A life in love with verse - the passion for poetry of Tom Quinlan of Gluckman House
“You can live a long, happy life without reading a poem or listening to Beethoven, but your life is diminished”
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.
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