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The Dean Of Storytellers: New York Saves A Bridgeport Tradition

March 14th, 2013 · 1 Comment · Best of Bridgeport

Patrick Rohan

Patrick Rohan

OIB friend John Gilmore, former political reporter for The Bridgeport Post, predecessor to the Connecticut Post, shares his annual St. Patrick’s Day story. The big man spends his time these days as a marketing consultant for lawyers and writing detective novels.

The St. Patrick’s Scholarship Dinner prides itself on being the least demanding charity in Bridgeport. For decades a local group has thrown one dinner a year to raise money to give a college scholarship to a worthy and needy student. There are no other meetings or gatherings. Have a dinner, throw money into a pot, send a kid to college. Simple.

The dinner night format is always the same. Tuxedos gather, eat, and hear a few short comments–short being the operative word–from the president of a local college on the value of the scholarship. Then, a past winner thanks the committee for his/her gift, and the 350-plus stuffed participants settle in for some good, old-fashioned Irish humor.

However, as with all good plans, sometimes there is a kink in the process. This, my fellow and honorary Irishmen, is a story of one of those times.

It was the tradition of the committee to recruit a well-known Irish-American politician to take the stage, and that’s where I came in several years ago. Through a friend I secured the attendance of former New York State Governor Hugh Carey, a well-known Irish storyteller and singer of songs.

I had been with the governor many times in his post-Albany years and watched him entertain people with political stories, then wrap things up with a rousing rendition of “New York, New York.” One night, close to New Year’s Eve, I witnessed him close a New York restaurant with Auld Lang Syne while the entire wait and kitchen staff stood along a wall at attention.

He was the perfect speaker for the scholarship dinner, a well-known and fun loving Irish pol.

But remember that kink I mentioned?

On the afternoon of the dinner–just hours before the shrimp cocktails were to be served–my telephone at work rang. The governor was ill. In fact, he was in the hospital. “Not to worry,” the caller said, “he’ll check himself out and get in a car and come to Bridgeport.”

“He’s in the hospital!” I screamed. “He’s not coming to Bridgeport tonight! No doctor would allow that!”

“Let me see what I can do,” the caller said as he hung up.

My heart sank, my head thumped, and the tables at the hotel in Bridgeport were being set.

The phone rang again. “The governor has a fill-in. Call this guy now and brief him on what you want.”

“Who am I calling?”

“Dean Patrick J. Rohan of St. John’s University Law School. He’s Hughie’s buddy. Hughie has already called him from the hospital. The dean will do it. Just tell him what you need.”

Click.

The call ended as frantically as it had started. I stared at the phone as if it would ring again with another call bringing salvation. I had 350 people coming to a dinner expecting food, drinks and storytelling by Hugh Carey. Now I had a law school dean. I shook my head. I was sunk.

I made the call anyway.

“Dean Rohan, please,” I said.

“Who shall I say is calling?” answered a woman in the dean’s office in Queens.

I identified myself.

“What is this in regard to, please?”

I started to explain about the dinner and how the dean was expected to fill in. I could feel it through the phone lines I was losing her with each passing second, until I blurted out, “So, Governor Carey told me to call and that the dean …”

“The governor told you to call?” she interrupted. “One moment, please,” she shot back, not caring about my blabbering.

The next voice I heard was stern and serious. “Dean Rohan, here.”

“Dean, thanks for taking my call.”

Yes, the governor had called him. Great, I thought.

Yes, he’d speak. Great again, things were getting there.

My problem was that the dean sounded more serious with each passing breath.

“So, maybe you could tell me about your career so I could write up a quick bio to insert into the program?” I asked.

The man seemed humorless, and I was beginning to think life as I knew it really was about to end. Remember those 350 people coming to the dinner? All of them would be well oiled by the time a speaker took the podium, so serving up a dull speaker was not an option.

“My career?” said the dean. I am a leading authority on property and condominium law in New York State.”

What did he just say?

“I have been extensively published. I’ll fax you the publications.”

Gee, thanks a bunch!

“I have been a visiting professor at Columbia and N.Y.U. law schools and lectured at the Lincoln Land Institute and the Southwestern Legal Foundation. I serve as counsel to numerous educational and governmental bodies, including the New York State Temporary Commission on Estates, the Temporary State Commission on Rental Housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal National Mortgage Association and the New York State Judicial Conference,” he said in almost one breath.

It was clear, I was dead.

I couldn’t put this guy on stage. An expert in New York real estate law? Was he for real? I spied my car keys on my desk and for a fleeting moment thought about racing off to some wilderness in Canada. That had to be a better option than facing an angry mob of tuxedos in a few hours.

No, I had to make one more try.

“Uh, Dean, what exactly did Governor Carey say to you? I mean, and please don’t think I’m being disrespectful here, but do you understand what’s expected from a speaker at this particular dinner?”

Silence.

And then he spoke. “I believe so,” the voice of impending doom said.

“Really?” I pressed. “You’re sure?” Another pause.

“Yes, I think I do,” he said. The dean went on to spout off a litany of tales about famous and infamous New York politicians and their foibles. It was truly the stuff heard in the smoke-filled rooms of old time New York political gatherings. This guy was old school, right out of a Jimmy Breslin column.

“I assure you, I can handle it,” he said with a laugh.

Relief! He understood!

Little did I know at the time that this dean of a respected law school was, according to The New York Times, a New York Irish scrapper from way back. He had a penchant for referring to his detractors as “crazies,” “wackos” and “clowns.”

“You’ve got the job, Dean!” I said.

I hung up and drove to Yonkers and picked up Dean Rohan near his home, along with his life-sized cardboard cutout of the governor, which served as his silent sidekick long before Clint Eastwood ever discovered an empty chair.

The dinner went off without a hitch. The dean roasted Carey, told a bunch of New York political stories, and wrapped it up with comments on the value of a good education.

The Bridgeport crowd was almost ready to nominate him for mayor!

And the governor? He recovered nicely and came to the dinner the next year. That’s what’s called a “twofer.”

Slainte.

(Author’s note: Dean Rohan died in December 2009, and Gov. Carey died in August 2011. The two men shared a great deal: a legal background, a St. John’s connection and a well-honed Irish wit.)

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One Comment so far ↓

  • John Marshall Lee

    Thank you for the “story,” “for” and “of” the St. Patrick’s celebration. As a Scholarship Committee member for years and a regular attendee, I remember the year and the cardboard figure. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.

    I missed the dinner this year. Instead I attended the BOE meeting to get my two-minute public speaking opportunity to suggest the BOE members might draft an evaluation mechanism like a report card going forward so voters might observe their attendance, conduct, effort and achievement in order to make good decisions come election time. Waited more than two hours for the two minutes, but if enough people chime in on the concept, the stakeholders of the system (otherwise often referred to on OIB as ‘braindead’ or Zombies, etc) can figure out the election scorecard of those who run to help the City youth get an education. Time will tell.

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