Sister Agatha and The Man Of The House

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By Ken Begley

“The best thing about high school was a wonderful teacher named Sister Agatha.  Actually, she was much more than a teacher, for whenever I had a problem, I would go to her.”

- Congressman Tip O’Neill

I was listening to National Public Radio one morning last week on the way to work. A commentator said in passing that when interviewing people he was amazed to almost always receive the same answer to one particular question. When asked, “who most influenced your life” the response would generally be a teacher.
That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Teachers came up more than parents, ministers, priests, or anybody else you could think of.  Their profound effect on each generation is beyond all comprehension.
Today I want to talk about one such teacher.
Her name is Sister Agatha.  Don’t ask me what her last name was.  To this day, I still only remember her as Sister Agatha.
Washington County has a great legacy of teaching Sisters from St. Catharine. I had the good Sisters during most of my youth at St. Dominic and later when I attended St. Catharine College.
I met Sister Agatha in 1978, which was toward the end of her life. She was teaching English literature at St. Catharine College. She weighed all of 90 pounds soaking wet, but had a very much “in-charge” demeanor in her classes.
She could not only recite the classics by memory, but she could even do so in “Old English,” which is really a dead language like Latin.
Anyway, I had my class with Sister Agatha and went on about my life. I saw her one more time shortly before her death. I visited her down at Sansbury. One of her friends, Sister Carla (my personal favorite teacher) told me a strange story at that time.
Sister Carla said Congressman and then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, would frequently call down to Sansbury checking up on Sister Agatha when she was in ill health. She also said that he once brought her up to Washington, D.C. and drove her all around the city.
I found that hard to believe and quickly forgot the story.
Tip O’Neill wasn’t just the speaker of the house and one of the most powerful politicians in the world. He held his position as speaker for the longest continuous term in U.S. history.  He was also one of the most effective politicians in the United States of all time. He served in that position during Republican President Reagan’s term in office.  That is a time now looked on with great fondness by a lot of us older people today when nothing seems to get accomplished in our nation’s capital anymore.
However, the story about the politician and the Sister resurfaced several years later.
Tip O’Neill wrote a fantastic memoir about his life called “Man of The House” in 1987. It was well received by critics and became a national bestseller. Pages 20 to 23 talks extensively about “Sister Agatha.” He never gives her full name.  He attributed his success to her influence on his personal and professional life.
The quote at the top of the page was his first mention of Sister Agatha. He went on to say, “It was Sister Agatha who introduced me to Millie Miller, who was a grade behind me. She used to say that Millie was the girl for me, and she was certainly right about that.”  Their marriage lasted until Mr. O’Neill’s death 51 years later.   
Mr. O’Neill finished high school in 1931 and got a job driving a truck. He had been working a few months when he ran into Sister Agatha, who couldn’t believe it. 
“Thomas,” she said, “you should be going to college to make something of yourself.”
He said in the book, “Now, if anybody else had told me this, I wouldn’t have listened. But Sister Agatha was special, and if that’s what she thought, well, maybe she was right.“
So he went to college.
However, that isn’t the end of the story.
Many years later, Tip came home from congress to find his son crying his eyes out. He was rejected from admission to Boston College. He tried to talk to him, but “his son just grabbed his coat and hat and ran out of the house.”
A few days later, a second letter came from Boston College saying that there had been a mistake and his son was admitted. His wife, Millie, thought Tip had pulled political strings, but he hadn’t.
Eight years later, Mr. O’Neill met the director of admissions of Boston College, Father Walsh, who said, “Say, Tip, how’s that little old nun over there in North Cambridge?” He then proceeded to tell Mr. O’Neill how Sister Agatha successfully pleaded his son’s case for being admitted to the college.
She even helped talk Mr. O’Neil out of running to be governor of Massachusetts.
Sister Agatha told him, “You have a certain softness about you which would make it difficult for you to say no to anyone. That’s a fine quality, but it would get you into a lot of trouble if you were governor. I know in my heart that Washington is the place for you, where you can do so much good for people in need all over the country.”
So, he didn’t run for governor.
Tip also told a story of putting Sister Agatha up in the presidential suite at the Alban Towers in Washington, D.C. and having her driven around town in a Rolls Royce. It was for her 50th anniversary of entering the convent.
Is that a wild story or what?
But, it came from Mr. O’Neill and it’s all in the bestseller.
I think there is one final tribute that should be paid.
When Speaker O’Neill retired from politics, he was virtually broke from decades of true public service and by not feeding at the public trough. What a change from the congressmen and senators today that seem to come out as millionaires.
You see, Tip O’Neill was an honest man in the midst of much temptation to be otherwise.
Sister Agatha was proud of her former student Mr. O’Neill for many reasons.
But I’m sure that this would have been the biggest reason.