By Gerard T. Mundy.
On November 7, 2021, Gerald J. Russello, editor of The University Bookman for sixteen years and a man whose jolly heart seemed so often to be in the right place, died too young. Exuding a contagious type of positivity regardless of the situation, Gerald, the gregarious man of letters, had the ability to prompt those who he encountered to consider their own levels of cheerfulness.
The Neighborhood of Old Mill Basin
Gerald hailed from the neighborhood of Old Mill Basin in Brooklyn, New York.
The term “Old Mill Basin” has historically been used as an unofficial name by locals—a non-technical term for a small subset of the larger Flatlands neighborhood. When Gerald was growing up, the neighborhood (where this writer was also raised) was, and this is how he used to refer to it, an “ethnic,” one—that is, on his understanding, a neighborhood in which traditions and culture from particular ethnic backgrounds were still culturally extant enough so as to be instrumental in one’s formation. The neighborhood, a working-class pocket deep in Brooklyn, was culturally distinct from the cosmopolitan New York that often characterizes many non-native persons’ popular ideas of contemporary Brooklyn and New York City. Old Mill Basin, in Gerald’s time, was a neighborhood mostly made up of Catholics of Irish and Italian descent (with a small secular Jew contingent).
The Learned “Basement” Catholic Traditionalist
Despite different paths, Gerald and this writer were “from the neighborhood” and understood what it meant to be “from the neighborhood.” Being from the neighborhood meant mutual bonding, protection, and an unspoken understanding of one another’s experiences.
If one has difficulty understanding this concept, or believes it to be hyperbole or a sort of romanticism, this reaction would come simply because he has no experience with it—and it would not be his fault, for this community is indeed largely extinct in the United States. Saying that one is from “the neighborhood” meant a certain sort of kinship. There is no comparison to being from the old neighborhood as being from the sterile, standardized better-termed “locations” of today. Identities largely reside elsewhere today, which is precisely why part of Gerald’s life work was exhortation on the benefits of when men’s identities are a part of place.
Gerald grew up on East 55th Street. He started out at P.S. 203, the local grade school, but would transfer to Mary Queen of Heaven School; he then went on to the prestigious Regis High School in Manhattan run by the Jesuits. Of the greatest importance is his religious formation. Gerald made the Sacraments at Mary Queen of Heaven (MQH) parish on East 56th Street, a parish that was, and is, in the basement—literally.
Mary Queen of Heaven was founded in 1927. The story told is that the Irish pastor charged with building the parish church, Monsignor (then Father) Thomas J. Crawford, gave most of the building funds to the struggling Irish parishioners of the neighborhood, supporting them through the Great Depression. Father Crawford would first celebrate Mass in a storefront, and later in a tent. The money for the “proper” church building, says the story, would be exhausted from Father Crawford’s monetary charity; what was left was the labor that could come from Irish hands of the neighborhood. The neighborhood Irishmen could not create church building materials, but what they could do was dig. And so, says the story, dig they did, hence the parish church of Old Mill Basin is a church “in the basement” to this day. Historical records and testimonies support the basic elements of the tale, which is apt in its description of the type of neighborhood in which Gerald was raised.
Although Gerald would come to love, appreciate, and adore high Catholic icons, statues, and traditions, MQH was not characterized by high Catholic aesthetics. Gerald’s “basement parish” was, and is, an incredibly simple church building. A Gothic cathedral MQH was not, but yet somehow it produced Gerald Russello, a man who held a reputation within intellectual circles as a devout and learned Catholic traditionalist. It was in the basement church of MQH parish that this man of Catholic letters was exposed to the learning of his Catholic, as he called them, “peasant” prayers (in his language that somehow all at once was self-deprecating, positively self-affirming, and simultaneously a gentle message in the offensive to the haughty who might call him a follower of “peasant superstitions”).
Formation and Development
Hailing from the same neighborhood; growing up in the same “ethnic” Catholic parish; somehow both becoming individually devoted to Saint Jude; and attending many of the same schools, ultimately provided a formation that led both Gerald and this writer, independently of the other, to intellectual admiration of Russell Kirk. In terms of relationship with the neighborhood, Kirk was able to organize and to put into words—in the type of intellectual fashion that was naturally appealing to a man of Gerald’s intellect—some of what Gerald had observed, felt, and experienced growing-up in the old-Old Mill Basin.
Gerald dedicated a large portion of his intellectual career to an understanding of place, rootedness, tradition, community, and virtue. Like Kirk, Gerald was a non-ideologue who saw wisdom in tradition and recognized the benefits for men when they are functioning members of proper, and prospering, communities. For Kirk, as Gerald knew, it is in community that men are formed. Thus, proper moral formation, and quite simply, proper human formation, is decidedly the work of a man’s closest influences of society, which, for Aristotle, begins with the family, and then the village.
Memories of What Had Been
Gerald wrote and spoke about community and “place,” as he often called the concept, because he knew that he was formed by place. Saying that he was from Old Mill Basin, and from Brooklyn, and from the City of New York, were not verbal demarcations of some arbitrary geographical markers or boundaries—for Gerald, it was saying “here is who I am.”
Gerald would often say that the Old Mill Basin of his formative years was one of the last holdovers from the “old world.” He would argue this point not as a blind nostalgist simply romanticizing a past time, which entails praise of the old simply because it is old, but with an understanding that the world has greatly changed and that he was fortunate to have experienced a type of community that was already, even then, on its way out. Being from the neighborhood, the Catholic upbringing, the “ethnic” Italian and Irish working-class backgrounds—these formations and experiences resulted in a highly undefinable worldview. Sharing these formative experiences, this writer was able to understand Gerald’s thought, not by way of studying his thought, but by way of knowing how he thinks.
Gerald’s neighborhood began to change drastically in the mid-to-late 1990s. With rapidity, thousands upon thousands of residents moved out of the neighborhood over the span of a few years. Within just a few years, the public schools that Gerald had attended seemingly overnight began to show on lists of the most dangerous and underperforming schools in the city and state. A purported gang territorial issue was apparently so precarious for safety that Roy H. Mann Junior High School sent students home with letters pleading with parents not to allow their children walking to and from school to wear clothing displaying any red, the color of a rival gang that wore blue, and, which one supposes, had taken the turf of parts of the area.
More recently, Mary Queen of Heaven’s parish school closed down, after it somehow survived well after the neighborhood shift. Upon mentioning the closure to Gerald, who had since moved away, he responded not with negative emotion or despondency, but as if he personally had come to some inner peace that things had changed, and so he would just reminisce on the memories.
“I do many things, but do not do any of them well.”
Several months before Gerald died, he appeared on a podcast during which he spoke about growing up in Brooklyn and also about coming to terms with his moving out of his native borough.
In the podcast, one recalls Gerald saying how he desired to move to his current town in the New York City suburbs because he was trying to find a particular area that was like Old Mill Basin. The comment is profound, for unlike other persons in this transitory world who move waywardly from place to place, Gerald, by leaving Brooklyn, was actually trying to go back to Brooklyn—the type of Brooklyn neighborhood that resembled to him the Old Mill Basin of the past.
One could hope that Gerald, in his new town located just north of the New York City border, was able to find, if only a bit of that place, from which he hailed most proudly. Although, as he would surely attest, no new neighborhood would ever be that old place. What can be hoped, however, is that, with Gerald’s teaching, he was able to supply his children with the types of memories that his new town lacked. Whatever was not quite right or quite complete, Gerald filled in for his children, either in manufactured ways or by way of telling stories.
Gerald, who would sometimes refer to himself, not in haughty false humility but true humility, as an “amateur” academic or “amateur” intellectual, had said in conversation that before choosing to go into law, he had considered an academic path in the classics. The sole reason, Gerald cited, at least to this writer, for choosing law over academia was that the latter track would likely, he said, result in him having to leave New York City. Gerald said, “There is nowhere else I want to be.”
It was always hard to believe that Gerald juggled being a partner at a high-class Manhattan corporate law firm, a father of three children, a husband, the editor of The University Bookman for sixteen years, and a prolific writer, all while, of course, being a voracious reader and, of the greatest importance, a devout Catholic. When this writer would ask him how he did it all, in his usual self-deprecating humility, he would answer something like, “The secret is, I do many things, but do not do any of them well.”
Gerald kept his spirits high during his final physical health battle—still editing and publishing. Gerald’s Catholic faith remained strong; and, in his usual practicality, toward the end, when his ailment, he stated, made longer prayers difficult to remember, he simply started learning and praying shorter prayers.
Gerald yearned for a society that respected the good—love, community, family, devotion, beauty—and attempted to enliven those ideas in his intellectual work. In a dark world, there are small lights; those small lights try to keep the good alive for others so that others may have a chance to seek it. Gerald was one of those lights in this world.
May all persons who learned from Gerald, and all persons who were touched by him, do their little part to keep that light going. Gerald would surely agree that no man holds any light only to oneself and only for oneself; we each hold the light for a time, try to make the light brighter while we temporarily hold it, and then pass on that light.
Gerald had recently started teaching Catechetical education to local children (if this writer had asked him how he would juggle yet another responsibility, his answer might probably be something to the tune of, “Well, I will be a terrible teacher.”). It is fitting to conclude with Gerald’s own, posthumously published, words in which he describes his methods:
Eventually, I largely ditched the book and the lesson plan. I tried something new, beginning with an explanation of why we were here. The Church was asking the students to become milites Christi, soldiers of Christ. What did that mean? I explained that they needed weapons (prayers), tools (rosaries), and officers (the saints). They were not simply students; they were preparing to be warriors and adventurers in a world that often knows nothing of the faith, or, just as likely, may know it and be hostile to it. This seemed to perk them up. They were all good kids, but they were in need of a new approach: their faith needed to be introduced to them as an adventure, not another class in school. They needed to see it as a living guide to understanding the world, even as they may forget their eighth-grade biology.
During his own adventurous sojourn in this world, Gerald J. Russello did well as a child from the neighborhood, and, one can deduce from his fruits, contributed much in the battles of this world as a warrior for Christ. For one must recall that all of the good formation that may be found in faith traditions, community, culture, family, and neighborhood are geared ultimately toward forming the soul in such a way that it is prepared to be granted and graced eternity by, and with, the Alpha and the Omega.
Gerard T. Mundy—born, raised, and still living in Brooklyn—is a writer and teaches philosophy at a college in New York City.
Support the University Bookman
The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated!