Story by Erin Hallissy
Color portraits by Sandy Huffaker
Anna Siler was determined that her three sons attend college, and their choice sparked a zeal for Saint Mary's that is still going strong.
Joe Siler planted a seed in 1958 when he pulled up roots from his childhood home in the San Gabriel Mountains foothills and moved north to Saint Mary's after falling in love with it during a car trip with friends to check out Bay Area colleges.
"The dew was on the grass. It was absolutely a beautiful school. We were halfway down the drive and a friend said 'that's it, that's where we're going,' " Joe recalls.
He never regretted the snap decision. At Saint Mary's, Joe found a place to grow, a way to think, and a deep bond with beloved classmates and brilliant professors. He may have moved on after graduation, but he never really left — it has always remained in his heart, his thoughts, his very essence.
"I think of Saint Mary's as a wonderful institution, and something of a family institution," Joe says.
That's because Joe planted a family tree in Saint Mary's soil, one that grows in the same quirky way as the banyan tree, whose branches send down shoots that form new trunks to create a widespread and interlaced design. As various branches of Siler relatives followed Joe to the College, some finding spouses there that brought in more members, the tree has expanded to include more than 30 members.
The unusually strong familial devotion to Saint Mary's delights the matriarch of the Siler family, 90-year-old Anna Siler, who was widowed as a young mother with six children but determined to make sure they all went to college.
"I knew that nothing but education would put these children in the right places to where they would become good people, and also make something for themselves," she says from her West Covina home. She adds that she didn't know much about Saint Mary's when Joe decided to enroll in 1958, but as the growing number of her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews followed his footsteps, she has grown to love it.
"I can't think of a better place. They come out better people, happier people," she says.
Among the extended Siler family of Gaels are doctors, nurses, scientists, fundraisers and educators. Many credit the broad-based liberal education and inspirational professors for their later success in life.
Ken Siler, who graduated two years after his oldest brother, Joe, says tough teachers pushed him to exceed expectations.
"There was Mr. Parker, my freshman physics professor," he remembers. "He was the hardest son of a gun you ever had. I always did best in classes where I was intellectually stressed because the teachers were really making you think, pushing you. You felt so proud that you could get through it. That's what a secret in life is — working hard to achieve something makes you realize 'hey, I can do that.'"
Ken, who later received postgraduate degrees from Stanford and UCLA and taught computer information systems at the School of Management at UCLA, told his children it's best to get an undergraduate degree from a small college like Saint Mary's.
"My recommendation was don't go to the monster schools as an undergraduate," says Ken, who lives in Los Altos and runs a consulting business. "The focus of those schools is publish-or-perish, at least in the University of California schools. Teaching is not nearly the same level of emphasis."
All three of Anna Siler's sons graduated from Saint Mary's, Joe in 1962, John in 1963 and Ken in 1964. Had the campus been open to girls in the 1960s, some of Anna's daughters may well have followed in their brother's footsteps; as it turned out, the eldest Mary Ann (Siler) Torok sent all four of her daughters and her son to Saint Mary's.
Marty Breen recruits high school students for Saint Mary's.
Ken's college roommate Marty Breen was brought into the Siler banyan tree when he married Anna Siler's niece, Kathy Ary. The Breen family includes a number of Saint Mary's graduates, including his daughter, Kelly, who graduated in 2002 and married her college sweetheart, Derek Smead, in 2006. Kelly remembers how people encouraged her since she was a little girl to go to Saint Mary's.
"They loved the fact that it was a liberal arts school, and emphasized how important that was," she recalls. "You could major in anything and you would be prepared for any job you wanted after school." Bit by bit, generation by generation, the extended family has found many reasons to appreciate the College.
Cindi Siler can't remember ever not knowing about Saint Mary's, so often did dad Joe regale the family with stories at their Southern California home, where he was a prosecutor with Los Angeles County. Cindi was a little unsure of herself when she arrived in 1984, and her parents worried she'd be homesick. Little did they know that she felt immediately at home, just as her dad had a generation before.
"I was just thrilled to be at the school," says Cindi, who lives in Glendale, Ariz., with her husband, SMC alum Steve Ripple, an orthopedic surgeon. "I was having a wonderful time with all the people I was meeting. You felt like you knew everybody there. You'd go in to eat at the cafeteria, and there were always a lot of people you knew."
Not only did Cindi thrive socially, she developed self-confidence through her classroom experiences.
"I went in as a very shy person, and I was in these small classes where you had to speak," the 1988 graduate recalls. "It taught me a lot."
Her shyness probably would have kept her from taking Seminar classes, but they were required and she found they broadened her mind to explore more than her biology major courses and helped her gain communication skills that proved vital in her career as a nurse.
Cindi's younger sisters Cathy and Julie followed her to Saint Mary's, graduating in 1990 and 1992. Joe told Julie when she was a high school senior that they should drive around and look at different colleges.
"She said ‘who's kidding whom, Dad? I know I'm going to Saint Mary's,'" he recalls with a laugh.
Marty Breen was influenced to head north to Moraga not by his family but by Brother Albert Rahill, who visited his school, Pomona Catholic High, to recruit students. He liked the location of Saint Mary's, its size and the Christian Brothers.
"I knew they were dedicated to teaching and the Lasallian mission," he says. "I didn't know a lot about it, but my instincts were that I liked it."
Marty says Saint Mary's liberal arts emphasis prepared him well for his career in forensics science at the Orange County crime lab.
"A lot of people have a black-and-white attitude. They don't see the gray," Marty says. "There are a lot of cases I worked on — murders, felonies, misdemeanors — where one piece of evidence isn't strong enough to solve the crime, but you pull all the pieces together to form an opinion. A lot of forensic scientists coming from institutions that don't promote that kind of thinking can't do it. They're afraid to do it."
Ever the scientist, Marty explains how he influenced three of his four children to attend Saint Mary's as "expectation theory" — that was the only place they would go.
"Brian (who graduated in 1994) wanted to go to Loyola but I told him ‘you're not going to a Jesuit school. Maybe for grad school,' " Marty says with a laugh.
Some of the extended family's offspring, of course, ended up at other colleges. Ken's youngest son, Paul, started at Dominican College in San Rafael.
While encouraged to go to Saint Mary's, Paul says he thought Dominican would be a better fit, but he found he wasn't challenged enough and talked to his cousin Ken Torok, who graduated from Saint Mary's in 2004. Ken told him the College had a good business administration program, and Paul decided to transfer to the school.
"The teachers here are not only teachers, they're also mentors," Paul says. "And Dominican was too small. Here, I feel I have the best mix of meeting new people as well as knowing a lot of old people. It feels right."
Paul says his closest friends come from Seminar, saying the discussions in the sessions make people reveal what they really think.
"You're forced to throw your opinions out there," he says.
His cousin, Kathe (Torok) Barsi, graduated from Saint Mary's in 1993. She says that Saint Mary's is "always about learning how to think, finding out why you believe what you believe."
Kathe's three sisters and her brother Ken Torok also graduated from SMC: Christine in 1990, Suzanne in 1991 and Emilie in 1996. Kathe and Emilie are representative of those who met their spouses on campus: Kathe's husband is Ralph Barsi ('93) and Emilie's is Justin Eiguren ('96).
"It's probably because people there share similar values and you're in small classes so you have the opportunity to really get to know people," she says. "You see each other more and more often."
Kathe not only maintained her emotional connection to the College, she remained to work at the school after graduation, in the alumni office for three years, then as director of the Annual Appeal from 1996-98 and director of the President's Club in 1998. She left in 2000 after having a baby, and she now has three small boys.
Kathe said Saint Mary's mission inspired her.
"We are here to take the less fortunate and help them to be the best people they can be, to help them be the best Christians they can be, and to make the world a better place," she says. "We help take average students and make them excellent students. We help them reach their potential."
Kathe hopes her sons will attend Saint Mary's. Their bedroom is decked out in red and blue, and an SMC football pennant from 1929 and a framed ticket from the SMC vs. Cal game on Oct. 5, 1929 are displayed on the walls.
The Siler family has also brought people who aren't related to the College. Many, including Joe and Marty, recruit students, encouraging many Southern California teens to head north as they did more than 40 years ago. In the fall, Marty was at Fullerton High talking up the campus to interested students.
"I tell them Saint Mary's is not meant to train you, it's meant to educate you," Breen says. "I also tell them about the accessibility of the staff, the size of the classes and the personal touch. Where else are you going to have a college where Brother Mel, who was the president, is two doors down in the dorm?"
The Anna Siler endowed scholarship helps students every yearThe passion for Saint Mary's inspired the Siler family several years ago to establish an endowed scholarship in Anna Siler's name."We were trying to figure out a way of honoring grandma while doing something good at the same time," Joe says. "She absolutely loves Saint Mary's. She knows what it has done for her children and her grandchildren. An endowed scholarship is a way to do something good for the world. It's a way to leave something behind that will do good for untold years into the future, at the same time honoring someone while they're alive so they can appreciate it."Anna, who is now 90, more than just appreciates the tribute, she feels blessed that her descendants, who got through college on scholarships and by working, are now helping new generations of students to attend."Every year there's a letter from the ones that get scholarships," Anna says. "I feel that some good has been done. To send people to Saint Mary's, to open that beautiful campus to them, is worth it."Anna hopes her family's legacy to Saint Mary's will continue."I hope more of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will go to Saint Mary's," she says. "I can't think of a better place. They'll come out better people, happier people."Marty Breen recently found out he'll be a grandfather, and he's already planning to begin the indoctrination: "I don't care if it's a boy or a girl, they'll definitely get a Saint Mary's beanie."