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Remembering Father Higgins

   I can't help today but recall the last time I visited with Father Jim Higgins, the former Canisius High School president who died on Monday.

   It was last June 18, and we had spent a long day together in Washington for the funeral of Tim Russert, the NBC newsman and famed alumnus of Canisius. He had concelebrated Russert's funeral Mass with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick a few hours earlier; we both attended the magnificent tribute at the Kennedy Center; we joined the ensuing reception among the high and mighty, and now we were waiting for a flight home from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

   Chris Lee, then the Republican candidate for the 26th Congressional District, came by and sponsored a beer at the airport bar. We all talked for a while, and later Higgins and I hashed over what ranked as a most remarkable day.

   He had just buried one of the most famous men in America. I had just attended one of the most moving ceremonies of my life … even shaken hands with a former president.

   We talked about Russert and how our three lives had intersected around Canisius on several occasions.

   We recalled a now famous story about Russert encountering my son, Dan, at the 2001 Buffalo Catholic Education Dinner. Russert had met Dan before and all but signed him up for Canisius High.

   But when the seventh-grader at St. Mark School told him he had not yet made up his mind about high school, Russert buttonholed Higgins and made him scrawl out an "acceptance letter" on the back of his business card. Then he officially signed it: James P. Higgins SJ.

   "There," Russert said, "that settles that."

   And it did. Dan entered Canisius, reveled in his four years there, constantly complained about the tough Jesuit who ran the place, and today counts as a prized possession the Graduation Day photo of Father Higgins and him.

   Back in Baltimore that day, Higgins and I chuckled over the business card incident and marveled how Russert's simple role helped shape a kid's life.

   We couldn't fathom that Russert had left us at 58. Higgins was 54. I turned 54 that day.

   Now Higgins is gone at 54. It all adds up to the irony that is part of today.

   Not everybody appreciated Jim Higgins. He was hard charging. He could ride roughshod when he had the best interest of Canisius in sight.

   But his alma mater has prospered in a time when other Catholic schools have foundered. If you drive down Delaware Avenue today, you'll see two new Canisius wings under construction that resulted from hard-charging Jim Higgins.

   And he was a major figure in a community that often invited him to serve on boards and represent Canisius High.

   But mostly, hundreds of Canisius guys like Dan are recalling today the major effect the Buffalo native had on their young lives.

   One not so young guy recalls Higgins' effect on his life too.

   Do you have remembrances to share about Canisius High School's Father Jim Higgins?


-- Robert J. McCarthy

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