Brother O. DeSales Perez, FSC
By: Brother Michael Avila, FSC
Saint Mary's College of California
October 7, 2003
"And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother for my name's sake, will receive a hundred fold and inherit eternal life." - Matt. 19:29
Photo of Brother O. DeSales Perez, FSCIt is a great honor and a privilege to have been asked by the Brothers of Saint Mary's College to prepare this eulogy for our beloved Brother De Sales Perez. I must confess however, to the feelings of unworthiness that I've wrestled with, when I consider how many of you, present here this evening, may have known Brother De Sales longer or perhaps had reason to love him more than I. Nevertheless, to me was assigned the task to try to capture and to give semblance to what this unique and extraordinary man meant to us -- his Brothers -- and to try to articulate how we came to love and revere him as we do. The stories and anecdotes that so many of you have shared with us about Brother De Sales are legion -- too numerous to recount here this evening -- but the stuff of which legends are made. This evening, I merely wish to share with you, a glimpse of our life in community with Brother De Sales, as our fraternal tribute and farewell to this extraordinary and unique personality, whom we were blessed to call our Brother.
Brother De Sales Perez was born Oscar Emanuel Perez, in El Paso, Texas on March 5, 1930, the oldest child of Juan Emanuel and Esperanza Orona Perez. He attended Cathedral High School in El Paso, where he first met the Christian Brothers. After graduating from high school, Oscar expressed his desire to enter the Christian Brothers, but acceded to his father's request that he wait one year, before making this transition. After a year of college, Oscar boarded a train in El Paso, Texas, bound for California along with his father and brother Richard. According to Estela, his sister, Oscar's mother, Esperanza, chose not to accompany him on this journey because she was so devastated by the loss of her son. The Community register for that time notes that Oscar Emanuel Perez entered the novitiate of the Christian Brothers, in Napa, California, on July 11, 1948, a mere youth of 18 years.
His zeal and eagerness for learning are well documented in the variety of Universities that Brother De Sales attended after graduating from Saint Mary's College. These include Middlebury College in Vermont, where he received a Master's Degree, The University of Madrid where he received his Licentiate and Doctorate in Philosophy and Letters, as well as other Universities such as Cal, Berkeley, San Francisco State, the University of Southern California and the University of Grenoble in France.
In 1953, upon completion of his undergraduate degree at Saint Mary's College, Brother De Sales was assigned to teach at Saint Mary's College High School in Berkeley -- where I first met him as a resident fourth grader. In 1961, Brother DeSales received permission from our Superiors, to study for a higher degree and embarked for Europe, returning to Saint Mary's College in 1967, where he spent the next 37 years, as a professor and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages, directed the Collegiate Seminar Program for 17 years, became the Religious Superior of the Brothers' Community and Resident Director of various campus residence halls.
In 1977, after 29 years of religious life, Brother De Sales requested a "leave of absence" from the Christian Brothers, and was granted a dispensation from his vows (1979). People have often asked why Brother DeSales left the Brothers for 18 years. He was usually silent about this, but on one occasion, he related that it was because of the changes that had occurred in the religious life, in the wake of Vatican II. On another occasion, he confessed that he believed, at that time, that he could better further the mission of the Brothers and the College as a layman. The truth of the matter, which many of you can attest to, is that Brother De Sales never really left the Brothers, and that he continued to work diligently on behalf of the students and the College with the same spirit of faith and zeal which he learned in the novitiate -- the first time around!
In February of 1995, at the age of 65, Brother De Sales requested and was granted permission to return to the Christian Brothers. He began his novitiate or "re-tooling," under the capable direction, and scrutiny, of Brother Dominic Ruegg -- present here this evening. There is speculation among the Brothers, however, that Brother De Sales' "second novitiate" didn't take the second time either, and many were the occasions when we jokingly threatened to revoke Brother De Sales' vows and place Brother Dominic under interdict, for failing to curb Brother De Sales' unbridled and contrary spirit!
As many of you know, Brother De Sales was a character, much given to cajoling and teasing -- sometimes mercilessly, but always in a spirit of humor -- however warped at times! But I can assure you that De Sales always received as "good as he dished out" from the Community. In fact, I, whom he nicknamed the "Dalai Lama" pride myself in having bested him at his own game on many occasions and sent him away raving at me! On one such occasion, I recall giving Brother De Sales such a "talking to" in Spanish (so as not to offend pious ears), that later that day, one of the Brothers remarked: "I don't know what you said to De Sales at lunch, but it took me half an hour to calm him down after you left!"
But De Sales always rebounded, and came back for more, hell bent on trying to provoke me, only to be driven off again and again, to lick his wounds and to re-arm for our next engagement. We both relished these verbal duels and actively sought each other out to test our mettle and wit. I suppose he liked me, or was intrigued by the fact that I never backed down to him, nor ever allowed him to trespass the boundaries of propriety, sobriety and decorum when teasing others in my presence.
As the Community sub-director and his summer Director, I often had occasion to chide De Sales for his remarks or unruly behavior, and to remind him that as the "youngest member of the community -- in religion," he owed me the respect and obedience due my "grace of state!" He would inevitably frown, throw up his arms and blurt out: "But I can't help myself!" "Well help yourself!" I would retort, "And do us all a favor!," at which point, we would both burst out laughing -- he with that mischievous smile you see on the program.
But De Sales was a Brother to the core. I remember listening to him one day, in one of his moments of fraternal exasperation. "So why did you return?" I asked him. He claimed that he had forgotten how "crazy" we Brothers could be at times. "So who's keeping you here?" I replied. He merely hung his head and became silent. It was in rare moments such as this one, when De Sales had no come back and became repentant, that I would find myself recalling Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gunga Din" and musing: De Sales, De Sales, De Sales, "Though I cursed you and I flayed you, by the living God that made you, you're a better Brother than I, Brother De Sales."
At his final vow liturgy -- the second time around, the community jokingly agreed that Brother De Sales ought to be awarded a plough, as a New Testament symbol of the man who put his shoulder to the plow and then looked back -- for 18 years! Nevertheless, I will always remember that it was at this Community liturgy, that Brother De Sales addressed us with the following words: "If any of you are contemplating doing what I did...forget it! When you discover your true vocation in life, it is difficult to fit in anywhere else."
When I approached the faculty of the Modern Languages Department (of which De Sales was a member for 37 years), to ask if they had any thoughts or reflections they would like me to include in this eulogy, they graciously responded with an email which I would like to share with you in its entirety, because I believe that it captures so eloquently, the spirit of Brother De Sales' professional life (and relationship to students), from the perspective of his colleagues. Their comments read as follows:
"Anyone who ever set foot inside the office of Brother De Sales must have recognized that this area was the material manifestation of a highly unusual mind. Papers, books, works of art, plants, and the occasional gastronomic delicacy were crowded into this small space, in what appeared to be an incomprehensible jumble. In fact, De Sales knew exactly what each item meant to him (even if he could not always retrieve it immediately), and he could expound at length on the history, the significance, and the potentialities of any one of them.
De Sales was a collector; a collector of ideas, of out-of-the way objects, and of people. A man of widespread culture and eclectic tastes, he took an exuberant interest in a vast array of topics. Above all, he loved to explore ideas, in whatever direction they might take him. It is not surprising that he was central to the Collegiate Seminar program. He excelled in getting students to make connections and to express opinions they never knew they had. As Director, he left a permanent imprint on the program thanks to his unflagging vision of the central role of the seminar in the Saint Mary's experience.
In his Spanish classes, De Sales alternately bullied and cajoled students into the realization that they knew more than they thought they did, and that they could express their thoughts in a foreign language. He saw each student as special and unique. One cannot count the number of those who have remained his life-long friends.
De Sales was an esthete, a lover of art in all its forms: music, literature, painting -- and food. At the drop of a hat, he would turn out sumptuous meals for colleagues and students, completely unruffled, if at the last minute, the number of guests doubled or if a crucial ingredient needed to be replaced by another from his fertile imagination.
He was inordinately generous, and had an unerring sense of what might give pleasure: the right frame for an antique print, for example, or the perfect container for a particular plant.
There was no pretentiousness in him. A truly humble man, he was nonetheless never intimidated by the great of this world. He spoke his mind, and was never shy about voicing his likes and dislikes.
He loved laughter and lightheartedness, and devised hilarious, perceptive nicknames for students and colleagues. He always referred to Brother Manuel Vega as "El Eximio Reverendisimo". (Brother Manuel, in return, called De Sales "El Ilustrisimo"). Others were dubbed Sancho Panza, Sweet Voice, the Pillsbury Doughboy, La Sirena, El Nino, Little Baby Jesus, La Santa, Mirabilis Mulier, and who can forget -- the Chrysanthemum Throne!
To the end, he chose to participate fully in life. After more than 35 years in the classroom, he showed no signs of burnout. He was just as passionate about Spanish poetry as he had ever been, and just as sure that all his students were great poets. He had plans to attend the San Francisco opera and the next Modern Languages Department poetry reading.
In the midst of our grief at so sudden a bereavement, we celebrate the love of life and the enthusiasm which De Sales poured into everything that he undertook. We are glad for him that he was taken at a time when he was still able to do all the things he loved, and that he was spared any further deterioration of his health. And that he won't ever have to make the decision to retire, which he would have hated so much." As another good friend and colleague said of him, Brother DeSales was truly a Renaissance Man!
On a more personal note, some of you may have heard Brother De Sales rail about how much he hated being hugged. I always dismissed his protestations with Shakespeare's remark, Brother De Sales "Me thinks thou dost protest too much!" Remarks such as these only provoked him to further fury, more vociferous protestation and denunciations of the "Dalai Lama". Nevertheless, it did not take a trained eye to observe the smile that would often steal across his face while embracing someone -- when he thought no one was observing him! I don't think he would take kindly to the notion that he was a "closet hugger", but as they say: "You can always tell a person's character by what they do when they think they're not being observed."
In this regard, I would like to relate a rather touching incident, that occurred during De Sales' last visit to his sister Estela's home in Tehachapi, California, this summer. It seems that as he was about to board the train to return, Estela reported saying to him "I know you don't like to give hugs, and I know you don't like to shake hands, but I want you to know that you are a wonderful, wonderful person anyway, and I hope that you will come back to see me many, many, more times." At this, he gave her a prolonged hug. So you see, you just had to know what button to push and when, in order to jumpstart Brother De Sales.
The love, the concern and the attention that Brother De Sales lavished upon his students is legendary, and legion are the stories concerning the many wonderful things that Brother De Sales did, not only for his students, but for so many others in need as well. But most of these deeds are known to God alone, as De Sales never permitted, even the Brothers, to do an oral history on him. Although he may have had difficulty expressing his love, he betrayed himself, by his actions, in so many ways.
Saint John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic and doctor of the Church, tells us that at "eventide", that is, at the end of our lives, when we appear before God for the final judgment, we will be asked one question, and only one question by God. And that question is: "How did you love me?" Not, How many times did you miss Sunday Mass...but "How did you love me?" In the gospel it is clear that on that last day, many will say: "But Lord, when did we see you naked or you hungry or you in prison? The answer to this question is of course: "Amen I say to you, whatever you did for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did for me" (Matt. 25:40). And I can imagine you De Sales, on that last day, humbly kneeling before the Redeemer of the world (to be presented by our Father, St. John Baptist De La Salle), and thinking that same question: "But Lord, when did I see you in need?" On that day, De Sales, remember that all of us gathered here this evening (as well as those gathered here in spirit), are your answer to the question. You may not have realized it, but all that you did for the least of us, even though done in secret, fulfilled the gospel injunction: "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms will made in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6:3).
When our Director, Brother Michael Meister, phoned me shortly before midnight last Thursday, to inform me that Brother De Sales had not survived his operation, I immediately asked him, "But who will I fight with now?" I went to Brother De Sales' room, just to be there -- amid his clutter, in order to gather my thoughts and to try to make sense out of what had just occurred. Perhaps I imagined De Sales might still be there, lingering amidst his art and thrift shop bargains. The classical music was still playing softly in the background. But I had to smile, because De Sales had not even bothered to have the burned out lights in his room replaced! Perhaps he was there, in that moonlit room amidst his cherished books and "treasures," listening to his music and having the last laugh -- on me!
As we begin the process of dismantling Brother De Sales' "incomprehensible jumble of artifacts" and retrieve them from the "outposts of empire" he claimed over 37 years, I am acutely aware of the sadness and grief that will seek to engulf each of us, each time we look into one of his familiar haunts and see it stripped of all those things that defined who he was, and which brought so much delight to each of our hearts. But I know that De Sales lives! He lives forever in our most cherished and hilarious memories of him -- seared forever into the recesses of our hearts and minds, and etched into the stones and lore that bind this college community together -- a living testament to Brother De Sales' life work, and the unflagging spirit of St. John Baptist De La Salle!
De Sales, De Sales, De Sales, as we bid you farewell, I wonder...Have you any idea of the void you are leaving in each of your Brothers and in our Community? No longer will we hear the methodical jingle of your keys in the hallway, announcing your late arrival to dinner, nor watch you pause to survey who is at the table, smile brightly - or smirk, and proceed to the kitchen to concoct some "delicacy" you claim is healthier and guaranteed to make you live longer. I once told you jokingly -- not to bother, that you would never die, invoking the Spanish proverb that claims "La mala hierba nunca muere!" (Weeds never die!). But alas, I guess we were both wrong -- you with your concoctions and I with my dichos (proverbs). So...who am I supposed to fight with now? You know...the "Dalai Lama" is not finished with you yet! Save me a place - this conversation needs to continue!
Yes, I know, we no longer have to worry about you burning down the kitchen. And we no longer have to worry about turning off the stove, the toaster, the water and the lights after you have been in the kitchen -- nor worry about your favorite pot of lintel soup exploding all over the kitchen again. And we need never worry about that pot of turkey soup bubbling mysteriously on its own -- after sitting on the stove for a week! But I miss your presence in community, our fraternal wrangling and the laughter these encounters provoked. And I miss our regular trips to Costco for that $1.50 hotdog and soda, as well as watching you gleefully interact with the children -- and your laughter whenever I asked: "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?"
At the divine banquet table where you now recline, I am certain that you are very busy catching up with all of your old cronies -- and reporting on us! And yes, I know...you're rolling your eyes right now and saying: "Haven't you spoken long enough!" and "Can we get on with this ceremony?" Yes we can, De Sales, but not before thanking all those who have come to bid you farewell and who want to hug you...just one more time! We also need to thank all those who have so lovingly and generously given their time and talents to make this liturgy and reception possible. Special thanks are also due to Professor Bob Gardner, who faithfully accompanied you to the very end.
And finally De Sales, we need to thank your father, Juan Emanuel and your mother, Esperanza, as well as your brothers Ernie, Richard, and Albert, and your sister Estela, for permitting you to board that train, fifty-five years ago, in El Paso, Texas -- bound for California and a destiny known only to the wisdom and mind of God, and that even you Oscar Emanuel, in your wildest fantasies could never have imagined.
You have blessed us and you have been blessed in return -- good and faithful son of St. John Baptist De La Salle. At the end of your earthly sojourn, we your Brothers (and the "Dalai Lama!"), bless and thank you one last time, for sharing your life, your love, and all of your endearing eccentricities with us. Enter now into eternal life and the reward prepared for you from the foundation of the world. We have loved you in life De Sales, we will not forget you in death. Descanza en paz amigo...y un abrazo! ...until we meet again!
--The "Dalai Lama"
that I was the architect of my own destiny;
if I extracted honey or bitterness from things,
it was because I placed gall or succulent honey in them;
When I planted roses, I always gathered roses.
I loved, and was loved, the sun caressed my face.
Life, you owe me nothing! Life, we are at peace!"
- Amado Nervo