Remembering Father Claude Bicheler (1933-1986)
I had the great good fortune to have Father Claude Bicheler as my English teacher for all four years at Bishop Turner high school in Buffalo, NY, 1963-1967. I say this in retrospect, because for the first six months of freshman English with him, I often felt challenged and somewhat disoriented. Fr. Claude ran a tight classroom in our all-boys, Catholic high school. And he had a way of making us squirm when he insistently engaged us in real-time Socratic dialogs, requiring that we think and speak on our feet.
I considered myself a good student, but the Catholic nuns who taught me in grade school didn’t prepare me for the kind of wide-reaching, creative assignments that Father Claude gave us. Father Claude was a real stickler with our written assignments, marking them up with questions, comments and suggestions. I was intimidated at the care he took with language and expression and at first dreaded our one-on-one assignment reviews. I remember agonizing for most of a fall weekend over an essay we were asked to write on any topic with only one requirement: not to use any form of the verb “to be” (“is, are, were, was,” etc.). I was at a complete loss at first, discovering just how dependent I was on that one verb for most of my expression. But eventually I got the hang of writing in the active voice with action verbs and Father Claude rewarded me with encouragement and praise. At the end of the first semester, he invited me to consider writing for the school newspaper, which he was moderating then. I remember writing my first story about the Turner track team, and the thrill it was to see it in print with my by-line.
Fr. Claude loved all the arts — literature, drama, music, and the visual arts. He was best known as the director and producer of all the plays and musicals presented by Turner and our nearby sister (all girls) school, Archbishop Carroll. Turner opened its doors in the early 1960’s and had a large, well-appointed auditorium which Fr. Claude put to good use.
In freshman year, we studied Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town”. Fr. Claude’s teaching method was to assign the parts to his students and read it aloud in class. I remember being mortified at having been assigned the part of Mrs. Gibbs, anticipating the wisecracks from my peers. Fr. Claude allowed some good-natured kidding but quickly made it clear that he’d brook no sarcasm during the reading. I was shy and introspective when I entered Turner and the very idea of being on stage really scared me. Somehow I got through the reading and was surprised to find myself strangely moved by Mrs. Gibbs. “Our Town” was our school play that spring and I loved watching the fully staged performance. I was amazed and admiring of the credible performances of the student actors and actresses, especially by one of my new friends, Mike Krempa, who played the town miscreant, Simon Stimpson. The next year Fr. Claude pulled together an ambitious and exciting student production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma”. Others of my classmates had major parts in it and I absolutely loved the performances. I had unexpectedly discovered a life-long passion for live theater that rivaled my interest in sports.
By sophomore year at Turner the trajectory of my academic interests gravitated more and more to literature, writing and the arts. I’d entered Turner expecting to follow in my older cousin’s stellar academic footsteps with lots of math and the hard sciences (chemistry and physics). But Fr. Claude was still the most compelling of all my teachers, even when he made me angry and uncomfortable. I began hanging with the guys who acted in Fr. Claude’s plays and who edited the school newspaper and yearbook. I continued to hone my skills as a student journalist, while also developing a deep appreciation for literary novels, plays, and even poetry. This was pretty far afield from anything I had grown up with on the hard-scrabble, working class East Side of Buffalo. The one exception was my Mother, who was an avid reader, and who encouraged me in my new-found interests. I enjoyed the required course in biology in sophomore year, but when it came time to decide, I followed my intuition and signed up for the “liberal arts” track for my junior and senior years.
Fr. Claude became a real mentor for me in my last two years at Turner. I became an editor on the school paper, and then the lead editor for our yearbook. By senior year, I even auditioned for and got an important part in the spring play, “Caesar and Cleoptra” by George Bernard Shaw. Once again, I went through some deep personal challenges as Fr. Claude pushed me out of my remaining shyness into a place where I could actually enjoy being in the floodlights.
By that time, I had become a full-fledged member of a group of about a dozen classmates united in our devotion to Fr. Claude and what he had to offer. We accompanied him to professional theater productions in Buffalo, neighboring Toronto, and the world-class Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario. We went to classical musical concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall, art shows at the Albright Knox art gallery, and the occasional art film or lecture at the University of Buffalo.
In my junior year, I attended a school assembly about a Catholic student exchange program with South America. I’d been saving some money from my paper routes and other odd jobs and was inspired to sign up. In the spring, I was assigned to spend eight weeks that summer with a family in Quito, Ecuador. We were expected to know some Spanish and I recruited Fr. Claude to be my private tutor. Among all his other talents and experience, he had lived in Puerto Rico as a young priest and was fluent in Spanish. He happily agreed to tutor me and I was deeply grateful for it by the time I landed in Quito early that summer to discover that my new family spoke no English at all. Fr. Claude had suggested that I write to him in Spanish that summer and I did, further enriching the whole experience.
In junior year, we focused on British literature in Fr. Claude’s English class. I was swept off my feet by the English romantic poets, especially Wordsworth. I remember Fr. Claude reading aloud from Wordsworth and feeling a kind of inner spiritual expansion and mystical connection with God’s presence within the natural world. The romantic poets gave expression to amorphous feelings I was having in my own solo walks and bike rides in Buffalo’s parks and undeveloped woodlands outside of the city. Those experiences made me decide to be an English major when I entered college.
When I began my college search, my immediate focus was on small out-of-town Catholic colleges. I had done well academically at Turner and felt confident I would garner some scholarship money. I went to Fr. Claude for advice and his first suggestion floored me: “Why don’t you apply to Harvard, John?” Once again, I was intimidated by a challenge from Fr. Claude, but my experience of the past years allowed me to at least consider his suggestion. I ended up applying to Siena College, Fordham, and Harvard. I had an interview with a Harvard alumnus in Buffalo and felt ok about it. Even though I got a rejection letter, I was grateful to Fr. Claude for his confidence in my abilities.
I remained in touch with Fr. Claude all through my years at Fordham University in the Bronx. Having all of New York city at my disposal, especially the New York drama and music scenes, was very exciting. One of my friends from our tight group at Turner, Steve Polniaszek, was studying downtown at the the NYU drama school in Greenwich Village. I was downtown with Steve almost every weekend, attending plays and going to concerts, and taking in the burgeoning counter-culture of the late 1960’s. We both stayed in touch with Fr. Claude and saw him in Buffalo or during his own occasional ventures into the big city. I remember seeing the original off-Broadway production of the rock musical “Hair” in 1967 and buying the cast recording as a gift for Fr. Claude that Christmas.
After college graduation, Fr. Claude helped me to get a teaching position at Archbishop Walsh high school in Olean, NY. During that time, Fr. Claude was renovating a country home in South Wales, NY and I spent some time helping out, even recruiting my Dad and brothers to help put up drywall. I remember many wonderful visits with Fr. Claude in his country home, one time even venturing out the 30 miles from Buffalo on a bicycle.
I eventually moved south to take various teaching positions in Savannah and then Atlanta, GA. I had less contact with Fr. Claude after he left Turner in 1971 to become a parish priest, but still visited on my journeys home. I remember an all-day trip with him to Niagara-on-the-Lake for dinner and a play at the summer Shaw Festival there. I knew that Fr. Claude suffered some heart problems, but I was shocked to hear of his early passing in 1986. I was living in Washington, DC and was not able to come home for the funeral – a lapse that I still regret.
Fr. Claude remained a devoted Catholic priest to the end. I admired his devotion, integrity and creativity even after I left the church in the 1970’s. Knowing him is certainly a highlight of my life, an ongoing inspiration and challenge to strive for excellence in every endeavor. He was a teacher and mentor who helped me find my way in life and I remain ever grateful.