Buzzing J. Edgar Hoover

“This priest lent wisdom to others” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 27, 2005).

My uncle buzzed J. Edgar Hoover.

Growing up in Washington in the 1940s, as a young schoolboy he found himself on a school trip to FBI headquarters. During the tour, all the students were given the opportunity to meet Mr. Hoover and shake his hand. A smirk well hidden, that young boy walked up to Mr. Hoover, and with hand-buzzer well hidden, extended his hand. Bzzzz!

I am certain there is still an FBI file on Uncle Shawn from the incident. File or not, though, the story is just one lesson learned from my uncle through many years of friendship. The lesson is one of priorities: There are more important matters in life than the things we so often choose to worry about.

Uncle Shawn, known outside the family as T. Shawn Tracy, O.S.A., is a testament to someone who has given his life to the important things in life. An Augustinian priest, Father Shawn was ordained 39 years ago last week, and his impact on me, my family, and the thousands of people he has shared his journey with is immeasurable.

Father Shawn and I share a love for music. He is a musician and songwriter, and I remember vividly sitting together on the piano bench as he taught me “Heart and Soul” and “Walk, Don’t Run.” As years and lessons went by, he admired that I could read music. I admired that he could not. Free of the confines of a scripted manuscript, he played by ear. By letting go and trusting his ear to truly listen, he was able to bring his heart to the music, and have a lot more fun, too.

We’ve seen many concerts together over the years – from Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger, Paul Winter to Kim and Reggie Harris. More than enjoying the music, these concerts gave us time to reflect on what in life is important – and what isn’t. The very act of reflecting, he taught me, is itself one of those important things.

As Father Shawn taught me again and again, it is only when we remove our own ego from the equation that we truly get to the heart of life. Take Villanova University basketball games as an example. Every so often, Father Shawn  would land a few extra tickets to Wildcat games at the last minute, and he’d invite as many brothers of mine as he had tickets.

The catch? These last-minute tickets came from colleagues and friends who couldn’t make the game. Thus, entering the Palestra or the Spectrum, we’d be faced with individual seats that were scattered throughout the stadium. Instead of disbursing his nephews throughout the concourse to enjoy the game alone, he’d find a group of unoccupied seats, and there we’d sit. To him it was simple: No one is using these seats, why not us?

Five minutes into the game, however, the rightful owners of the seats would arrive, sending us off looking for another group of unoccupied seats. Sometimes we’d go the entire game jumping from section to section. This never bothered my uncle. He just led the way and we followed. I was embarrassed as a young child getting kicked out of section after section, and it is precisely because I was embarrassed that this is perhaps the greatest lesson Father Shawn taught me.

Never be embarrassed, for there are greater things in life, and to worry about what others think of you is a waste of time. Father Shawn always left his ego at the door, and in doing so he opened his heart to others by truly being himself.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of this is his devoted ministry to the handicapped. While most of us spend our entire lives avoiding people and situations foreign to us, Father Shawn has embraced these “differences.” He is able to do so, however, because he doesn’t see “differences.” Life is too short to worry about differences. When we are on a shared spiritual journey, no matter what faith or denomination we might have, the ego disappears, hearts connect, and life happens.

With the abuse scandal continually in the pages of this paper, I can’t imagine it’s easy for a priest to get up in the morning, proud to put on his collar or habit. It is for this reason, then, that I find it necessary to remember the good so many priests have brought to my life – so that they, too, may remember.

One of them happens to be my uncle. And thanks to Father Shawn, I remember the truly important lessons in life: Dance to the music of your heart, be kind to others, and, above all, don’t take yourself (or J. Edgar Hoover) too seriously.

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