Brother J. Robert Houlihan, CFX
Brother J. Robert Houlihan (Brother Arnold in his early career but “Houli” to just about everyone, Xaverian or not) was one of that not-so-uncommon at the time and highly-respected and heroic breed of Xaverians who, in addition to teaching, coaching sports, and moderating clubs, spent late afternoons and evenings on subways and busses and commuter rail trains earning their BS and MA degrees and grant certificates in colleges and universities up and down the East Coast. In Houli’s case that included St. John’s University, Hunter College, La Salle College in Philadelphia, Columbia Teacher’s College, Eastern Michigan University, Salem State Teachers’ College, Eastern Illinois University, Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, and Assumption College where for twelve summers he attended an Ecumenical Institute. Quite an academic resume for a 1949 graduate from St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, next door to his beloved Peabody. Houli was a five-year man, attending the Prep from eighth grade through twelfth grade.
Houli’s teaching career began at the Manhattan Annex of Cardinal Hayes High School, Our Lady of Good Counsel. Borough hopping to Brooklyn for five years, he towered over his seventy- four fourth graders in one classroom at St. Theresa’s School. Back to Hayes’ Manhattan Annex for a year, he then moved to Hayes’ main Grand Concourse campus in the Bronx for ten years, 1960-1970. His decades-long association with the mentally and physically handicapped began in 1964 when a woman who ran a recreation program for the handicapped at Christ the King Church, not far from Hayes, overheard some of Houlie’s students riding the bus down the Grand Concourse talking about his challenge to them to become involved in community service. She contacted him, and the rest is history. In 1966 Houli began his own program for the handicapped at Hayes. Despite the fact that the Brothers withdrew from Hayes in 1970, he would drive from Middletown to the Bronx two Sundays a month for the next forty-one years in order to maintain his connection with the program he developed and loved so much.
Houlie spent the next forty-four years of his life at Xavier High School in Middletown, thirty-eight of them in the classroom, teaching freshmen physical science. He initiated and moderated MYARC (Middlesex Youth Association for Retarded Citizens) to which thousands of Xavier and Mercy High School students have volunteered, making it the outstanding youth volunteer group in Connecticut. As one Xavier yearbook dedication read, “We are honored to pay tribute to this ebullient and indefatigable man, this zealous humanitarian, who never stops doing all he can for his flowers, his Camera Club, his students, his school, and his handicapped friends.” As a Xavier faculty member wrote several years ago, “Although he may seem a bit obsessive-compulsive about the cans and bottles he collects in his special and ubiquitous ‘X’ buckets in the dining hall, and a can or a bottle thrown into a trash barrel is a crime against humanity that cries out to God for vengeance, and although he may even appear at times to look like that vengeful God as he patrols the dining hall during the lunch waves, especially on his many bad hair days when his white mop seems to have never met a comb it ever liked, there is reason for his intensity. Every night, a solitary figure sitting on a stool by the sink in the school basement, he washes out each can and bottle (approximately 170,000 each year) and then bags them for the nickel refund. Over the years he has raised thousands of dollars in bottle and can refunds to help cover the operating expenses of MYARC. When asked about these past fifty years of profound dedication to the handicapped, he gave an unexpected answer. ‘I didn’t want any part of it. It was the Lord’s work. I just grew into it.’ For that we are all extraordinarily grateful. Brother Houlihan is truly a profile in humility, service and leadership.”
Houli returned to Danvers in 2014 to live out his retirement at Xaverian House. The physical and mental infirmities of old age began to take their toll, and he was recently moved to Mary Immaculate Health and Restorative Center in Lawrence, MA. He died two weeks prior to his 90th birthday. He had faithfully and selflessly served the Congregation for 72 years. As yet another Xavier yearbook dedication read, “Brother Houlihan is truly a giving man in action. Seeing his caring and gentle communication is a real lesson in loving and service.”
May this good and faithful Xaverian rest in God’s peace.
Prepared by Brother Thomas Ryan, CFX