One of the priests preparing a 125-year anniversary for St Thomas
Aquinas in Zanesville, was trying to find pictures of the church.  He blamed
Fr. McCaffrey of the Rosary Press of throwing away many of the early pictures.
I asked him, what was Fr. McCaffrey supposed to do? - carry them in his hip
pocket? He later got pictures from the Archivist at the House of Studies.

-In the summer of 1939, I went with a Pax Romo mission down to Brazil.
At Panama, Japanese ships were sitting there not able to go through the canal.
They feared that they might scuttle the ships. Also, they would not sell
them any oil.

-JRS speaking about a priest who was too easy in class. " He let them run his
class. He tried to tighten the reins, but it happened only after he realized
the class was taking over.  He should have first held tight the reins, then
let them loose.

-I was reading in the paper this morning that President Johnson went to
a reception for Linda in Georgetown last night. It listed the precise time,
and said he stayed only minutes. It did not mention that 10 minutes
later he was in our St. Dominic Chapel praying with Lucy, Lady Bird and Lucy's
baby. I was taking care of his dog. Usually a Secret Service Agent calls,
but last night Lucy called. Of course, Secret Service Agents were all around
here, but they do not bother the President in church.

-The President often goes to church with Lucy, and she to his. It is
surprising that some Mondays you read the President didn't go to church
yesterday. And I saw him at maybe the 5:15 Mass or the 12:15 Mass. Of
course, there are Secret Service Agents at all the doors and in the choir.


Beginning at 9:15 PM.  Father Smith took me on a tour of St. Dominic's
Priory and Church, Washington DC.
Location: the Priory Refectory:

-That woodcarving was from the top of the sedilla on the main altar of
the Church. I like carvings to look natural with the wood grains still
showing. Those ones at the restaurant, if they were real woodcarvings,
really don't look right with paint on them.


Location: in the St. Dominic  Priory Chapel

-What do you think that is? A mosaic - NO! - it's a piece of junk with
windshield glass and plywood making it up. They call it a mural.
 I don't exactly like it. Isn't it surprising that Lyndon stood where you
are standing now?


Location: In St. Dominic's Church

-That object above the temporary altar used to be part of the old main
altar until we built a new one. People raised a lot of talk about the
destroying of the old marble altar but they found out it was only painted to
look like marble.
The new altar will be moved up here, but it will cost a lot since the floor
has to be made to support it. Where it is now has that support. Then they
plan on putting those chairs where the new altar stands on the top steps.
And I think that is wrong. It makes the priest the central figure, not the
Blessed Sacrament. They will put the tabernacle on the side altar and call
it the Blessed Sacrament Altar.
Everything practically has to be tied down here. They rob the poor box a
couple of times a week. See the tabernacle has a burglar alarm on it. Be
careful don't set it off.


Location: In the Reception Room - hunting for a piece of paper.

-Well! As Fr. Vollmer used to say - "If I was a little card, where would I
likely be."


Location: Parlor 3- Father wanted to give me a beer mug from Holland, and
something else.

-Here is the mug. Be careful, do not get the wrapping on your coat. Also,
here is the explanation of the mural in the Chapel.


Location: Outside the Priory looking at Washington

-There is the Record Building which is almost filled with NASA offices.
There is the GSA Building. They control all the buildings. There is the
HUD - Housing and Urban Development Building. It has 1,565 pre-cast cement
sections where each window is, and each section weighs 13 tons except the
top floor where each weighs 16 tons because of the cement above the windows
leading towards the roof. It is finished up from the second floor to the
tenth floor. But the first floor isn't done yet. It is going to cost 30
million and they say it is the cheapest building built in recent years by
the government. All the pre-cast sections were made in New Jersey. On the
side, they are going to put an awful looking brown granite. This will be
ugly compared to the 103-foot high office building they are going to build
across from it. It is being built by a private firm but will probably be
rented principally by the government. It is going to be faced with white
marble and should be quite beautiful. Notice the dust, it will be like this
for two more years. As soon as you get your car washed, it is all dirty
again.  Over there, where the freeway is, that is where the old Priory and
school once were.


Location: Outside the Priory - in my car with JRS at my window.

-Say Hi to all my friends in Columbus for me, and take care of yourself.



Final Note:
Father John Reginald Smith O.P. - Born January 23, 1903, Professed: August
23, 1923, Ordained: June 17, 1929, Died October 19, 1971, made history at
Aquinas, and was part of our National History. Few people ever knew Lyndon
Baines Johnson came to pray in the St. Dominic Priory Chapel, or that he
attended Mass at St. Dominic's in Washington during the VietNam War. What
may seem more astounding, to the men of Aquinas, is to imagine Fr. John R.Smith 
 walking the President's dog through the halls of the Priory, under the watchful eyes
of the Secret Service, while President prayed with Lady Bird and Lucy in the Chapel.
 I hope this gives Aquinas graduates some insights into the priest we knew 
affectionately as "Frog".
May in rest in peace.

Veritas

Thomas Aquinas Burke
Aquinas College High School Class of 1963.
May 8, 2003



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