St. John’s Helps The Homeless
St. John’s University was a school that encouraged me to grow as a human being and help forge a wonderful career in writing. It’s a school that continues to warm my heart.
It was only a few years ago I was alerted to the fact St. John’s had developed a program to help the homeless received a college education. I was asked to give the keynote speech because of my background being a graduate and having endured a period of homelessness. I think of this time for many reasons, including watching the images of winter crushing our nation.
I also wonder whatever happened to the many people I spent evenings and mornings with on the train during that bleak time. Did they get off the train like me?
Below are the words of my speech that incredible evening. It is one of the greatest nights of my life, rejoicing with my school in celebrating the first graduating class of this special program.
SPEECH AT ST. JOHN’S UNIVERSITY
I want to thank Father Maher, Mr. Darren Morton and Kim Toro for honoring me tonight with a chance to tell my story. I also wanted to point out the wonderful work the Vincentian Institute for Social Action is doing, as demonstrated by the wonderful programs being featured this evening.
I knew when I was 12 years old where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I was going to attend St. John’s University and have a career in journalism. What I didn’t realize then is that there really isn’t a perfect road on this journey – one without obstacles and challenges.
Before my senior year at St. John’s University, my mother died from breast cancer. She had fought a valiant, two-year battle until she was called home by God at the very young age of 47. I knew then that I wouldn’t be able to complete my final year and graduate from my dream school – until I was touched for the first time by the Vincentian love. The then-President of the university, Rev. Cahill, gave me my senior year tuition-free. I learned my first lesson in compassion, Vincentian style.
After I graduated in 1983, I found it extremely difficult to get a job. Besides the challenging job situation, life on the home front was difficult. The relationship I had with my father, which had always been troubling, had grown even worse with my mother’s passing. He eventually told me to leave in the late fall of 1983. Soon after that, I was riding the E-train at night, homeless, with nowhere to go.
On those long nights I would write about my childhood and adult experiences, reflecting upon some of the more emotional points of my life. Sometimes I would just grab the last seat in the train, huddle my face as much as I could into my chest, allow the heaters to warm up my torn sneakers, and cry. I cried a lot during those nights, wondering why this was happening to me. I thought maybe I even somehow deserved this fate.
And when the morning came, I would get off at the Union Turnpike, Kew Gardens train station on Queens Blvd as the masses got on for their work day. I would walk to St. John’s to save my last few bucks and head down into the basement of St. John’s Hall to look at the job openings. If I found something, I would head over to Alumni Hall (now Carnesecca Arena) and make my calls from the payphones. After my interviews I needed to find a payphone that wasn’t so active. I found one on the other side of Jamaica High School where I would stand sometimes for three or four hours in the cold, hoping I would get a positive response.
I would shower mostly in the basement of Alumni Hall until the winter break came that year. Much to my chagrin, they were renovating the shower area. And on this particular December day, I needed to get to New York City in about 40 minutes for an interview. So I ran up the stairs to the bathroom located across from what was back then the athletic office. I had managed to hide my homelessness from most people at St. John’s. I didn’t want to let them know what had happened. I was embarrassed.
During this day, Coach Carnesecca, who I had gotten to know after working on the radio station and official school paper, saw me as I was about to wash my hair in the sink. He looked at me, concerned,and asked me how I was doing. I lied. I told him everything was great and I was working. He slapped me on the back and gave me a big smile. I didn’t want to take any more chances that someone else would see me. I was so humiliated that I went to the last bathroom stall and shut the door. I looked at the toilet and the soap I had just put in my hands from the dispenser. I rubbed the soap quickly in my hair and continued to stare at the water in the toilet. Then I knelt down and held my breath, dipping my head into the toilet and washing it quickly. I pulled some paper towels out of my coat pocket and tried to dry my hair. I listened to make sure no one was near the sink again, came out of the stall, and looked at myself in the mirror.
And I just started to cry. This wasn’t supposed to be part of my journey.
I spent a couple of more weeks on the train, checking out the job opportunities. But I was running out of money and soon I wouldn’t be able to even pay for that token ride at night where at least I had warmth and shelter. During one stretch, I stayed underground for almost 72 hours, running out of options. It was shortly after that period of time that a caring aunt and uncle rescued me off the train and gave me a second chance at life. My uncle happens to be a graduate of St. John’s University. Compassion, again, through a St. John’s connection.
Throughout my journey, some 28 years after I graduated from this great university, the gestures of compassion from those associated with this school still affect me to this very day. I spent a lot of time writing on that E-train. It had been a dream of mine to write a novel.
While sitting with my daughter in Orlando on vacation three summers ago, I got an email from a Vice President at Simon & Schuster. He was interested in buying the rights to my story. During our first phone call we were talking about our educations. And guess what? He was a graduate of St. John’s University too. He immediately signed me to a contract and my book, “Necessary Heartbreak: A Novel of Faith and Forgiveness. The story I wrote discusses the many homeless experiences I had, the challenges and struggles associated with such a plight.
So, I applaud you, the graduates, tonight. Each and every one of you has achieved something special, overcome tremendous odds and challenges to get a degree from the world’s greatest university. It’s not merely a piece of paper you are leaving with. You leave here with an understanding of what compassion and love is all about. You leave here with many friends, friends for life, the memories you have made, the future ones you are about to make. And despite the bumps in the road you are sure to encounter, you will NOT be alone. I will be there with you on this journey. Your friends will be there with you. The deans and professors and the administrators who have poured their hearts and souls into these wonderful programs will be there with you.
When you do touch the tape of those glorious finish lines in your life — and you will — look back, open up your heart like those who did so for me, and extend your hand. Take your fellow graduates and future graduates and past graduates across that finish line with you. I am here to reach back as well. It’s what the people here at St. John’s University have done for me time and time again. It’s what I will do for you. Congratulations on your remarkable achievement. You have graduated from the world’s greatest university!
Michael John Sullivan is a graduate of St. John’s University, having majored in Communication Arts. He worked for the school’s official newspaper and was a member of the WSJU radio station. Follow him on Facebook.