Renaissance Men

by Tom Henderson

Letter Detroit christened itself the Renaissance City in the late 1970s. Two decades later, under the spirited leadership of first-term mayor Dennis Archer, it can finally be argued that the city has begun to live up to its nickname. New football and baseball stadiums are under construction, a federally sponsored Renaissance Zone is luring new businesses, and there's a sense of optimism that hasn't been felt since the boom times of the '50s.

But while the city has been twenty years late living up to its name, there hasn't been a shortage of renaissance men and women, many of them to be found at the University of Detroit Mercy on the city's northwest side.

Come, meet three of them:

Fr. Gregory Chisholm, SJ

Just outside Lansing-Reilly Hall, UD Mercy's Jesuit residence, a summer storm has turned day into night, but the gloom outside is no challenge to the bright smile and passionate delivery of Fr. Gregory Chisholm, SJ, professor of mechanical engineering.

Tall and slender, Chisholm is talking in a deep, mellifluous voice -- a voice you'd expect to hear doing radio or TV commercials -- about a four-hour lab he's just conducted on something called "The Mechanics of Deformable Bodies."

"There's this one wonderful experiment," he says, pausing to laugh. It has to do with drawing lines on steel bars and loading them in a machine that puts them through 1,500 degrees of rotation before they snap. The lines, which start off straight, begin to twist, ending up like concentric turns of a screw as the metal contorts.

A visitor armed with a notebook jots down that Chisholm laughs as he begins his description. "Clearly passionate," the visitor writes and circles the notation about the laughter. Having noted the passion, the almost-glee that accompanies the anecdote, the visitor is then surprised when Chisholm tells him that he has written a letter of resignation, that this will be his final term as a full-time professor at the school where he has been teaching for four years.

Chisholm with Student

An aptitude for science and a desire to serve God characterize Fr. Gregory Chisholm, SJ, engineering professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

During that time he's been listed in the course catalog as the professor teaching such classes as "Noise and Vibration," "Vehicle Dynamics," and "Techniques in Solutions of Engineering Problems." It's not that he doesn't love teaching -- he clearly does -- but the time has come, he says, to answer an inner calling, an insistent voice that has been nagging him to begin tending to people's spiritual needs instead of their intellectual needs.

"I'd never say I'll never teach engineering again, but I can't envision myself being fully engaged in engineering. My heart is in serving people at the level of their faith."

But the world needs good engineers. He doesn't feel fulfilled turning them out?

"Exactly. I felt more at home at St. Gregory the Great than I did on campus," says Chisholm, referring to a black parish south of the university where he says mass regularly.

"I have a talent for engineering. I have a talent for math and science. But just because you have a talent, it's not necessarily something you want to do. I never felt so passionate about it that I could be creative in it. I want to do what I have a passion for."

And, at 46, what better time? "I don't feel I've made a precipitous decision here. My real interest is in helping particularly marginalized folks. I really do enjoy preaching. And teaching in the area of salvation, particularly with an African-American perspective. I love doing that. I get creative at it. I'm not similarly energized to be creative in engineering. I don't walk into a bookstore and pick up a book on vibration and sound. I pick up a book on African-American history. Or theology. Something that would be relevant to showing people what God's doing in the world."

The decision to leave UD Mercy had been percolating for nearly a year when Chisholm went to Los Angeles for five weeks this summer to help minister at St. Brigid's, the largest black parish in South Central L.A. It was there that Chisholm realized he was on an unalterable path to change his life. "I love the priesthood. This was the only thing I wanted to do as a boy. My father wanted me to be an engineer. I wanted to be a priest," says Chisholm.

His father, Charles, won. The family lived in Harlem and for several generations had attended the same Catholic church. "I was always moved by the men I met in the priesthood," says Chisholm. His father was a New York City cop, a strict man who made sure his son got good grades in math and science. Chisholm got a BS in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1973, an MS in acoustics in 1975, and a PhD in mechanical engineering 1989. (And, along the way, he became one of the few black kids out of Harlem to take up rowing; in fact, while working on his PhD, he coached the freshmen.)

After earning the master's, Chisholm worked for Bell Laboratories in Indiana. When his father, who was ill, took a turn the worse, Chisholm transferred to a Bell facility in New Jersey so he could move in with his parents and help out. In October, his father died. It was in October, too, that Chisholm decided to enter the priesthood. "I felt free to meet my own expectations and not have to live up to my father's," he says. And yet, it was such a momentous decision that he wrestled with it for several years.

He moved to Boston to take a job with the U.S. Department of Transportation, working on rail vehicle noise. In 1978 he enrolled in MIT's PhD program. In the middle of it, sure by then that his heart wasn't in engineering, he probably would have dropped out but for the urging of his Jesuit friends and mentors, who knew there would be a place for a PhD in the order. In August 1980, he began his formal association with the Jesuits.

What does the future hold? He has career opportunities in Detroit and Los Angeles. He loved his work in L.A., but the more the thinks about it the harder he finds leaving his strong core of friends in Detroit, where, renaissance or not, there certainly is need for a priest who wants to tend to the "particularly marginalized."

Fr. Terry Curry, SJ

In 1984, Terry Curry was working for an architectural firm in Manhattan and about to graduate from the Pratt Institute there. He was a kid who would go places, people agreed, a real talent, a bright future. He could write his own ticket.

Except . . . except for volunteer work he did while at Pratt with Nativity Mission School, a Jesuit middle school on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

"I got to be friends with the kids and I'd hang out with them after school, and I saw the crap they had to live in, the garbage-heap buildings they build for the poor," says Curry, now 36. "At the time, I was working with a firm doing these $1 million disposable houses and I thought: ‘I have these gifts, this ability to design. Do I sell it to the highest bidder, or do I do it where it's most needed?'"

A plaque that hung on a wall at his grandmother's house, with a message he's never forgotten, summed up his decision: "Who you are is God's gift to you. Who you become is your gift to God."

Or, in Curry's words: "I needed to become who I was called to be to become a whole person. I began to think how I could use my architecture gifts in the context of being a priest."

Terry Curry with student

Fr. Terry Curry, SJ, (right) head of University of Detroit Mercy's Collaborative Design Center, has had a hand in award-winning community development in Detroit's inner city.

Curry moved into Nativity and applied to the Society. He remembers his first interview. He was asked what he would do if he joined and later was told the Jesuits had no interest in his architecture skills. What if they needed someone to teach math?

"I was crushed," recalls Curry. "I said flat out: ‘That'd be dumb.'"

They must have appreciated his candor. He was accepted.

As a novice, he oversaw what would be the first of many construction projects, an outdoor study center at a Nativity camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. "No one would give us money to build a gazebo. An ‘outdoor study center' sounded better," jokes Curry.

Curry is sitting at a design table in a studio in UD Mercy's architecture building. He heads the school's Collaborative Design Center, which grew out of an internship Curry did from '89 to '91 with Schervish Vogel Merz, a pioneering inner-city design firm in Detroit, while doing his regency at UD Mercy. Curry had a degree but needed three years' internship to get his architect's license. Steve Vogel later became the dean of the architecture school and persuaded Curry, then studying at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., and teaching architecture at UC Berkeley, to return to UD Mercy to start and head up the Design Center. (He also teaches one design course a semester and has been a guest lecturer at the University of Michigan and the University of Lagos. He's designed posters, T-shirts, yearbook covers, and logos, has published several articles, and is an accomplished cabinetmaker and painter.)

Curry, ordained in June 1994, returned to Detroit that September. Along the way, knowing that wherever he ended up he'd want to work with inner-city poor, Curry acquired a master's in African-American studies from Xavier University in New Orleans.

UD Mercy's Collaborative Design Center is modeled after Pratt Institute's Center for Community and Environmental Development. The center promotes collaboration between nonprofit community development organizations, local government, and private developers, and is able to bring to bear on its projects such university resources as state-of-the-art silicon graphic computers and talented and eager students.

In its first three years, the Design Center, working with many community development organizations, completed a dozen projects involving 60 students and 25 professionals and won five design awards in the process. Curry serves as executive director, while David Garnett, whom Curry met at Berkeley, is project manager. Though not a Jesuit, Garnett got caught up in the passion of Curry's mission and moved to Detroit, enrolling in an MBA program while helping get the center up and running.

Current projects include a new St. Vincent DePaul community outreach center to replace one that burned last year. The 50,000-square-feet, $4.5 million project includes a thrift store, day-care center, and administrative offices, all in one building on a challenging triangle of land on Gratiot Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares that radiate like spokes of a wheel from Detroit's downtown.

Also on the drawing boards are a charter school on the city's west side, an outdoor study center for the Detroit Community High School at St. Suzanne's Parish, and a five-building, ten-unit housing complex in the city's Mexican community on the southwest side.

Looks as if the Jesuits were able to use Curry's architectural gifts, after all.

Fr. John Staudenmaier, SJ

An assignment to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1964 profoundly changed forever the way Fr. John Staudenmaier, SJ, looked at the world. When he came off the reservation three years later, he found himself in a deep depression, questioning his faith, sick of his culture, and in utter despair.

He remembers being on retreat in 1967 in Florissant, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis that was undergoing a drastic growth spurt; the nearby McDonnell Douglas airplane factory was ramping up to meet production needs for the Vietnam War. Sitting in his retreat room, he watched cornfields next door being literally plowed under for tract homes that were going up nearly overnight.

The retreat was for eight days, but the way he was staring at the disappearing cornfields was the same empty way he'd been staring for four months, caught in a classic depression back in the days when likely as not you didn't seek help for it, didn't get it diagnosed, didn't talk about it with co-workers or superiors.

"I was trying to say a prayer, the Call of Christ the King," recalls Staudenmaier, sitting in his neat, small room in Lansing-Reilly, two brightly colored blankets on his twin bed reminders of his days on the reservation.

"I had this image of a beast eating up the cornfields in slow motion. And I had a moment of intuition." It was an epiphany. "I said to Jesus: ‘I can't say this prayer. Because you have hope for this and I don't.' And in that moment, Jesus said: ‘You're right. I do. Are you coming?' And I sat on that bench and said ‘Huh?'."

It was no immediate cure for his depression, however. He would battle it for four more months. But the message was clear: So things aren't pat and neat. So what? There was hope. There is hope. What do you do about it? It boiled down to a theological essence, he decided: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What it meant for Staudenmaier was to fashion a career out of the lessons about technology and culture that were so vivid on the reservation, a career that has led to guest appearances on BBC and The Discovery Channel, a four-part series called "Age of Wonders" on the Disney Channel, appearances on "The American Experience" for PBS, a professorship at UD Mercy, and the position of editor of the Society for the History of Culture's quarterly, Technology & Culture.

Staudenmaier in class

Fr. John Staudenmaier, SJ, editor of the journal Technology & Culture and professor at University of Detroit Mercy, stakes an academic claim right at the point where culture and technology overlap.

But that's getting ahead of the story. First, we must return to Pine Ridge, where Staudenmaier -- a product of the middle-class dairy country in Wisconsin, where you were considered culturally diverse if you raised a different breed of cows than your neighbors -- arrived by happenstance. He'd been scheduled to teach at a high school in Milwaukee, but at the last minute a Jesuit assigned to Pine Ridge got sent elsewhere, and Staudenmaier was chosen to replace him.

"I had no intention to go there. And it has always been my model of the intervention of God in the most salutary way," says Staudenmaier. "It was a momentous thing. I didn't understand its implications at the time, but I realized how deep and intractable society-inflicted violence is. And that was a huge shock. I had no idea people's lives could be so hard. I came out of it enormously different than I had gone in."

When he came off the reservation in 1967 -- he returns there every year to renew friendships -- there was a sea change in American culture going on. The Vietnam War was full-blown, and so was campus rebellion. Everyone was questioning long-standing assumptions. On a personal level, "I'm turning 30, I'm not good at anything, I haven't achieved anything, my life is pointless," he recalls thinking in those days. "Part of it was I had been delaying the question of whether I believed in God or not. Part of it was looking at my own culture and not liking it at all. The dog-eat-dog, get-ahead capitalism. I was wandering around with no light behind my eyeballs."

What grew out of the depression and that talk with Jesus on the bench overlooking the disappearing cornfields was what Staudenmaier describes as "foundational theological belief." There were no pat answers, no ordained neatness. "To imagine you know God or Jesus is by definition blasphemous. That would be the human containing the divine."

It struck him that this culture was not "the" way, but "a" way, that there was nothing predestined about its getting to the top of the heap. "The idea that this was all inevitable is one of the most violent ideas of the last couple of hundred years. That we are the inheritors of the one best way . . . Once you go from ‘the' to ‘a,' all bets are off. Since then, I have grown very fond of the Roman Catholic Church. I love the mysteries of the Catholic tradition. We are always being called back to mystery by those figures who show up -- St. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard. And I'm very at home representing this tradition, though the church can act every bit as badly today as it has in its history. That's the human condition."

A member of the history department, Staudenmaier, who got a PhD in American Civilization in 1980 from the University of Pennsylvania, had the honor of being named UD Mercy's engineering teacher of the year in April 1995 for "Politics and Ethics of Engineering," a popular course he teaches in the engineering department.

Staudenmaier has reduced his teaching load since taking over as editor of Technology & Culture. He has taught graduate seminars on advertising in America, the City of Detroit, individualism and community in American society, and interpretations of capitalism, and would like to resume them when his time as editor is over.

He has been a fellow at MIT and a Bannon Scholar at Santa Clara University, has published numerous articles, and is engaged in two book projects, one based on his course on ethics and engineering and the other on Henry Ford, entitled Henry Ford as Parable: How Good R&D Goes Bad.

The planned obsolescence that characterized the auto industry until recent years can now be seen, according to Staudenmaier, in full bloom in the computer industry, as anyone who bought a top-of-the-line computer two years ago who wants to run today's software can attest. But in the years since his months of despair, Staudenmaier has softened his view of American culture. "There's nothing despicable about later 20th-century capitalism in America. There's nothing divine about it, either." Humor enters into Staudenmaier's equation as well; a cartoon in his office depicts a guy driving past a man at a pay phone. The caption reads: "I cursed God because I had no on-board fax until I saw a man with no cell phone."

With that, the interview is at a close. He has a trip to prepare for and is leaving the next day for a midweek conference in Gettysburg, followed by a roundtable discussion over the weekend in the Berkshires. While the culture -- his culture -- turns out computers designed to be old and slow in a year, maybe six months, it also turns out pretty good motorcycles. And the Yamaha 650 he will ride east is a beaut.

Author Henderson

Before resuming a free-lance career in May, Tom Henderson had been senior editor of Corporate Detroit Magazine for six years. In June, a cover story he wrote on the Detroit newspaper strike won first place in the annual writing contest sponsored by the Detroit Press Club Foundation.

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