My dad, Samuel J.M. Donnelly, passed away in January 2011. He had been retired two years from Syracuse University College of Law, where he taught, among other things, Bankruptcy (which he called Defense Against the Dark Arts), Secured Transactions, Jurisprudence and a Capital Punishment seminar. In 2009, he self-published a book of poetry titled For My Grandchildren. This book followed several legal books, including Towards Personalism, my dad’s great formulation of his judicial theory.
Just a couple of days before he died, my dad got a great big send-off for his life from Syracuse Jail Ministry, a group he had been involved with for as long as I could remember and beyond. Through Jail Ministry, my dad visited people in jail and often helped them when they got out. I am sure he did it for lots of reasons but if you asked him, he probably would have quoted Matthew: “When I was in prison, you visited me . . .” My dad was big on the Works of Mercy and Catholic social teaching.
One of Jail Ministry’s great moments was getting Onondaga County to tear down the old jail and build a more humane one. My dad wrote a poem about it, included in For My Grandchild. My dad wrote a poem about it, included in For My Grandchildren.
My father was over six feet tall, with a long face, a big patrician nose, and a happy smile full of bad teeth. His voice boomed. At mass, he sung every hymn in the deep resonant tones of Pavarotti–if Pavarotti routinely missed every note. My dad could and would make impromptu lectures on any subject he felt comfortable with–there were many such subjects, from trilobites to the ancient kings of Ireland. What I mean is, my dad had presence and he liked to talk. Like me, he kissed the Blarney Stone–literally, on a trip to Cork.
My dad was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The last time I spoke to him, the night before he died, he could not speak back to me. Before taking his body from us, he first took his voice.
My dad left a lot of words behind, though, in published books and articles, syllabi, lecture notes, and scads of yellow legal notepads. He named me his literary executor, and my mom and I decided that meant I got to deal with his papers. What my dad meant by it, I am not sure. Here is what he told me, in a note tucked into a copy of For My Grandchildren that he sent me:
Dear Cathy Becky:
Here are three books. Enjoy. They all fit. Two are inscribed. I will let you inscribe the one for Robbie (my stepson). Someday you will get a whole pile of them to distribute to grandchildren on graduation from high school. Enjoy your paid vacation.
So it is that I have a large box of For My Grandchildren, another box of Towards Personalism and four massive plastic tubs of papers. I have begun to sort them, deciding what to keep, what to investigate further publication of, and what to let go. Fascinating bits often surface in this process, from a love poem to my mom to a treatise on Haudenosaunee mythology. In this blog, I will explore these papers as well as the task I have been given of delivering books (one has been delivered – more on that later). Interesting things about the law, philosophy, the Catholic Church, and my father’s other preoccupations will crop up. I will go where the papers take me.
Let me end with this disclaimer: Sam Donnelly had a wife, six children besides me, two brothers, twelve grandchildren, long-time collaborators, colleagues, friends, and innumerable students. Each of these will have their own piece of the Sam Donnelly picture. What you read here is by no means definitive, or even necessarily objectively true. These are my truths about the man I knew as my dad.