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Sherman Says: Thank your favorite teacher when you’re handed your diploma

Thousands of young men and women from Western New York will receive high school diplomas this week, concluding years of hard work. Many of their memories of this time will last forever.

Years later, they might be in a store when the cashier announces that the total sale is “2.18,” and recall that it was the number of their homeroom during senior year. They might have grown out of wearing their beloved school jacket anymore, but rest assured that they will follow the results of their alma mater’s sports teams, just the same.

Many of their classmates will fade into obscurity, never to be heard from again, while others will remain friends forever.

It’s important to remember your high school teachers and administrators, too. It may be in vogue to dismiss the impact they had on your life, but as you grow older, you will see their stitch marks on your soul.

For me, that person was the Rev. Bud Cullen at my alma mater, the Aquinas Institute of Rochester. His real first name was John, but no one ever called him that. He was my art teacher for each of my four years at AQ, and our friendship endured right up until his death in 2008.

A tribute to him that I wrote a decade ago was etched into a plaque, which hangs on a wall near the auditorium. I hope I captured a small portion of how he impacted my education. Here are some passages:

“The Performing Arts Club was perhaps the only extracurricular activity at Aquinas that was co-ed before young women were able to enroll as students. [The Rev.] Cullen brought female students from area Catholic schools equally into the fold. He ran all aspects of the annual musicals personally, incredibly adept at blending all of the complex elements and teenage talents together.

“In the art room, there was no ‘cookie-cutter’ curriculum. Rather than simply break open a commercial set of colors, we actually made our own paint, then learned how to put it to canvas. We used the Speedball pen and ink method to execute ornate lettering styles by hand, the fonts now just a click away inside millions of computers. More than just creative skills, these were lessons in patience and self-esteem.

“No mention of [The Rev.] Cullen would be complete without including his love for hockey. His past association with Saint Michael’s College School in Toronto proved infectious. He loved the ‘Original Six’ and ranked his beloved Maple Leafs far above all other clubs. It was difficult not to feel the same way. He was proud of his home and native land, and proud to be a priest.”

The Rev. Cullen and I even attended a Leaf’s game together, complete with a personal tour of every nook and cranny of the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens.

When I visited him while he was still teaching at Saint Mike’s, I found it humorous that the school’s art studio was inside the ice rink. What better place for this talented priest to practice his craft than while being surrounded by the sport he loved?

My son and I stopped to see him at his retirement residence in 2004. He had progressed to a laptop computer, but surrounded himself with colorful oil paintings from his younger days. His sense of humor was still strong, relating personal memories of the likes of Don Cherry and Tim Horton. He was a man at peace.

I could have bypassed my love of art and taken chemistry and physics like almost everyone else, but I would have missed a major portion of my real education. To paraphrase what I wrote in my yearbook that year, “He taught art students about black lines, red lines and blue lines. In other words, he taught us about hockey.”

I hope every high school senior receiving a diploma this week had someone like The Rev. Cullen in their lives.

More than teacher and student, we were friends for 35 years.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at
dsherman@beenews.com.
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