Saturday, 01 September 2012 14:12

A Happy Accident

Written by  Vaughn Kohler
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You might say that Father Bertrand LaNoue’s storied career as a professor of economics began with a car accident and some spoiled food.

On a hot day in 1957, a truck from a catering company in St. Joseph, Missouri was en route to Atchison when it turned off of Highway 59.  It hit a rough patch of road, swerved abruptly, and the food in the back of the truck spilled onto the ground. 

The food was meant to be lunch for a group of nuns who were in town visiting St. Benedict’s Abbey.  They were there to participate in the first of three celebrations commemorating the completion of the new Abbey Church.  But the food never got to the Abbey—and the nuns went hungry.

In order to ensure that nothing went wrong for the second and third celebrations, Abbot Cuthbert McDonald enlisted Father Bertrand’s help.  In addition to teaching math and physics to the students at St. Benedict’s College and Maur Hill Prep School, the thirty-year-old Father Bertrand also oversaw dining services.  So, in Abbot Cuthbert’s eyes, that made Father Bertrand the ideal candidate for the job.

He was right:  under Father Bertrand’s supervision, more than 1,000 people ate at the second and third celebrations—and there were no problems.  Everything went smoothly.
The Abbot was so pleased that he told Father Bertrand he would grant him any request.

“I told him I wanted to go to graduate school,” said Father Bertrand.  “I told him I wanted to get my Ph.D.”     

Abbot Cuthbert granted Father Bertand’s request and shortly thereafter he traveled to Philadelphia to complete his MA and MBA in Economics at Wharton Graduate School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania. From there he went on to finish his Ph.D. at Saint Louis University in 1968.  Until 1997, when he was reassigned to serve St. Joseph’s Parish in Atchison, Father Bertrand pursued a long and distinguished career as a much-loved and respected professor of economics at St. Benedict’s College and Benedictine College.

“When I was very young, I told people I wanted to be a teacher,” said Father Bertrand.  “But mostly, I was afraid to tell them I wanted to be a monk.  I was worried they’d call me a ‘Holier Than Thou.’” 

Still, Father Bertrand wanted to be both.  In pursuing his vocation to the religious life, he joined the monks at St. Benedict’s Abbey.  And, since teaching (at Maur-Hill and Benedictine College) was—and is—one of the monk’s main apostolates, it was the perfect fit.  Father Bertrand could be a priest and a professor.

“In some ways, my plans to become a priest went smoother than my plans to become a professor,” said Father Bertrand.  “During my graduate studies, I ran into some challenges.”

The first of those challenges was serving a parish in Philadelphia that was not very sympathetic to Father Betrand’s responsibilities as a graduate student.  In addition to the hours he spent studying for his classes, Father Bertrand was asked to celebrate Mass and perform numerous pastoral duties—including hearing confessions at a church that was less than four blocks from a busy train station.

“There was always a steady stream of people from the train station wanting to confess,” said Father Bertrand.  “When people had really serious problems, I would encourage them to come see the priest.  And then I remembered:  I’m the priest!  My workload was very overwhelming at times.”

If that wasn’t challenging enough, Father Bertrand’s health also suffered during his graduate studies.  A doctor prescribed a special pain killer and this led to Father Bertrand, in his words, “acting bizarrely” in front of his professors.

“I was participating in an oral examination,” he said.  “And my professors noticed that something wasn’t right:  I was acting very casual.  I put my feet up on the chair.  I was distracted and couldn’t answer otherwise easy questions.”

Thankfully, one of Father Bertrand’s professors ran into the young priest’s doctor—and they put two-and-two together.

“The doctor told my professor that he had given me a prescription for a pain-killing medicine,”  Father Bertrand said.  “It was called Darvocet.  I had taken too much of it.  And I had what was called a ‘Darvocet hangover.’”

“It made me look like I was drunk,” he said with a chuckle.  “But my professors understood and I didn’t get in trouble.  That was a good thing.”

It was definitely a good thing.  Since Father Bertrand’s academic career wasn’t derailed by a Darvocet hangover, the students at St. Benedict’s College and Benedictine College were blessed by his classes and his life.  The students loved and respected him, and he enjoyed his career immensely.

“Not all of my students were extremely bright,” Father Bertrand said.  “But I always tried to provoke serious thought in all of them.  And I told them that I believed in them.  I thought they had what it took to respond to the challenges of life with reason and competence.”

Father Bertrand said that many of his former students had contacted him later in their lives and thanked him for pointing them in the right direction.

“One of the things I often told my students is that we don’t have all the answers,” Father Bertrand said.  “But that’s okay because we do know the right questions to ask.”

According to Father Bertrand, knowing the right questions to ask in life is invaluable.

“If you know the questions to ask in life, you might not get all the answers you hope for, but it at least gives you a frame of reference,” he said.  “It gives some direction to your life and efforts.”

Father Bertrand shared an analogy from his field of economics.

“The derivation of the demand curve seems very simple, but it is actually very elusive,” he said.  “It is good to know that—and to know what things you can accomplish economically in those conditions.  That’s better than not knowing anything about it at all.”

“In many areas of life, the first step is knowing what you are looking for,” he said.  “You might not get a complete answer.  But asking the right questions should provide a good start to finding your way in life.”

Through his calling as a professor and priest, Father Bertrand LeNoue has helped more than a few people ask the right questions, seek better answers, and find their way in life. 
So, when that truck swerved on Highway 59, the food was lost, and the nuns went hungry?  That was a very good thing for countless students over the years—and for anyone ever blessed by the life and teaching of Father Bertrand.

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