Colman McCarthy reaches 30 years of teaching peace

‘I'd rather teach peace’

‘I’d rather teach peace’

The clock reads 7:45 a.m. on a dreary Thursday morning. Colman McCarthy, 74, has been teaching a class of seniors at Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School for 20 minutes. It’s time to wake these kids up.

“Want a quiz for $100?” he asks, pulling a crisp Benjamin Franklin from his wallet. “Today is a very famous person’s birthday.”

The room lets out a collective groan. This isn’t a new game. In fact, McCarthy has been playing variations of it since he began teaching 30 years ago, then a mere side hobby while he wrote a nationally syndicated column for The Washington Post. He now teaches at six schools, including this university.

In all those years, he has never lost the money.

The students begin to guess. Joan Baez. Barbara Lee. Jeannette Rankin.

Wait. Who?

That’s the problem McCarthy tries to alleviate. The general population is familiar with names such as Napoleon and Julius Caesar — powerful crusaders who took over vast territories by evoking fear and demanding violence. But Baez, Lee and Rankin — all prominent female peace activists — are virtually unknown.

“They know the men who broke the peace but not the women who made the peace,” McCarthy says, shaking his head ruefully.

No one in the class guesses the answer (St. Francis of Assisi, whose peace prayer is an important part of Catholicism). McCarthy stands at the back of the room — in front of colorful posters with slogans such as, “A positive attitude is contagious” — looking out at a sea of black. It’s only the traditional senior blackout day, but it symbolizes the negativity and ignorance McCarthy faces all the time, the people who see him as an uncompromising extremist when he rails against ROTC programs and the death penalty. The ones who likely think a vegan-pacifist-anarchist-marathon runner can’t change the narrative alone.

These students aren’t those people. They’re part of the more than 10,000 who can say McCarthy taught them alternatives to violence.

Colman McCarthy’s father entered World War I as an officer. He left the battlefront as a pacifist — too many people killing each other, he said.

Twenty years later, McCarthy was born — an accident but never an afterthought. Although he had three older brothers, he said his father loved him best.

“My brother used to say that I could burn the schoolhouse down, and Dad would still say, ‘Bless your little heart,’” McCarthy said. “It’s such a good foundation — to have love as a child. If not, there’s always a scar.”

Despite the nurturing environment he found at home, McCarthy was bullied at school. His classmates mocked him for his perennial stutter, and he was terrified of being called on in class to read aloud. So he took up writing — a hobby that required eloquence from the brain but not the tongue.

McCarthy wrote all the way through high school, when he left his home state of New York to study English at a Jesuit college in Mobile, Ala., called Spring Hill College. Yet he’d also become an accomplished golfer and mostly ignored his studies, preferring to “read more greens than books.”

After he graduated in 1960, McCarthy was feeling lost and unfulfilled. He’d “wasted four years” of his life and wasn’t yet ready to face the real world. He needed the dose of discipline he’d never gotten from his father, who had died of a heart attack at age 66. But who could he find that exemplified both purity and dedication? Answer: the monks of Conyers, Ga.

McCarthy had grown up in a Catholic household. It makes sense he sought solace in a Trappist monastery — those who strictly follow the Rule of St. Benedict. But McCarthy only expected to spend a few days on the hallowed grounds of the picturesque complex.

Five years ticked by, and he still hadn’t left.

The monks signed instead of speaking. Every form of media was shunned. Wake-up call was at 2 a.m., followed by hours of manual labor, with a prompt 7 p.m. bedtime. McCarthy kept a vegetarian diet and spent his days milking Jersey cows and shoveling manure. In the few moments left over, he read voraciously, clocking about 1,000 words a day.

Yet McCarthy couldn’t fully abandon his former rebellious self. He began to leave the grounds after 7 p.m., loading up a truck with excess vegetables to supply food to poor families, both black and white, who lived nearby.

Once, another layman saw McCarthy sneaking out. He looked furious but simply blew on his finger, a sign that meant McCarthy would “burn in hell” for his transgressions.

“I said, ‘Wow, this is bizarre,’” McCarthy said. “I’m feeding people; I’m feeding the hungry, but I’m going to spend eternity in hell. Something’s not quite right here. So I said, ‘Gee, I think I’m called to do other work.’”

After his cloistered sojourn ended, McCarthy got on a bus.

Soon, he’d arrived in the office of Eugene Patterson, then-editor of The Atlanta Constitution, later a Pulitzer Prize winner. Patterson had visited the monastery on a retreat a few weeks earlier, and he was the most relevant connection the abbot could offer a wannabe sports writer with a speech impediment. McCarthy came prepared with a few articles he’d written for a religious magazine, but his first impression wasn’t professional.

“He would labor and labor to get a sentence out,” Patterson said. “It became such a trial that I did an awful thing: I laughed.”

That broke the ice, and Patterson quickly realized the talent this man possessed, going so far as to quote a Bible verse in describing McCarthy’s work as “apples of gold in pictures of silver.”

Although his own sports editor refused to hire McCarthy, Patterson called up Roger Tatarian, the editor in chief of the United Press International wire service. After one interview, McCarthy became the “24th man in a 24-man sports department,” working from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. covering nighttime horse racing.

From there, he became the speechwriter for Sargent Shriver, founding director of the Peace Corps and the “architect” of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Shriver had read a piece McCarthy freelanced for the National Catholic Reporter, in which McCarthy criticized Shriver’s programs.

He said he wanted a “no-man,” someone who would tell him the truth instead of pandering to his every whim. If there was anything McCarthy could do well, it was biting honesty. 

It was 1966. McCarthy was gaining fame and would be employed by The Washington Post within three years. But Shriver had something more to give him than experience.

On Dec. 8 of that year, a mutual friend introduced McCarthy to a nurse named Mavourneen Deegan, who had just begun working for the War on Poverty. Deegan asked if he’d like to come to dinner. But McCarthy had other plans: slices of Velveeta cheese and some crackers, which he pulled out of his pocket as evidence.

So, drinks, then. Deegan said that at the time gin and bourbon were common, even at dinner. McCarthy chose water instead.

“I like water, too,” Deegan blurted. She was smitten, to say the least.

He asked her out on two dates instead of one — church and then dinner — “because he was shy,” Deegan said. On Jan. 20, 1967, six weeks after they first met, they were married.

“The day before [we met], I wasn’t feeling very well, so I went to see a doctor,” McCarthy said. “He said, ‘You’re a sick man; you ought to be in bed with a nurse.’ So the next day, I met a nurse, I fell in love with her right there, and I’ve been in bed with her ever since. So I obeyed the doctor’s orders.”

As his marriage and family flourished, so did his reputation. He talked to the people who were building the world on a platform of amity rather than discord, movers and shakers as well-known as Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Although he wrote about a variety of topics for The Post, McCarthy always came back to peace — and its near absence in formal education.

“We are not wired to be violent,” McCarthy said. “You have to learn how to be violent, and you have to learn how to be peaceful. We have the capacity to go either way.”

So he became a peace spreader, like those he’d interviewed who came before him. Starting at the School Without Walls in 1982, McCarthy introduced his students to an alternative lifestyle, sidestepping homework and exams in favor of discussion and analysis.

“He talks about how there are two ways to wage conflict — one is violent and one is nonviolent — and both have a fair amount of failures; one just fails a lot more than the other one,” said Daryn Cambridge, who teaches peace pedagogy at American University.

“He’s saying things that I felt a lot of students and learners felt in their gut, and teachers probably even felt but never had the courage to say it unabashedly and unapologetically,” he added.

By 1985, McCarthy had founded the Center for Teaching Peace, which works with schools to provide lectures, courses and literature on all things peace-making. He was progressing quickly — all systems go.

But in 1997, The Post dropped McCarthy’s column, apparently due to declining revenue. Patterson noted then-editorial page editor Philip Geyelin told him, “Colman was just a marvelous man, but he was so Catholic.” Perhaps the loss of money wasn’t the only tension that contributed to the breaking of ties.

Yet now McCarthy says he can no longer identify as Catholic, the religion that has given so much to him in so many ways.

“They believe in the just war theory. Catholic colleges have ROTC programs on their campuses; there’s never been a Catholic pope who forbids Catholics to serve in the military; the Catholic church approves killing animals for food. So I wish I could still be a Catholic, but I can’t,” McCarthy said. “It’s a membership organization, and if you like the rules, stay in and be a good member. But if you don’t, don’t fake it.”

By this point, McCarthy had already expanded his teaching schedule, adding Wilson High School, Georgetown University Law Center, American University, The Washington Center for Internships and, of course, this university, to his resume. Now that he had more free time after the termination of his column, he could even offer lessons to juvenile delinquents at the Oak Hill Youth Center. The prison has since closed, but his drive to educate the next generation — no matter their walk of life — remains.

“Until the University of Maryland has a peace studies degree program, the students are not being well served,” he said. “Until there is a peace studies program that’s as well-funded as the football program, they’ll be even more ill-served. And until the chairman of the peace studies department is paid as much as the football coach and the basketball coach, students are being cheated.”

McCarthy’s tale of these teachings, I’d Rather Teach Peace, has a 4.9-out-of-5-star rating on Amazon. He’s now sorting through more than 1,000 letters he’s received from students to create a compilation from their perspectives rather than his.

Cathy Barks, associate director of the Honors College, said McCarthy resonates with students through his ability to make them feel comfortable in class by giving them the chance “to think about things they wouldn’t otherwise think about.”

“He’s just a kindred spirit and always kind of inspires me to be my best self,” she said. “You know, you plan to do that all the time — be your best self — and then you’re just not.”

Senior government and politics major Valerie Caplan took McCarthy’s Honors seminar, journalism and peace, during the first semester of her freshman year. After one week where the class discussed animal cruelty, she became a vegetarian.

“He never told any of us to become a vegetarian; he simply presented two sides of an argument,” she said. “These are not the kind of issues you explore in school. You don’t ask yourself, ‘Why do you eat the way you do? Why do you live the way you do?’”

When people ask them where they live, McCarthy’s neighbors, Elisa Free and Bill Nooter, say they live next to Colman McCarthy. The boy who couldn’t speak coherently has now become a landmark.

An eccentric one, to be sure. Free said he once put out spinach instead of candy on Halloween. Deegan said she has to rumple the new clothes she buys for him and hide them among his current wardrobe, hoping he won’t notice. McCarthy said he’s run 18 marathons and commutes from his home in American University Park to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School daily on his bicycle. He doesn’t bike out to this university; that would be “suicidal.”

And yet, that’s the point. Eat differently. Think differently. Live differently. You might like it.

“Studying nonviolence is not for the faint or weak of heart, nor conformists or the close-minded,” McCarthy wrote in the syllabus for this semester’s Alternatives to Violence seminar. “Instead, it is for those who are intellectually brave, spiritually alive, socially engaged and lovers of long-shots.”

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