On December 14, 2017, members of his family and graduates of the Class of 1965 gathered in the chapel for a memorial Mass in honor of Stephen W. Pickett ’65. Stephen was the first of three Regians killed in action in the Vietnam War. An article on these three men appears later in this issue. Father Lane preached the December 14 sermon from which this column is drawn.
Recently we celebrated a Mass for the 50th anniversary of the death of Stephen Picket ’65. He was the first Regis alum to die in battle in the Vietnam War. Stephen died after volunteering to be what his fellow soldiers called a “tunnel rat”: someone who went down into the labyrinth of tunnels the Viet Cong used as part of their guerilla defensive.
Stephen was awarded a Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster for his bravery.
Reflecting on the wording of this award and the extravagant gift of his young life my attention was drawn to decorations in the Regis chapel where we celebrated his memorial mass.
In the corner of the arches on the side walls of the chapel are bronze decorations of oak leaf clusters on one side and laurel leaves on the other.
I wonder if young Stephen knew as he attended Mass in the Regis chapel as a student that those oak leaf clusters were there and what they stood for.
They are decorations I had looked at for a long time as I had been preparing to teach a third trimester senior elective called “The Architecture of Faith”. In designing the course, I wanted to start at home base: in the Regis chapel. I wanted to see how the faith of the Foundress and the original Architect expressed itself in the design decisions. And how the resulting structure might influence the practice and expression of faith. It led me to explore more closely details like these leafy decorations—decorations it would otherwise be easy to overlook.
I postulated that the laurel leaves were there because they symbolize the laurels of victory. The same route word is evident in the word “baccalaureate”. The oak leaf is less obvious. What I discovered was that in European culture the oak tree was seen to be the largest and strongest tree in the forest. It was, in other words, as Stephen’s posthumous award acknowledged, a symbol of bravery.
My sense is the donors and designers placed these symbols in the chapel deliberately. They knew life is full of battles large and small, and every student who has the honor of a gift of a Regis education needs, directly or indirectly, to be formed in that noble tradition of generosity—even at times heroic generosity.
The Foundress and Fr. Hearn could not have conceived that someday boys who went through Regis would become men who gave their lives as tunnel rats in Vietnam. They could not have foreseen all the countless other acts of bravery Regis alumni would be called upon to enact. But it was surely part of their hope that the initiative of their gift would form young men in that great Ignatian tradition of being Men for Others. Young men who would seek the laurels of a generous and giving life. Young men like Stephen who would, when the choice came, boldly give of themselves.
The fact is Regis has the care of young men for barely four years. Four years is a brief chapter in any person’s life. But four years at Regis has proven again and again to be deeply formative. So much of what we do here at Regis is pointing beyond the limits of this time and space. This column is named “the Fourth Day” in honor of the concept that towards the end of our Quest and other retreats we stretch our hearts and minds to what comes next. The three days of retreat are fuel for living life with commitment, compassion, and courage.
Every student who calls Regis home for four years cannot help but be challenged to live with generosity and bravery. They might not avert their attention to the decorations in the chapel but they are exposed to questions about what laurels are worthwhile and what strengths ought to be cultivated.
Hopefully most will not be placed in the situation Stephen Pickett faced on December 14 1967, standing in combat fatigues above a tunnel in South East Asia, but, please God, each of us when our turn surely comes will act with similar spontaneous and courageous generosity. Such bravery was the genius of the initial gift, and it is the nobility of every subsequent one, be they big or small, known or unknown, in the theater of war or in the battles of everyday life.