A brother performs one last act of love

August 22, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

ONE OF LIFE'S silent, chronic maladies, simmering beneath the skin, is the condition called discouraged, and in the end that was likely Paul Flynn's worst ailment. He had diabetes and heart trouble, but it was the black dog of discouragement that chased him down in the final months.

And as most men can't bear to watch a brother die discouraged - die of bitterness, or of a broken heart - John Flynn took up for his older brother when he lay desperately ill and depressed and feeling unappreciated in a hospital bed in Baltimore.

It was a brother's duty.

John Flynn sat at a typewriter in his home in Ellicott City and said, in so many words, "Attention must be paid."

He sent a letter to this newspaper June 9. It began: "I am writing you on behalf of my blind brother Paul, 71."

Paul Flynn, eldest of nine children of a South Baltimore rowhouse family, had tapped a white cane through a remarkable obstacle course of a life. Playground accidents in childhood had impaired his vision; he missed two years of education because of it, but caught up on his studies at the Maryland School for the Blind and at City College. He became fully blind in his early 20s but managed to obtain an undergraduate degree from Loyola and a master's from Johns Hopkins. For a time he worked as a door-to-door salesman.

He was determined to be self-supporting, but Flynn's desire to be a teacher was met with prejudice and repeated rejection. The public schools wouldn't even interview him. "I spent a lot of time vegetating and reading books during that period," he once told a Sun interviewer.

In the early 1960s, the Archdiocese of Baltimore gave Paul Flynn a chance, hiring him to teach English and literature at a new high school called Archbishop Curley.

Some boys were slow to accept Flynn. Others took to him right away. Some never told their parents that their English teacher was blind.

With the help of his wife, who typed exams that Flynn composed in Braille, classroom monitors, and students who served as timers, blackboard writers and "hand recognizers," Paul Flynn managed to hold the job for 21 years, teaching students he could not see the epics of Homer and the plays of Shakespeare.

He lost the job in a 1983 staff reduction, but blamed his layoff on discrimination and based his case on a series of disparaging remarks about his blindness by the school's new principal. Among comments Flynn attributed to the principal, a Catholic priest, was his observation that Flynn could not make "eye contact" with students.

Paul Flynn moved on, and he found an open door that two decades earlier had been locked - at a public high school. He taught at the city's Mergenthaler Vocational for the next 10 years.

If you find all of this remarkable, it was, and Paul Flynn's special life was chronicled in the pages of this newspaper, once in the 1960s, and again in the 1980s, when he claimed discrimination in his layoff at Curley.

Twenty years later, his brother John thought there could be one more story - a kind of tribute, a flashback to a blind man's struggle, something to make his discouraged brother feel appreciated again.

Paul Flynn was hospitalized at Union Memorial with pneumonia, unable to walk or talk, and attached to intravenous tubes. His wife of 41 years was ill, too, and had to be hospitalized for several weeks. The lengthy separation of husband and wife had taken a heavy emotional toll.

"Paul is not anticipating living in an assisted-living facility or any other facility," the letter from John Flynn went on. "He simply wants to die.

"Maybe," his brother wrote, "if you could run a story or a short piece about Paul, it might help to lift his spirits. He is like a Vietnam veteran. He feels unappreciated. Very few people even know he is in the hospital.

"[His wife] was the whole world to Paul. Now she is [ill] and nobody knows if they will ever be back together again. These are hard thoughts for anyone. But for a blind man, these thoughts must be terrifying.

"I would greatly appreciate any attention you could give Paul. He gave so much when he taught English and literature. Maybe God will use you as an instrument to help Paul."

But God does not handle the thousands of letters that arrive at The Sun each week.

And so, for some reason, owing probably to human error or simple bad luck, or a momentary distraction - a cough, a phone call - of the person handling John Flynn's letter, his appeal did not reach this columnist's desk until Aug. 8.

And by then, Paul Flynn was gone.

In fact, he had died June 24.

When I spoke to John Flynn, I expressed regret that his letter had slipped through the cracks. But I applauded the effort on his brother's behalf, and said that his appeal to The Sun for one more story about Paul Flynn's remarkable life had been an act of love. It's the stuff of true brotherhood.

I didn't tell John Flynn about the column you're reading today, partly because I knew it can't be what he wanted - something someone could read to his older brother at his bedside in his final days. This story is too late to work as encouragement for Paul Flynn. But maybe it could work a little magic for all those still running obstacle courses - the ill, the disabled, the discouraged.

"Paul always sought the light," John Flynn said in his eulogy, "and literature and understanding were part of that light. His great intellect was matched only by his courage, that hardly knew the meaning of fear or retreat."

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