The Laymen Who Changed St. Benedict’s Prep

Mahishan Gnanaseharan

On the morning of his father’s funeral, Michael Waldron ‘67 fought to hold back his pungent tears. As the dim light streamed through the stained glass windows of the Our Lady of the Valley Church in Orange, NJ, he felt more alone than ever.

 Suddenly, shuffled movement in the back of the room caught his attention. He turned towards the noise and watched as the entire student body of St. Benedict’s Prep quietly filed in. The room filled with expressions of awe and gratitude. A sea of well-dressed boys—many of whom he had taught—had come to share his burden. Mr. Waldron was at a loss of words.

“This was a school like no other,” Mr. Waldron said. “My time there was remarkable.”

Mr. Waldron began his career at St. Benedict’s Prep as a student in 1963. After graduating, he returned to the school as a member of its monastic community. He left the monastery in 1972, six months before the school closed. However, his most memorable experience was his tenure as one of four lay-teachers after its reopening. From September 1973 to June 1976, Mr. Waldron taught physics while running a widely acclaimed drama program.

He approached this role with a vigor that he drew from the momentum of the school’s resurrection. Newark Abbey, the monastery which supports St. Benedict’s operations, had undergone tumultuous schisms after closing in 1972. Those ghosts haunted the school as it reopened its doors in 1973. For Mr. Waldron though, the opportunity to teach at his alma mater revealed more about its tenacity than its decline.

“Having spent time in the monastery myself just before the school closed,  I had seen [the monks] wrestle first hand with their own Jacob’s angel who would not be let go till he blessed them,” he said. “They had struggled through the proverbial night and now, as the school was reopening, were greeting the dawn with the blessing in hand.”

Mr. Waldron’s proudest contributions during his three-year teaching tenure occurred during his tutelage of the drama program. He led several students through the productions of  The Overcoat, The Doctor In Spite of Himself and an opera featuring music composed by a student, Jeff Izzo ’75. In addition, Mr. Waldron led the annual Christmas Program, a tradition that continues till now, and launched the Spring Phase Touring Children’s Theatre.  “The students were enormously creative,” he said. “Sometimes I believed they understood more about St. Benedict’s than we did ourselves.”

Mr. Waldron considered himself a “half-breed” after spending time in both the monastery and the school’s classrooms. “[This was] the maiden voyage with young adventurers and seasoned crew. Not enough can be said of Abbot Melvin, Father Edwin, and all the monks of Newark Abbey who, with spiritual conviction, re-imagined monastic service for a new time and place,” he said.

After completing his duties in 1976, Mr. Waldron left the school to pursue a full-time profession in the theatrical arts. When he left he was confident in the ability of the three remaining lay-teachers: Paul Thornton ‘63, Clay Ograzaly ‘63, and Philip Griswold.

Rev. Albert Holtz, O.S.B dramatically influenced the pedagogies of the four initial lay teachers. He has helped faculty members throught their educational journeys for more than 40 years.
Rev. Albert Holtz, O.S.B dramatically influenced the pedagogies of the four initial lay teachers. He has helped faculty members through their educational journeys for more than 40 years.

Mr. Thornton, who is currently an Associate Headmaster at St. Benedict’s, was the first non-monk to join the school’s faculty following its reopening. After graduating cum laude from Harvard University, he returned to his high school to teach English in 1972; however, the school closed and he directed his efforts elsewhere. “I became very involved in trying to help the school re-open,” he said. “This was when very exciting things started happening—Fr. Edwin was named Headmaster and I took on the role of Development Director,” he added.

In addition to teaching English, Mr. Thornton assisted students through college-counseling and guidance. Mr. Thornton had also utilized his strong knowledge of English Literature to instruct many students. “The early years were full of energy and exciting, because we were trying to make a new thing out of school’s past successes,” he said.

During this time, Mr. Thornton’s high school and college classmate, Clay Ogorzaly ‘63, began studying at nearby Rutgers School of Law. The monks of Newark Abbey offered him housing, so he began teaching American History and Upper Level French and German during his free time. “It was a pretty good ‘quid pro quo’; I got something out of it and they got something out of it,” he said.

“Those who decided to open to the school were all teachers of mine, and they were all imbued with the notion that dedication and prayer could change their fate,” he said.

Both lay and monastic faculty members provided him strong support during his teaching tenure. After experiencing an unstable beginning in early 1973, both types of teachers began holding monthly faculty meetings. They would frequently discuss the progress of their students, new extracurricular developments, and effective teaching methods. “We had to convince everyone that a school with such a long history could resuscitate itself, and by God, we did,” Mr. Ogorzaly said.

As he progressed through law school and Mr. Thornton assumed the role of Director of Development, another lay-teacher joined the ranks. Needing another teacher, Fr. Edwin had contacted Philip Griswold, a student at Columbia University. Mr. Griswold had learned about the school through a mutual friend who had introduced him to Fr. Edwin before the summer of 1974.

“I’ve always had a calling to help people who didn’t have the advantages that I had,” Mr. Griswold said on a phone interview. “When Fr. Edwin offered me the job, I knew I wanted to teach at a place where I could do that,” he added.

As an outsider to Newark, Mr. Griswold remembers the experience of commuting to work each day. After taking the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) train to Newark Pennsylvania Station, he would take a bus to the school on High Street. On this historic route, he witnessed the devastating effects of the 1967 Newark Riots. “It looked like a total war zone,” he said. “There were bullets in front of the church from the riots and Newark’s citizens were struggling to rebuild their city.”

 Even so, Mr. Griswold enjoyed teaching Social Studies and English at St. Benedict’s Prep. He accredits this to the support he received from the monks at that time. “I was particularly impressed by the religious values of the monks as carried over to their teaching,” he said. “But it was always in a very subtle manner,” he added.

“The greatest lesson I learned at St. Benedict’s was humility,” Mr. Griswold said. “Most of my students were African American kids with little to no economic advantage,” he added. “Understanding where these kids were coming from and trying to tailor content to ensure they were learning well changed my outlook on education and the world.”

In the coming months, Mr. Griswold hopes to visit the school he has not seen since 1988, when he last witnessed its exponential growth. “To this day, I’ve learned more from this school than I’ve taught,” he said. “It was a remarkable experience, and I look forward to the heights it will reach in the future.”