Tom Quinlan calls her "one of the great wonders of the Western world."
Her name was Sister Marie St. Joseph, and she was a nun who taught fourth grade at St. Bartholomew's School in Wissinoming. Every Friday afternoon, she would pull out a little green book.
"She would read great poetry, Longfellow and Kipling, people of that nature, and she did it with such depth and such feeling," Quinlan recalls. Every once in a while, when she was called to the office, she would ask a student to take her place. On more than one occasion, Quinlan was selected to read the poems, a privilege that thrilled him and made an indelible impression. The seed of a lifelong love was planted.
Quinlan, who grew up in Frankford, attended Northeast Catholic High School. He remembers as a freshman reading Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and thoroughly enjoying them and other poets. Other students were dubious about his enthusiasm and questioned whether it was sincere. It was indeed, as though bred in his bones, transmitted in his blood.
During World War II, Quinlan served in the Army Air Corps for three years. He carried with him a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which he occasionally read to his fellow airmen on Okinawa and other sites in the Pacific.
After the war, he returned to Philadelphia and earned a degree in English at La Salle College. He then began teaching in Philadelphia public schools, spending 35 years of his 40-year career at Lincoln High School in Mayfair, where he taught English and was drama director. (One of his students: Sylvester Stallone, a troubled youth who, as a sophomore, flunked English. Nevertheless, Stallone later gave Quinlan a small part in Rocky III.)
Following the example of Sister Marie St. Joseph, Quinlan did not stint in exposing his students to the mysteries and pleasures of poetry.
"The kids I taught probably had more poetry than they should have," Quinlan says - Milton, Keats, Shelley, Whitman, Browning, Frost, Shakespeare's sonnets. "Because poetry doesn't come easily, you have to develop a taste for it. Poetry takes a little bit of energy and time."
Quinlan is now 87. He and his wife, Virginia, live in Levittown, in a home they purchased shortly after the houses were built 60 years ago. He is still teaching, at Delaware Valley College's Center for Learning in Retirement, where he has shared his passion for poetry since 1991.
Now that passion has been memorialized through the generosity of his family, specifically his son Joe, a former journalist and PBS producer. In 2011, at a ceremony attended by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, the Tom Quinlan Lecture was endowed and established at the Glucksman Ireland House at New York University in conjunction with the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University in Belfast.
The Queen's center awards a prize for the best first book of poetry, and through the Quinlan lectureship, the recipient is invited to New York to speak and read. In October, the inaugural lecture was delivered by the poet Katharine Towers, winner of the 2011 Seamus Heaney Prize for her collection The Floating Man.
Joe Quinlan is thrilled that among all the scholars and poetic luminaries celebrated at the Ireland House, there is now enshrined the name Tom Quinlan, a dedicated high school teacher. Tom Quinlan taught at nights and on weekends and during the summer, and worked a second job as a real estate agent to send his sons through college. Dinnertime conversation was unusual.
"In other families, kids grew up talking about politics and sports," Joe Quinlan recalls. "My father would be talking about poets and poetry and Walden. He read Walden every summer for 40 years and went on a pilgrimage there with one of his grandsons."
While Joe Quinlan devoured Sports Illustrated and Time, his father was a devotee of the New Yorker, which he read religiously for the poems. When Joe took his dad to Phillies games, Tom would bring along a folded copy of the New Yorker. When the action on the field flagged, he would reread a poem that fascinated or baffled him.
"His big thing is to read a poem and think about it a little bit, then think about it a little bit more," Joe says. "He's been this way throughout his life."
After Quinlan retired from teaching at Lincoln High School, he began taking poetry courses at Bucks County Community College. His fondness for Irish poetry inspired him to visit his ancestral homeland at age 70.
In Sligo, in northwest Ireland, he enrolled in the William Butler Yeats Poetry Festival, an intense immersion in Irish poetry that occurs over two weeks in the summer. At night there were numerous readings, and Quinlan became familiar with a wide range of Irish poets, such as Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and especially William Butler Yeats. "To me, he's a giant," Quinlan says. "He's like Walt Whitman or Robert Frost is here."
Quinlan so enjoyed the experience that he returned 10 times, deepening his knowledge and passion for Irish poetry with each visit. He grew to appreciate what Yeats, in his poem "Coole Park," meant by "The intellectual sweetness of those lines / That cut through time or cross it withershins."
In the course he teaches at Delaware Valley College, Quinlan does not confine himself to Irish poetry. Judging from some recent class handouts, the poets and poems range from the classic to the modern and include the likes of Robert Browning, John Milton, John Keats, W.H. Auden, Lord Byron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carol Ann Duffy, Denise Levertov, Billy Collins, Miroslav Holub, Philip Levine, Tony Hoagland, Robert Pinsky, Amy Lowell, and Theodore Roethke.
"He really lives for and cares about poetry," Joe Quinlan says of his father. "I know people who love poetry and write it all the time. He is rare in that he doesn't write poetry; he just loves to read it."
Anne Brown, 89, of Lahaska, has been attending Quinlan's poetry class for five years.
"He can recite poetry, and he puts us all to shame with his general knowledge of poetry, which is very impressive," Brown says. "His passion for poetry comes through, and his classes are always interesting. He gives us an overview of everything, including some of the modern poets.
"The main thing is that he's such a gifted teacher. You don't meet many in your lifetime, and it's been a great pleasure to be in his class. He uses kindness and tact. I've never heard him insult or embarrass anyone. He makes everyone feel a lot smarter than they really are. We have a very diverse group that has come back year after year after year. We all like poetry or we wouldn't be in the class, but I think he fosters a love of poetry by just the way he teaches."
In summer 1998, Quinlan went to China to teach conversational English at a university in Xi'an. He was struck by how popular poetry is there and in particular the interest in classic Chinese poetry from the fifth and sixth centuries. The appeal of poetry, he believes, is universal.
"There's something way down deep in human beings, something intrinsic inside us, that needs these stories," he says. "We read poetry or any kind of great literature, or listen to great music, because it's the nature of human beings to hunger for this kind of spiritual satisfaction.
"You can live a long, happy life without reading a poem or listening to Beethoven, but your life is diminished. Such works are a door to a higher level of response to the world. What makes us different from cockroaches or elephants is that we have the capacity to create and feel things with some degree of depth that the rest of the animal world doesn't have. People who go through this process find great satisfaction and great understanding of what it is to be a human being, and poetry contributes to that kind of thought."
A facility with words and a fondness for poetry seem to be woven into the DNA of the Irish, something Quinlan doesn't deny.
"Actually, there's nothing really different about Irish poetry from other poetry of the Western world," he says, "but Ireland for some reason or other has an affinity for poetry and folk music. It's more widespread there, and the magazines and books are full of it. It's more a part of normal Irish living, and poets are revered there. When Seamus Heaney makes a comment about something, you see it in the newspaper."
Many theories have been advanced for why the Irish are so smitten and skillful with poetry. Quinlan's take is pragmatic.
"The Irish have traditionally had a hard life. They didn't have any money, so they had to come up with something that doesn't cost anything. To write a poem, all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper."