The Priest and Me

Ted Leonsis was a blue-collar kid and an outsider when he started at Georgetown. Meeting Father Durkin changed everything.

By: Ted Leonsis

When I arrived at Georgetown University in the fall of 1973, the first thing I learned was that my family was poor. The kids I met all seemed to have gone to the best private schools. Their mothers and fathers had gone to college and apparently didn’t have jobs—they had careers. My classmates would identify their parents’ vocations by citing their titles: “My dad’s the CEO of . . . .” My father was a waiter and hadn’t finished high school.

My classmates had cars; I arrived at DC’s Greyhound terminal with a duffle bag containing all of my stuff. My parents had given me a small sack filled with little bars of soap and bottles of shampoo they’d collected from motels they’d stayed in.

The kids I met at Georgetown used the word “summer” as a verb: “We summered in Nantucket. How about you?” I summered in Lowell, Massachusetts—where I lived the rest of the year as well. It was 130 miles from Nantucket but in practical terms a million miles away.

Georgetown students are assigned a mentor, and mine was a 70-year-old Jesuit priest named Father Joseph Durkin. When I met him, I wondered what I could possibly have in common with this old man who’d lived a comparatively cloistered life within an academic institution. Little did I realize he was an institution in his own right. Being assigned as one of Father Durkin’s mentees was one of the luckiest breaks of my life.

Father Durkin was the single greatest person I’ve ever known. He was such a genuine human being—there was nothing about him that wasn’t as advertised. He never had a hidden agenda or an ounce of negativity. He never made an inauthentic statement in pursuit of laughs at someone else’s expense. He had as pure a soul as anyone I’ve ever met. He was a serious but very happy man whose vocabulary was filled with words such as “mission,” “purpose,” and “higher love.”

Father Durkin could find God in all things, and his quiet attentiveness was especially remarkable when it came to the students he mentored. He’d ask simple questions and get me to open up to him. From these conversations he suggested books I should read and topics I should study. They became part of my Georgetown education. (When Father Durkin died in 2003 at age 100, he had written more than 25 books himself and was still writing.)

His happiness flowed from his calling. His life wasn’t merely in service to the Lord—his mission was to help spark a calling among the young adults he mentored. He believed the way to do it was through keen and vigorous development of head and heart. We were urged to cultivate our minds and spirits in a joyful way because the ultimate goal was to die in peace, with prospects for the afterlife.

Father Durkin passed on to me the desire to live a life in which you give more than you take. He taught me that the way you function should be in balance with all other aspects of your life, which should include work, sports, the arts—all of the pleasures that enhance our humanity.

Intellectually, Father Durkin was ahead of his time. In today’s Web 2.0 world, we talk about mash-ups, which combine the data or functionality from two or more sources into a single integrated application. In the mid-1970s, Father Durkin already thought that way, and his guidance on one particular project led to perhaps the most pivotal event in my education and, ultimately, my career.

At Georgetown, you had to write a thesis in both your junior and senior years. Because I’d done well in English and history in high school and loved to read, it was clear by the end of my sophomore year that I should concentrate in English and maybe major in a new integrated discipline called American studies.

Father Durkin told me before the end of the school year that I should read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It was the kind of book he loved to talk about because you could explore elements of the spirituality within it at whatever depth you wanted. It was like peeling an onion, and Father Durkin had a mind that could delve into a topic one tissue-thin layer at a time. Over the summer, I read The Old Man and the Sea not once but twice. Then I read Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees.

Across the River and Into the Trees was published in 1950, The Old Man and the Sea in 1952. To me, it just didn’t add up that two so profoundly different books, written in such different styles, could have been created back to back. I knew Hemingway was a great artist, but I also knew he was a journalist who churned out reams of material in a career that had started 30 years before the publication of The Old Man and the Sea.

There was something about the difference between that book and the one that preceded it that made me suspect some elements of The Old Man and the Sea might have been written earlier in Hemingway’s career. I went to the library and got every book by him I could find, and it seemed my hunch was correct. The Old Man and the Sea appeared to have far more in common—in style and word choice—with his earlier writing than with his later work.

I returned to Georgetown at the end of the summer and went to see my mentor. “How was your summer?” Father Durkin asked. “Did you read the book?”

I told him everything—the hours in the library, the comparisons I’d made between The Old Man and the Sea and works from earlier in Hemingway’s career. I said I thought Hemingway had written, if not all of The Old Man and the Sea, at least portions of it earlier in his career. I thought it was possible that perhaps because Hemingway lacked inspiration for a new book, or because he needed to get a book out to pay his bills, he’d pulled an older story out of a drawer and given it to his publisher.

Father Durkin hadn’t been certain I was even going to read the book he’d recommended, and here I’d studied it intently enough to have developed an original theory. We talked about it for weeks, and at one point I told him I wanted to prove my theory; I just didn’t know how.

This was the autumn of 1975—about the time Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run came out, Patty Hearst was arrested, and President Gerald Ford was being imitated on a new TV show called Saturday Night Live. In the scale of time, it wasn’t that long ago, though in the world of technology it might as well have been ancient Egypt.

Computers weren’t widely used outside of corporations or NASA. If I’d been asked to tell you everything I knew about computers at the time, I probably would have started and finished with HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Technology just didn’t figure much in my consciousness.

But Father Durkin, who thought in terms of interdisciplinary mash-ups, knew some of the people in Georgetown’s graduate linguistics program. When we went to talk to a professor there about how we might prove that The Old Man and the Sea had been written earlier than the 1950s, she told us we could examine his writing, sentence by sentence and word by word, and see what patterns could be divined: How did he use pronouns in For Whom the Bell Tolls as compared with Across the River and Into the Trees, and then in both compared with The Old Man and the Sea? Was there a way he used adjectives that might date one work conclusively as having come earlier or later?

The professor was very helpful conceptually, but she made it clear it was going to be difficult, not to mention labor-intensive, to prove my theory. That’s when my septuagenarian Jesuit-priest mentor—about six years before the introduction of the IBM PC—said, “Well, maybe we could use a computer?”

I think there was one computer at Georgetown, an IBM 360 mainframe with a terminal in the registrar’s office. So together with Father Durkin, the linguistics professor, and a technical assistant from the registrar’s office, I went on a journey to use a computer to explore whether Hemingway had written The Old Man and the Sea not in 1951 but in the 1930s or ’40s.

The massive “big iron” IBM 360 had about the same level of computing power as a present-day iPhone, and it used punch cards to process data. But it was thrilling to harness it to my project. It was like being a scientist, a detective, and a historian all at the same time. I never would have expected that using computing power to solve a riddle would fill me with excitement—nor that I would embark on this journey with an aged priest beside me. Boy, was I happy.

My friends thought I was nuts. I think they liked it more when I talked about how the New York Rangers were going to crush the recently formed Washington Capitals, or about politics or rock ’n’ roll. Trying to explain how I was using a mainframe computer to pursue an English project must have seemed too odd for words to these future doctors and lawyers.

I told my parents about it over Christmas vacation, and they couldn’t understand what I was doing. Using computers was so foreign to their experience. For me, it was like conquering a new world. I felt in control of my destiny even as I was relying on the expertise of others and without a precise sense of what we were going to find. Later on, when I was creating a business, I’d recognize that feeling of camaraderie in service to a goal with an unknown outcome. It was a genuinely entrepreneurial moment.

I had to type the first 5,000 words of Hemingway’s book into the computer along with thousands of words from earlier books and articles. Our technical assistant wrote a program that searched through word patterns using punch cards containing the sentences I’d input. Lo and behold, one day the computer “told” us that at least some elements of The Old Man and the Sea had been written before the 1950s.

I’m not sure Father Durkin high-fived me, but I know he was as thrilled as I was. Georgetown is constructed around the concept of interdisciplinary studies, and the fact that my junior-year thesis was a mash-up of literature, history, computer science, and linguistics was a very big deal.

Though Hemingway biographers have never warmed to our theory, the paper I wrote was published in an academic newsletter dedicated to computing and the humanities. Most important to me in the short run was that I won an award for the best junior thesis.

In the long run, what was important was that the journey I’d gone on with Father Durkin created a lifelong interest in the power and practical application of computers. Everything I was to achieve in the first part of my career stemmed from an unwritten playbook we made up as we went along, infused with the belief that computers would change the world.

I’d witnessed firsthand how you could use computers to make something happen. I can’t tell you that there was a flash of light or a divine inspiration. All I can say is that a Jesuit priest insisted that I read The Old Man and the Sea, and through that I landed something awesome.