Limericks, lyrics and love: the life of Fr. Cain

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Isabel Dubert, Contributing Writer

 

“Fr. Thomas Matthias Cain was a true character,” remarked Fr. Andy Kolzow, O.P., former prior at the St. Albert the Great Dominican Priory. He lived with Fr. Cain for about six months in 1980. “I used to call him the ‘Philo Flash.’ He used to teach philosophy here, and he’s from a little farming town called Philo, Illinois. He got a kick out of that.”

Never one to slow down, Fr. Cain liked to stay active — even if that meant cutting grass in the hot Texas sun while in his 80s. –UD Archives
Never one to slow down, Fr. Cain liked to stay active — even if that meant cutting grass in the hot Texas sun while in his 80s.
–UD Archives

“He was a very colorful man to live with. He was often very quiet, in his later years, but he opened up and could be the life of the party. He was very effective here as the original superior and as the one who really introduced our men to the campus and to the diocese. Fr. Cain was extremely gregarious — before I was here he made friends with a lot of the priests in the diocese; they used to enjoy coming here just to visit and occasionally [play] a poker game, things of that sort. He was very well-liked. I’ve been here long enough to see men for whom I’ve felt a great affection, admiration. People like Fr. Thomas Cain.”

Fr. Cain was born in Philo, Ill. on January 1, 1911, and died on Oct. 27, 2000, in New Orleans, La. He came to the University of Dallas in 1959, founded and built the Priory of St. Albert the Great, served as its first prior, and taught philosophy at the university for many years, retiring at the end of the 1987 spring semester.

Lyle Novinski, professor emeritus of art, was commissioned to design and build a memorial for Fr. Cain, together with Dr. Richard Olenick of the physics department and John Russell of facilities. The memorial now lies nestled between Augustine and Anselm Halls, composed of a circular slab of stone with four stone blocks on top of it. The designers selected a very particular layer of limestone from Midland, Texas, which was of a strawberry milkshake color. The memorial is oriented to true north and south, so that at dawn on the summer solstice the sun falls directly across it, with no shadow on either side.

“If you want something to be permanent,” said Novinski, “you have to orient it toward the cosmos.”

The Fr. Thomas Cain Memorial Courtyard was dedicated on Sept. 20, 1992. Alumni raised the money for it because he was so dear to them. They then planted four peach trees around it so that it would be a kind of grove. Fr. Cain always wore a beat-up straw hat, so at the dedication of the memorial, everyone wore a straw hat in his honor.

Fr. Kolzow continued: “He could be a little bit winsome sometimes; he also was a little bit mischievous, a little foxy. I know, for I suffered at his hands.

“Even after he retired, he was the man about campus. He was on campus every day, with that old cap he used to wear, and he always had candy in his pocket, and he would make a tour of campus, and he would have candy for the various secretaries and the people he encountered and whatnot … And he had a great number of followers, of people whom he had taught, who loved him dearly and would come back to visit him … [H]e was much admired and had a lot of affection in the hearts of a lot of people.”

“What a wonderful, sensible man,” reminisced Sybil Novinski, university historian. She told a story about how Fr. Cain would bring a flower to the secretary of the philosophy department every day. That woman was Yasmin Gupta, who, with her husband Satish, went on to donate a handsome gift to the College of Business in 2013. Fr. Cain would do that for a lot of people: tell a joke of the day, sing a song, give a flower or a piece of candy.

Fr. Kolzow recalled, “Thomas Matthias Cain was really truly something … I heard the ‘Waltzing Matilda’ song [from him] many times. Any time there was a gathering on campus of his former students or whatever, he was always ready to go. And he knew all the words, and he prided himself on the fact that he had learned all the words and the history of the thing.”

Fr. Cain had a little rubber coin purse, and he pretended it was his pet frog and that it told the joke of the day. He also had a mythical pet rabbit and often wrote limericks, too. Sybil Novinski recalled an incident that took place one year during the graduation ceremony, when the speaker had been talking for over an hour. She noticed that the faculty members were either asleep or giggling. She discovered later that Fr. Cain was writing limericks on the back of his graduation program and sending them down the faculty row. One of these limericks read: “The faculty assembled in ribbons and lace, / Following a slightly ridiculous mace.”

Fr. Thomas Cain with his signature straw hat. –UD Archives
Fr. Thomas Cain with his signature straw hat.
–UD Archives

From his humorous side, one would never guess Fr. Cain had participated in the Bataan Death March. Fr. Kolzow tells the story: “Tom was a very fine student of course, and he was sent by his provincial to study philosophy at Friburg in Switzerland in 1937. And then the war clouds were gathering, and the word going around was that war was coming, big-time war. It was before Hitler invaded Poland, but things were looking rather ominous, so the provincial moved them all in 1940 from there to where they would be safe, in Manila. Not knowing the way the war was going to go, not knowing anything about Pearl Harbor. Santo Tomas is the oldest Catholic University in Asia. Fr. Cain was sent there along with the others, and they were doing very well, living with the Spanish Dominicans at Santo Tomas. And then Pearl Harbor happened.”

The Japanese invaded the Philippines and interned Fr. Cain, five other friars and 26 other faculty members in the Los Baños prison from 1941 to 1945.

Fr. Kolzow continued, “He told me one time, ‘We had Mass just a few times during those years, and if we could get some raisins, we would make some wine, and then somehow we would try to have Mass with just a few drops of wine.’ But they were in very difficult circumstances. As time went by there, the food was less and less and less, so toward the end of the war, before the Americans broke in and conquered the Philippines, the food was down to just an ounce or so of rice a day, and he [became] like a skeleton. He was sent to Australia; he was not strong enough to travel back to the States, and it was there he picked up his famous love for ‘Waltzing Matilda.’ He would sing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ at the drop of a hat.’”

He and the others were finally liberated by the U.S. First Cavalry at the end of February.

“As the story goes,” recalled Lyle Novinski, “when the Allies got close, the Japanese were threatening to execute all the prisoners. There was a ranger attack on the prison where he was the night before they were to be killed, and he was taken out and rescued.”

Fr. Kolzow reflected, “He was always a very thoughtful man, very kind. I never saw any toughness or any meanness in him. He was always very gentle. Now, of course, he was in the war and so forth; I’m sure that was a formative thing. He survived it, thank heavens. He survived Australia; he made it into his 80s. He was a farm boy from the cornfields of Illinois. You’d never hear any derogatory comments; you’d never hear anything from him about the ‘dirty Japs,’ that kind of thing. He was not a man that was given to bitterness. It’s a question of forgiveness … He was [also] always affirming, and that’s a great thing to have when you have responsibility.”

Fr. Kolzow then related one more story about Fr. Cain: “It must have been about my second year back, and it was a hot day, and someone came to me and said, ‘Father, how can you let this happen? How can you let that poor man out there in this heat, in this sun? How can he be out there cutting grass?’ I said, ‘My friend, Thomas Matthias Cain is a farm boy from Illinois. Yes, he’s in his 80s. I warned him. I said, “Tom, it’s very hot. Be sure you wear your hat and drink a lot of water.”’ I said to the person, ‘I’d much rather have him die out there with his boots on than sitting in his room, rotting doing nothing.’ He just wanted to be active. And he was active mentally of course, and prayerful, but he liked to keep being involved in things. He loved the place, and he loved to work outside and do something.”

Fr. Kolzow concluded, “So, God bless him. May he rest in peace; may he help us in our pilgrimage of faith.”

Philosophy professor Dr. William Frank, who arrived at UD in 1986, remembers Fr. Cain while “he was in the evening of his career.” At that point Cain limited himself to a one-credit course on Aquinas, in which he read through the “Summa Theologica” with anyone who wanted to come. Outside of that, Cain was frequently present on campus. Frank recalled seeing him in the elevators of Braniff ascending up to the philosophy department to visit the individual offices, say hello to the administrative assistants and brighten up the whole place.

“He was a constant or at least regular figure on the Mall,” Dr. Frank noted, “with his beautiful, bright smile.” Going up to talk with students, he would ask them, “Would you like me to play a song for you?” He would then pick a comb out of his pocket — “which was odd,” Frank mused, “because he had very little hair and it was always covered up by his hat” — then take a folded piece of paper and place it on the comb. “He was able to blow on that and actually get high or low notes and play a little melody — ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ or he was inordinately fond of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ so it would often be that. Some students did not know what to make of the man. Others students recognized an utter and completely delightful man.”

Frank also fondly recalled the poker parties of English professor Dr. Eugene Curtsinger, fellow jokester and accomplice to Cain. The Curtsingers would invite Fr. Cain, Frank and his wife, and a few others over. Cain was a very good poker player who had a good sense of probabilities and could count cards, yet he never won. Inevitably, there was always someone who was rather bad at poker, and Cain would arrange to sit next to him. When the cards were passed, he would ensure that the person always had the winning hand or at least a fighting chance. Frank delighted in how Cain “used his intelligence not to win, but to covertly lose so that others might win. It was a marvelous example of his wit, intelligence and general love of people.”

 

 

 

– Killian Beeler contributed to the writing of this article.

2 COMMENTS

  1. One day, while I was waiting in upstairs Carpenter Hall for a friend to get out of class, Fr. Cain approached me (I had previously been in one of his last Intro. to Phil. courses in Spring ’82; this was in Spring ’84) and talked with me about how he’d been taught Aquinas–in Latin. Yep, Fr. Cain recited to me, in Latin, the Thomistic Philosophy class that had been his groundwork while studying in Europe. That, and he gave me a piece of candy and told me a joke from the lips of his “frog” coin purse. My oldest son, Paul Thomas Beeler (UD Class of 2010), bears his middle name in honor of Fr. Thomas Cain. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

  2. I offer no criticism to Mr. Beeler for this wonderful article, but I have to make a quick note, as an alumnus, and lover of Fr. Cain. June Welch, of fond memory, would never forgive me if I did not do so. Of course Fr. Cain was liberated by the US Army, but not from Australia. Those were our allies. What he told me was that he weighed so little when he was liberated from the Japanese camp that they were afraid to send him to the US, as they thought the journey there would likely kill him. That was why he was sent to Australia. He did love Australia, though, and long Waltzing Matilda and other songs. Fr. Cain also told me how he had not only learned philosophy in Latin, but that while he was in Chicago he taught Aquinas in Latin in the seminary there in the 50’s. My head buzzes and shrinks in fear from the thought, but he was a brilliant man.
    He was truly a part of the “greatest generation,” but would not talk about his experiences in that war. We had one conversation that might provide some light. I was asking him one afternoon about a book about the Baatan Death March called “Give Us This Day” by Sidney Stewart. You can still find this book and I strongly recommend it if you are interested in this part of the war and the singular place that some of the Catholic priests played in that struggle. At any rate I just had to ask him, and if you read it you will know why I had to ask. He looked at me, and was silent for a long time. He said, “I do not remember him exactly, but there were so many. So many…” Then he offered me a joke and something sweet to eat. That was Fr. Cain. War memories were the past, and flowers and candy and something funny were then the present.
    You see, I am quite sure that I knew and loved a saint. He may not be officially recognized as such, and he would protest my even bring that up, but I loved him dearly.
    Thank you Mr. Beeler (and Killian) for a loving and warm tribute to someone that contributed to our UD and Catholic community in so many ways.

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