Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Bro. Dave Verrett

Bro. Xavier “Dave” Verrett, SDB

Bro. Xavier Verrett, SDB, universally called “Bro. Dave,” died at 11:15 p.m. on Jan. 3 at the Rehabilitation and Health Care Center of Tampa. He was 88 years old and had been a Salesian brother for 63 years.

He had lived in the Salesian retirement community, St. Philip the Apostle Residence in Tampa, since 2011. Death seems to have come from a combination of old age, a stroke in November, and dementia that he suffered for several years.

Bro. Dave was a native of Louisiana and spent most of his life in the Salesian works in the New Orleans suburb of Marrero. “He was very proud of being a ‘native’ Cajun,” writes Fr. Steve Shafran, a former principal of Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero.

Early Life

Xavier and a twin brother, Francis, were born to Erclede and Rosa Broussard Verrett on Nov. 22, 1924, in New Iberia, La. Bro. Dave doesn’t seem to have known his father; he described his mother as a housewife. Brother told Fr. Dennis Donovan, director in Tampa, that his parents were struck by a car and killed when he was seven years old, but that cannot be confirmed.

Not long after birth he and Francis were brought to St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum in New Orleans, where they was baptized on Dec. 26, 1924. Francis died young, but we haven’t learned exactly when. Brother also indicated to Fr. Donovan that after his parents’ deaths he was put into an orphanage where he was miserable; again, that cannot be confirmed.

(The archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans confirm the date and place of Baptism and his parents’ names. But nothing else can be learned, at least in part because of storm damage to some of the archival records.)

At a date unknown, Dave was placed in the archdiocese’s Hope Haven Orphanage in Marrero, run by the Salesians. One confrere recollects that this happened shortly after the Salesians assumed direction of the orphanage in the summer of 1933. Dave was confirmed in the local parish church, Immaculate Conception, on June 6, 1940.

According to his Don Bosco Seminary (Newton) registration card, Dave entered the aspirants’ program there on Sept. 21, 1945, intending to become a Salesian coadjutor brother. The card lists the Rev. C.J. Moskal as his guardian; Dave was two months short of legal adulthood (21) at the time. Fr. Celestine Moskal was director of Hope Haven.

Young Brother

In September 1948 Dave entered the novitiate, and he made his first profession of vows as a coadjutor brother, “Bro. Dave,” in Newton on Sept. 8, 1949. He made his perpetual profession on June 6, 1955, in New Rochelle.

As was common at the time, Bro. Dave was sent immediately to the active apostolate in a house of formation—in his case, to Don Bosco Tech in Paterson, which was simultaneously a technical/trades school, an aspirantate for young men seeking to become coadjutor brothers, and a training school where young brothers mastered their crafts. Bro. Dave learned cabinetmaking in Paterson from a master teacher, Bro. John Cauda.

Bro. Dave went on to teach cabinetmaking for his first 18 years as a brother (1949-1967): in Paterson (1949-1953, 1961-1967), at Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa (1953-1960), and at Hope Haven (1960-1961).

In 1967 he returned to Marrero, this time to the Salesians’ new apostolic ministry, Archbishop Shaw HS, where he served until 2009, running the bookstore and performing numerous chores around campus. His skills went beyond cabinetry; he could fix radiators, refrigerators, and many other things in the school and the Salesian residence. He believed that cleanliness was next to godliness and insisted on it in both the house and the school. He also believed that everyone should work hard, as he did.

Bro. Dave’s novitiate classmate Fr. Ed Liptak calls him a “very fine, ever busy and straightforwardly humble man!” That does not begin to tell the tale. Any Salesian who served at Shaw has lively recollections of Bro. Dave.

“Hardest-Working Person I Ever Knew”

According to Fr. Tom Ruekert, a former campus minister at Shaw and pastor of St. Rosalie Church in Harvey, “If he saw that a new teacher, coach, or Salesian was a hard worker, immediately he befriended that person. If he perceived that person was lazy, then he would let the person know in no uncertain terms.” Similarly, he expected people to be as straightforward and unpretentious as he was; and if you weren’t, you heard about that too!

Salesian Cooperator and Shaw guidance counselor Cheryl Welch maintains that he “was the hardest-working person I ever knew. He outmoved, outlifted, outworked, and outmaneuvered the youngsters around him, and I am not talking just about the students. In most cases he was the hardest working Salesian on campus.”

Bro. Dave gave particular attention to three areas of Shaw’s large campus: the bookstore, the gym, and the swimming pool. Fr. Ruekert describes his role in each area:

“He managed the bookstore for some 40 years. He prepared paper bags with all the gym clothes; he ordered jackets, sweatshirts, and other supplies; he put all the textbooks in order from all the many shipments that came in. When the new bookstore was built, he was ecstatic. He finally had a decent workplace, where he spent many hours of his life in service.

“The gym was his ‘baby.’ He took care of it meticulously. He coordinated the set-up of the gym for school Masses, entertainments, graduation, basketball games, after-school leagues, school dances, etc. To protect the floor, he would spread plastic sheeting over the floor before the folding chairs were set out. Everything had to be just right.

“Bro. Dave did the day-to-day maintenance of the pool. He made sure it was vacuumed, the chlorine was correct, and the leaves were screened out. He loved to be in the sun.”

Love for Shaw and for Everyone

Fr. Ruekert says, “Most of Bro. Dave’s Salesian life and ministry was spent in total dedication to the youth at Archbishop Shaw High School. He loved the kids and the work at Shaw. His heart was always there, even when he would go elsewhere for a few summer assignments or when he traveled to Europe.”

Not only Salesians noticed that dedicated love. John Corb, Alicea Alexander, and Earnie Chiasson—respectively the school’s financial officer, financial secretary, and retired dean of discipline—write: “In his own special way, we all knew that Bro. Dave loved his Shaw family. We saw the evidence of that love by the way he worked so hard without complaint to make sure that every school function was carried out perfectly and by the many individual acts of kindness he performed without praise or recognition. Bro. Dave faithfully remembered us and our loved ones in his daily prayers and without question would help those in need.”

That idea of family was very important to Bro. Dave. One would suspect it was because he had never known family life until he joined the Salesian Family. From then on, he did all he could to make sure that every person he met—teacher, administrator, student, parishioner, someone sick, local merchant—knew that that person was important and loved. An oft-repeated refrain of his, usually directed to a student, was “Tell your momma you love her.” As Fr. Shafran observed, “Bro. Dave always felt himself one of Don Bosco’s boys. His early life played out like one of the poor and abandoned that our founder spent himself tirelessly for.” Fr. Ruekert completed the thought: “So many students and alumni truly saw beyond his rough exterior and deeply appreciated his genuine Salesian love for them.”

Bro. Dave seemed to know everyone on the West Bank. Consequently, some of Ms. Welch’s memories of Bro. Dave include taking him out when he could no longer drive. Their errands ranged far and wide. “It would frequently be to the places where he thought he’d misplaced his eyeglasses,” she recalls. “So it wasn’t unusual to go looking for them after school. We would go to Home Depot or Winn Dixie or Ullo’s—wherever he may have been that day and, yes, we would find them, but it was always an adventure to take driving instructions and direction from him. But everywhere we went, people were more than kind and helpful to stop what they were doing and take a look for him,” just as so often he went out of his way to help others.

Bro. Dave identified with working-class folks, which enabled him to be especially close to people like Shaw’s longtime maintenance men Charlie Celestine and Ralph Rutledge and Lois Dumas, the Salesian community’s cook. Likewise, he had a special sympathy for the students in the work-study program, who paid part of their tuition by doing chores around campus after school.

He endeared himself to countless students in his 42 years at Shaw through his personal attention to them, by attending almost every athletic event, by marching with the band in Mardi Gras parades, etc. He collected ticket money for Shaw’s football games and ran the time clock for basketball games. He sat alongside the baseball field on a chaise lounge to watch the games. He also coached golf for some years. So loyal to his Shaw boys and so intense was he as a spectator at sporting events that Shaw alumnus Shawn Heiden describes him as “an official’s worst nightmare.”

“Crusty and Feisty”

A first encounter with Bro. Dave could fool both adults and kids, says Fr. Ruekert. He “could be perceived as crusty, feisty, and demanding. But it was all an act. He let kids know that he would not take any guff or disrespect from them. When he would sub for a classroom teacher, there was no nonsense in the room. But he followed them up, not only through their four years at Shaw, but he also joined in all the alumni gatherings and reunions. He attended their weddings and funerals. He attended all their sporting events.”

He became a priceless liaison between current school administrations and numerous Shaw alumni (as well as those of the Salesians’ years at Hope Haven). Earnie Chiasson states, “Many alumni will recall how Bro. Dave guided and directed them during study hall to make sure they stayed awake.”

Ms. Welch adds: “In my 18 years at Archbishop Shaw High School, he is the person that I am asked about the most: ‘How’s Bro. Dave? Where’s Bro. Dave? Tell Bro. Dave I said hello.’ And then I would hear the visitor’s favorite Bro. Dave story—all expressed in love and sincere fondness. He was truly, truly loved by the people of the West Bank.”

Ms. Welch also saw Brother’s tough exterior and soft interior: “He ran a tight ship when it came to uniform pick-up; that was when incoming parents and students had their first encounter with Bro. Dave. He understood when a family was in need and did not hesitate to make arrangements with them to get what they needed. If a young student did not seem appreciative of what his parents were trying to do for him, Bro. Dave quickly corrected that young man’s attitude—making another friend for life.”

For many years Bro. Dave kept a coin collection that he was very proud of. He loved to share what he’d learned about the coins. That really impressed principal Fr. Shafran, among others: “My greatest image of Bro. Dave was when I would search high and low for a special coin to add to his collection for his birthday and asked him to display the collection along with a history lessons for some classes. He would beam, his eyes wide, and his smile broad, reflecting that child-like heart. ‘Thank you,’ he would say—that spoke volumes, for he felt honored and respected—precious like those coins, yet with much greater value.”

When Bro. Dave moved to Tampa, he left his coin collection in Marrero. Fr. Lou Molinelli director of the Marrero community, learned that it was worth more than $100,000 and used it to establish a scholarship fund in Bro. Dave’s memory. No doubt that would have pleased Bro. Dave very much.

On the occasion of his 50th anniversary of religious profession in 1999, one of the original Archbishop Shaw HS buildings was named Verrett Hall in his honor—the one where the old bookstore had been, of course.

Faithful Salesian

“Bro. Dave loved community life,” says Fr. Ruekert. “He was faithful to community prayers, Mass, meetings, etc. He always did more than his fair share of serving the community. If something was broken, he would find a way to fix it. He insisted that confreres not leave dirty dishes for the cook to clean up. In his feisty way he would correct confreres who would leave their mess in the kitchen, dining room, or community room. He himself would always pitch in to do dishes.”

Former Shaw principal Fr. Mike Conway remembers Bro. Dave’s penchant for decorating: “One of Dave’s ultimate joys in life seemed to be decorating for special occasions such as birthdays and feast days. His favorite time was always Christmas. Year in and year out, he always had a special place for particular Christmas items and decorations, and God forbid you try to change it! He always reveled in the beauty of his creations and would welcome people into the residence to share in the joy of the decorations. For me this desire of Dave’s was the reflection of the heart of a simple soul who simply wanted to bring joy to people.”

Fr. Ruekert seconds Fr. Conway: “He did decorating with a passion, and no one else was allowed to do it. For someone who was used to hard, rough work, putting up decorations might seem somewhat out of character, an oddity. In fact, he would often say, ‘Decorations need to be delicate.’ Now, very few people would have associated ‘delicacy’ with Bro. Dave. Yet he had a big heart and a soft side. Once you befriended Bro. Dave, you felt loved and accepted by a very warm person—however crusty and feisty he was on the outside or by appearances.”

Some of Ms. Welch driving errands with Brother included trips for decorations: “A favorite memory I have was taking Bro. Dave on a balloon run. Whenever there was a guest at the residence, a birthday to be celebrated, or a feast day, Bro. Dave felt it necessary to decorate with balloons. So off to Szabo’s Party Supply we would go. He ordered extra in anticipation of one or two popping on the way home, which they usually did, but he insisted on decorating with the balloons. Again, the people were more than helpful; and they would stop everything to assist Brother. It brought him great joy to be in charge of decorating, and he took this very seriously.”

Several confreres such as Fr. Ruekert note how “whenever Salesians visited Shaw, he was always available to take them touring in the local area and into New Orleans, the French Quarter, etc. He was the ever-available host and tour guide for New Orleans.”

The simple lay brother could also offer sound advice to those whom he respected. Fr. Shafran testifies: “When I was asked to become principal at Shaw, I took Bro. Dave out for a po-boy sandwich, wanting to get the scoop on the history and how I should go about the job. He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You got a lot to learn, kid. I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go. Watch, listen, and learn. This is the South. Don’t come around thinking that you know it all.’ I had a good laugh, but he was serious, and he was right. I had a lot to learn, and Bro. Dave Verrett demonstrated great dedication, hard work, and the importance of ‘presence’ in our life and educational approach.”

Spiritual Man

Bro. Dave cared about a lot more than hard work, Shaw’s activities, and the boys. He was “faithful and focused” at prayer, says Fr. Shafran. “Bro. Dave loved Don Bosco and saw in him and his mother, Mary Help of Christians, true parental figures. Bro. Dave’s hard edge and life lessons were poured into a Salesian life marked by simplicity, humility, and hard work—lots of hard work”—three traits of Salesian spirituality.

Cheryl Welch saw in Bro. Dave the personification of another part of Don Bosco’s spirituality. “When I think of Bro. Dave, I think of what Don Bosco told us: ‘I promise you bread, work, and paradise.’ He worked effortlessly and tirelessly for all the boys of the West Bank and their families. He moved chairs endlessly, he wrapped packages meticulously, and he was always the first one up in the morning and the last one to lock up the place.

“As for bread, Bro. Dave had a running joke that he was trying to lose another 30 pounds! He did not hesitate to comment on somebody’s diet or lack thereof—but it was in good nature. He shared his fruit and reminded us all of what he like to eat and not eat.

Paradise—he longed for the Lord. Believing in the teaching of St. John Bosco, he modeled himself on him and lived his life for the young. He was tough, but it was always out of love and to help people realize their full potential.”

Doing It the Right Way

Bro. Dave was completely down-to-earth.  Everyone knew that he loved a good beer, loved to work on his tan either at a beach or on the roof of the school, loved visiting good friends. Fr. Shafran adds that he accompanied his friends—and they were many—in good times and bad.

Ms. Welch enjoyed teasing Bro. Dave, who would tease right back: “A familiar phrase that Bro. Dave used to say to me was, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Then he would grab my hand and let out a big laugh.” She adds, “It is amazing to me that somebody can be so well loved and remembered and just respected for his true sense of self. Bro. Dave never put on airs.”

Numerous, too, are the testimonies that “Bro. Dave wanted to do things his way, and that was because he found it to be successful, so he didn’t want to change. He got it done, and more times than not it was done with precision.” Thus Fr. Shafran.

As financial administrator, John Corb was nominally Bro. Dave’s immediate supervisor. He, Alicea Alexander, and Earnie Chiasson must have been chuckling as they wrote: “Who can forget how he taught us to do things the correct way, which, of course, was his way and the only way. And we all remember how he reluctantly expressed his opinions on different issues until he convinced you that you were wrong and he was right.”

Doing things Bro. Dave’s way was the right way—it was never more obvious than when Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in 1987. Fr. Pat Angelucci, who was Shaw’s director at the time, describes the aftermath of the papal appearance at the Superdome: “Brother Dave will always be remembered for the way he led the Shaw kids in dismantling the Superdome in 20 minutes! EVERYONE said it couldn't be done in the two hours before the big game to follow. The archdiocese was prepared to pay extra money to the Dome. The crew at the Dome gave this long explanation as to what was to be done. In the end Earnie [Chiasson] told the kids to do what Bro. Dave told them; everyone watched in amazement as we took down and put  away over 10,000 chairs in 20 minutes! All the work of Bro. Dave!”

When John Paul met with religious in St. Louis Cathedral during that visit, Bro. Dave had a spot in the front pew and was proud to have been able to shake the Pope's hand.

Community Servant

Bro. Dave’s service to the community included not only the Salesians and Archbishop Shaw HS but also the wider community. He would quietly visit the sick in their homes and in West Jefferson Medical Center, and the elderly at the Wynhoven senior residence.

Bro. Dave was an honorary life member of the Knights of Columbus, St. Thomas More Council 7226, at Our Lady of the Visitation Parish in Marrero. He took his First Degree in 1979 and advanced to the Fourth Degree in 1985, and he is described as a hard-working member—selling candy, helping with carnivals, etc.

Failing health led to Bro. Dave’s unofficial retirement in 2009, but he remained at Shaw for two more years.

Alumnus Shawn Heiden summarized Bro. Dave’s life and apostolate: “Bro. Dave spent the majority of his life at Archbishop Shaw High School serving in many capacities—golf coach, teacher, bookstore manager, and maintenance assistant. His unique spirit will always be symbolic of the life of dedication he led. He truly exemplified Don Bosco’s spirit of helping those less fortunate. He had a genuine love of Archbishop Shaw, and he knew that his call to serve God meant being a true team player willing to do anything and everything asked of him. He was a true servant, and he will be sorely missed by the entire Archbishop Shaw community.”

Mr. Corb, Mrs. Alexander, and Mr. Chiasson offer this joint tribute: “Whenever the alumni or other members of the Shaw family meet, Bro. Dave’s name will be spoken with the deepest love, respect, and fond remembrance. We thank God that we have been a part of his life, for we know that we are better men and women because of it.”
Bro. Dave amid summer campers in Tampa, 2011 (Fr. Dennis Donovan)

Last Rites

Bro. Dave’s funeral rites were celebrated at Mary Help of Christians Church in Tampa on Jan. 7 and at the Marian Shrine Chapel in Haverstraw on Jan. 9. Fr. Steve Ryan director of the Salesian community in Tampa presided and preached there. At Haverstraw Fr. Tom Dunne provincial, presided and Fr. Jim McKenna, a former director of Archbishop Shaw HS, preached.

Bro. Dave was buried in the Salesian Cemetery in Goshen on Jan. 10.

A memorial Mass is planned at Archbishop Shaw HS for Jan. 18.

Black and white photos: Archbishop Shaw HS yearbooks 1999 and 2002

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