“Hi, Jerry, it’s Scott.”
“Scott! Great to hear from you. How is everything?”
That’s how most of our phone conversations began. I was one of the people in Jerry Russello’s life who knew him as Jerry, the guy from Regis High School in Manhattan—not Gerald, the well-respected securities lawyer, the editor of the University Bookman, the writer whose prose graced many and various publications.
I must have been fifteen when I met Jerry. Along with some Regis classmates, I had started a Catholic reading group under the tutelage of the great John L. Connelly, a legendary teacher who formed the lives of countless Regians, from Fr. Robert Imbelli (his classmate there) to novelist Phil Klay. With the kind of braggadocio not uncommon among Regis students, we fancied ourselves Catholic intellectuals, and asked Mr. Connelly if there were any heirs today to the authors we were reading. Who was engaged in writing about and therefore preserving a compelling vision of the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic culture? Mr. Connelly told us that we’d get to meet such a person the following week at our regular meeting time—8:00 am on Wednesdays, an hour before classes began—when we gathered to discuss Evelyn Waugh and Etienne Gilson and John Paul II and all the rest.
Twenty-seven years later I still have a vivid memory of Jerry walking through Mr. Connelly’s classroom door in his suit, holding his briefcase, thanking Mr. Connelly for inviting him, and assuring him that he was in no rush—the judge he was clerking for knew he’d be coming in closer to 9:30 than 9:00. (With all he did, was Jerry ever in a rush? Did he ever not have time for you?) I confess that I don’t remember much more about that day, but I know that we asked Jerry how he got started as a writer. His advice was simple: writing and exploring ideas should be exciting. Send something to a magazine and see what happens. You’ll probably get rejected, but you’ll also probably learn something. Do this again and again, reading as much as you can along the way, until you get published.
That first encounter with Jerry made a lasting impression on me. We all need role models, and that day I found one of mine. But if Jerry had just been someone who dispensed good advice, I don’t think there would have been such an outpouring of grief and so many beautiful tributes after his death. Jerry’s life was much more attractive than that.
On the façade of Regis High School there is an inscription that reads Deo et Patriae Pietas Christiana Erexit: Christian piety built this for God and country. During both of our times at Regis, Jerry and I heard a great deal about our charge to become “men for others,” a goal that Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, set out for all graduates of Jesuit schools. Jerry took those words to heart. He truly lived a life of service to others, in service to God and to his country.
Jerry’s greatest gift to me, though, was the way he embodied pietas Christiana—Christian piety. “Piety,” unfortunately, often calls to mind images of “simple” believers or uncritical religious naiveté. But piety is really an approach to life, a virtue that practices being grateful. It reminds us that we ought to be thankful to God for our country, for our family, for our friends—even for our high school. That gratitude, in turn, shapes our encounters with those around us. True piety doesn’t have time for grudges; instead, like the agape for which it is most grateful, true piety “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). True piety never draws attention to itself, and Jerry certainly never drew attention to himself. Those who knew where to look, however, could see the piety with which he approached education, ideas, family, and God.
Jerry would be quick to tell you that piety was a Roman virtue as much as a Christian one. He learned about piety from the Aeneid and from the Bible. And he was always learning. A few years ago, six or so of us got together for dinner with Mr. Connelly, as we did about once a year. One friend had just completed a doctorate on Spinoza, another had completed a residency in psychiatry, a third was working in consulting. As we went around the table updating each other about our lives, Jerry, typically, asked the most questions. He had a knack for being genuinely curious and genuinely affirming. He was proud of all of us, in the way an older brother looks with pride on his younger brothers’ accomplishments.