Franciscan Influences: Two BU Professors Recall Friars’ Message

Eddie Downes & Gary Sheffer Features

This article is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message that laypeople find compelling. The previous essay featured two eighth-graders at The Franciscan School in Raleigh, North Carolina, who described the impact that their education and the Franciscan spirit have had on them.

Below, two professors at Boston University write about their recollections of their Franciscan colleges. After last year’s BU commencement, these public relations professors contacted the HNP Communications Office about the life-changing experiences their alma maters – St. Bonaventure University and Siena College — provided and how those experiences, rooted in Franciscan values, influence their work preparing students to enter today’s communications industries. Their collaborative thoughts are below, followed by their individual recollections of the impact of their college lives.

The Franciscan value of seeking truth and understanding is particularly important in our field and in this time. Because wisdom, simplicity, and candor are Franciscan values that guide our instruction, we reflect solemnly on St. Francis’s words: “Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.” Our deeply held values built at St. Bonaventure and Siena are, we hope, in sync with our students seeking academic and personal success. In so many ways, they speak to the opportunities for young people looking for “purposeful” careers centered on service to others.

Boston University professors Gary Sheffer and Eddie Downes. (Photo courtesy of  Ed Downes)

Cognizant of the privileges we have had, we recognize deeply the value of humility. It’s important to acknowledge that the advanced education provided to students by a professor ought not to be intended — for either the professor or student— as a means to acquire control over another, self-promotion, prestige in a community, or an exalted sense of importance. Instead, the power it provides should empower others. We realize that higher education’s purpose ought not to be to collect or to disseminate knowledge simply for “knowledge sake.”

We have noticed that the promotional literature of St. Bonaventure University, which is very much in synch with Siena’s, had it right.  To paraphrase the university’s philosophy: the outcome of an advanced education, when best practiced, is to serve other human beings. Knowledge of economic principles reduces poverty, law promotes justice, literature and the arts exalt the human spirit, communication promotes understanding, business provides livelihoods, medicine cures disease. Truth and understanding, grounded in Franciscan perspectives, are in many ways one and the same.

With these as our foundations, we reflected together on what the privilege of teaching undergraduate and graduate students means to us.

We believe that teaching should be an expanding endeavor, extending beyond the classroom, beyond required assignments, beyond office hours — for the good of others. The professor who has taught a student to enjoy a subject — from program planning to public speaking, from statistics to symmetrical communication — has done a commendable job, and has given the student a lifetime gift of inquiry, fulfillment, and even wonder — and we recognize God’s goodness amid it all.

Foremost in the professor’s mind, as he or she teaches, must be the realization that both the professor and student remain shockingly similar, meaning both are living the human experience: Both lead a full existence outside the protection of the classroom. Both have shortcomings. Both have strengths. Both want success. Both hope to be acknowledged. And, most importantly, both have unlimited potential to succeed. The professor, acting with both confidence and humility, will realize this. And so will his or her students.

Additionally, we believe the professor must recognize that education is a process. Learning is a continuum, and a semester is a start. Each class offers the opportunity to begin anew. Francis of Assisi said, “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.” As a class begins, we remember Francis’ words.

Similarly, the professor must think beyond the status quo and work hard — conducting and presenting original research, often for peer/industry review, that adds to a field’s body of knowledge; serving the greater student body, thus enhancing the reputation of the institution his or her students attend; exploring new pedagogical approaches to keep classes fresh and timely, and following industry trends to assure students are receiving up-to-date information.

The bottom line? The professor, as he or she looks out on the class, must wish his or her students — that day and throughout their lives —“Pax et Bonum” and bring this wish, this hope, this realization, to the classroom, cognizant of the influence that we, as professors, have the privilege to share.

SBU Recollections of Eddie Downes
This quote, author unknown, hangs on my office door: The best things in life aren’t things.

The friars I knew during four undergraduate years at St. Bonaventure lived this message. Through their examples, they encouraged me, despite my shortcomings, to do the same and not only while in college— but throughout my life.

B.U. Professor Eddie Downes. (Photo courtesy of Ed Downes)

What was it about these priests and brothers in their brown robes — always seen walking past the beautiful campus’ dormitories, dining hall, classroom buildings, athletic fields, and friary—that so touched me? How come, still today, when I make decisions involving others’ lives, at least on my better days, I reflect on the Franciscan values the friars shared with me during college—sometimes through their words, oftentimes through their actions?

It’s hard to describe just what that friars’ presence on campus was. But it was there. And it was real. And it was great. In many ways, this presence was wonderfully simple; in other ways, well, almost metaphysical. Regardless, it built for me a value system that has shaped me— profoundly — since.

I first found wisdom in the friars’ presence shortly after arriving at St. Bonaventure. I was a confused freshman. And Gerald McCaffrey, OFM, through conversations with me, helped me to get on track.

This friars’ presence during my undergraduate years manifests itself today when I work with, befriend, or otherwise come to know others – that is, others whose lives become better when Franciscan influences, formed by so many who attended St. Bonaventure (and Siena), are shared with them.

During college and since I discovered comfort in the friar presence even when I’ve made mistakes. I’m not talking about my work when I use improper grammar, or fail to cite some scholar’s insight in a paper, or get a study rejected from an academic conference. Rather, I mean mistakes that really hurt others — for example,  when I’m not as kind as I should be, when I gossip, when I fall short. And I’m reminded when these things happen, thanks to the friars’ presence, the next go-around I’ll have the chance to do better.

Of course, I’ve also found comfort in this friars’ presence when I’ve done well, especially when given the opportunity to draw on the foundation the friars built for me in college. In these situations, I find comfort realizing something that seems affinitive with the Franciscan spirit: “It’s not all about me.” Or, as my dad — John Downes, St. Bonaventure class of ’35 — would say: “Just do your best and forget it.”

Additionally, this friars’ presence comes to life for me when I reflect on what so many friars at the university and beyond have always displayed — namely, an ever-present sincerity, a receptiveness to seeing “the good,” and hope when life throws its curveballs. With these characteristics in mind, the friars instilled in me a willingness for all of us to be “who you are.” And that is, treasured human beings, loved beyond measure by God, each with gifts to share with the world.

And finally: I will find comfort in the friar presence most mornings, just prior to meeting my 9:30 class, when I go into my office and put my key in the lock, look at the door,  and see a sign that reminds me: “The best things in life aren’t things.”

Gary Sheffer’s Reflection on Peace Learned at Siena
A few years ago, following the global financial crisis, I was asked to give a business lecture to students at my alma mater, Siena College. At the time, I was the head of communications for GE, a large multinational company.

It was a difficult time for me, my company and the world. The crisis led to a deep recession and high unemployment. For good reason, big business was viewed skeptically, particularly by young people. And here was a corporate “flack” – as PR people are sometimes called – coming to a Franciscan college to talk about the business world.

Boston University professor Gary Sheffer. (Photo courtesy of Gary Sheffer)

As I drove to Siena’s campus just outside Albany, New York, I was more nervous than usual before a speaking engagement.

When I arrived at Siena, my butterflies disappeared. The peace I felt in my time there as an undergraduate returned. It was an enveloping and comforting peace that I first felt many years ago when meeting the friars at Siena.

So instead of talking about stock prices, profit margins, and public policy, I titled my remarks, “St. Francis in the C-Suite.” On a slide, “My guide to success in business,” I showed a framed copy of the “Prayer of St. Francis” that had hung in my office. Its first line: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace” was the key to my “takeaway” – in business terms – for the students.

I described how this prayer, which I had learned from Siena’s friars, was in my mind whenever I had to make a tough decision at GE. For example, when I had to fire someone because of performance issues, I tried to treat the person as the friars had treated me in class, as a special and unique person worthy of respect.

When things got crazy at work, as they often did, I told the students the Franciscan meaning of the word “peace” would sometimes enter my mind. It provided practical inspiration on how I conducted myself, but more importantly a spirit that guided what I did.

My point for these future business leaders was – and is — that you are going to leave Siena with so much more than the skills and capabilities learned from books and professors. My hope was that they would bring the distinctive spirit of the place with them as well.

By cherishing and living that Franciscan spirit, I hoped they would succeed in bringing peace to their work and to the world. I hope every day, these days, that I do the same.

Eddie Downes,  a 1983 SBU graduate, and Gary Sheffer, Siena ’82, are teaching their classes remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, and looking forward to when they can return to campus to conduct their academic lives in the traditional way.

Editor’s note: Past issues of the HNP Today newsletter have included Franciscan Influences essays by other SBU and Siena alumni. Among them are Michael Fenn, Jackie Lanzillo, Dan Patton, and Jack Sise. To discuss contributing an essay, contact Jocelyn Thomas.