Only at Emory: Across Religions, Finding My Philosophy

In the fall of 1976, I transferred to Emory from the University of Maryland as a sophomore. I was scared to be away from home for the first time—I mean really scared—since I was the oversensitive type and unfortunately had a penchant for the nostalgic.

After overcoming those first few weeks of insecurity and homesickness, I was gradually able to mesh with the academic and social realities of life at Emory. Joining a frat, finding a girlfriend and immersing myself in my courses, I was much like Larry Kroger in the movie Animal House, except that I took my studies a bit more seriously. Being an avid reader and classically trained pianist, I first majored in English, but soon switched to music with the idea that I would fulfill all the premed requirements necessary to go on to med school. I even got press-ganged into the Emory Glee Club by Dr. Bill Lemonds, the legendary choir director and chair of the Music Department. He called my tenor voice “a fine instrument.”

As a transfer student, I ended up short when it came to student housing, and had to find accommodations within walking distance of campus. After a short search, I was able to find a studio apartment on North Decatur Road, across from the law school and not far from the Trust Bank, which housed “Tillie the Teller,” the bank’s moniker for a relatively newfangled invention called the ATM. I was amazed how, with the mere insertion of a card, the thing would spit money out!

Like many students from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, and particularly those who shared my Jewish faith, I knew Emory had a sterling reputation as a premed mecca, where one could get a great education in most any chosen major and, at the same time, meet all the requirements for application to medical school. It was common knowledge among high school counselors at the time that Emory, like Duke, Vanderbilt and other “Harvards of the South,” had great success in placing its premed students in some of the nation’s finest medical schools. So, like not a few of my cohorts, my curriculum was replete with chemistry, biology, and physics, as well as music, English, and foreign language.

All of that was pretty mundane, cut-and-dried college fare, until I made a contact that lasts to this day, more than three decades later. Specifically, I am referring to my relationship with Dr. Thomas R. Flynn, professor of philosophy, Catholic priest, towering intellectual, prolific author and scholar, humanist, and arguably one of the most popular and beloved professors in the history of the school. I had previously taken an intro course in philosophy during my freshman year at Maryland, and planned at some point to take a few more courses in that subject at Emory. I knew that med schools at the time were looking for what was then called the “well-rounded” student (as opposed to those whose majors were predictably biology, chemistry, and physics), and I was sure that my music major, slathered with a resume that included philosophy and twentieth-century English literature would do no harm to my admission chances. Little did I know that my choice of this humanities-based coursework and teacher would lead to a friendship that has lasted a full thirty-three years and counting.

I took an introductory course from Dr. Flynn, as well as his now-famous course on existential philosophy. I won’t go into the details of what I learned from Dr. Flynn academically, but I will speak of what I learned personally. From him I learned to broaden my mind. From him I learned of the compassion and gentleness embodied in the human soul and spirit. From Dr. Flynn, I learned that this Catholic priest with humble beginnings in far-flung Montana, a graduate of Gregorian University in Rome, the most respected learning institution for members of the clergy in his faith, could act as a stimulating educator, spiritual counselor and guide that I, as a Jew, was unable to fully find in anyone else. We meshed with our love of classical piano, history, art, and even humor. He graciously attended my performance of Brahms’s Rhapsody for piano in G minor at graduation in Glenn Memorial in June of 1979. His graduation gift to me, an autographed copy of Charles Rosen›s The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, sits on my bedside desk with the inscription:

“To David Sherer on his graduation from Emory 6/11/79:

May the musician’s sensitivity, the philosopher’s wisdom and the healer’s art find in your spirit their perfect blend! Mazel Tov! Tom Flynn.”

Tom has guided me through many difficult times. We have talked family, health, politics, “what the world’s coming to,” and the history of his family in far-flung Montana. We’ve even discussed the Irish Potato Famine of the 1800s and his father’s work in the early days of JC Penney›s.

A friend; a mentor; cherished memories. The story of a Jewish student, a Catholic priest professor and a Methodist-founded university, all before diversity was in style. Only at Emory. What more can I say?

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