J. Desmond Corcoran dies at 74

Retired McDonogh English teacher inspired generations of students with a love of literature

September 12, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

J. Desmond Corcoran, a retired McDonogh School English department chairman who was recalled as a demanding but inspirational teacher, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at his Owings Mills home. He was 74.

"In the eyes of Des Corcoran, one sees the soul of a great teacher — twinkle, tears, unflinching, caring. It's there in those eyes that tell his students of his understanding and his compassion and his faith," said William C. Mules, McDonogh's former headmaster. "They are the eyes that have seen hardship and misery and that know well the strength of the human spirit. He lifted up all who were around him."

He was born John Desmond Corcoran in what he called "the original Dundalk" in Ireland. He earned a degree in English and Irish literature at University College in Dublin, where he also studied mathematics and Latin. He taught in Northern Ireland before visiting Nigeria, where he met his future wife, Kathie Gardner, who was teaching at a girls' school while he was a Catholic Charities volunteer. They met at an outdoor screening of Lawrence Olivier's "Hamlet."

They married in 1966, the year he joined the McDonogh faculty. He later earned a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins University.

"McDonogh was the beneficiary of a state law that prevented public schools from hiring an immigrant like Des Corcoran," said Lynn McKain, a McDonogh official. "Students came to treasure him. In addition to his delightful brogue, Des had a way about him that made his lads feel valued."

Graduates of the school awarded him its 1991 Alumni Service Award. In 1998, he became the first recipient of the Howard C. "Dutch" Eyth Endowed Teaching Chair.

"My first priority in teaching is to make each student feel that he is an individual with dignity and self-worth," Mr. Corcoran said in a faculty self-evaluation. "I still believe that the school exists for the child and strive to create in my classroom a friendly, tolerant, if at times demanding, atmosphere."

Colleagues said he followed the poet William Butler Yeats' view of education as "not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

Mr. Corcoran taught all academic levels of students. Colleagues said he found it particularly rewarding to help students who had difficulty writing.

"He could play the best of curmudgeon, but it was all play-acting," said John Van Meter, a fellow McDonogh faculty member and friend. "He could buffalo a kid, knowing it would pay dividends down the line. He practiced tough love in the classroom and brought them hope, faith and confidence in their abilities."

Friends said he also kept a list of the 100 most commonly misspelled words.

They said the Corcorans enjoyed traveling and reading world literature. He studied Gaelic in County Donegal.

"I grew up speaking two languages and I want to die being able to do so," he often said, adding that he felt he had mastered Gaelic when he could curse with the Irish fishermen.

"He and his wife would read James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake' aloud," said Mr. Mules, the former headmaster. "Des had a flair for telling a great story but never hurting a feeling in doing so."

Friends at the school recalled that one of his pet peeves was grading. "I have never been comfortable with the fact that the grades I give students' work will have some bearing on the students' college prospects," he wrote. "I prefer the British system where student and teacher are on the same side, and some anonymous, back-room ogre sits in final judgment."

Mr. Corcoran oversaw the school's track and field program. Officials said he kept detailed records of performances. "By dangling these marks before the student athletes," he wrote, "I have always promoted the ideal of achieving a personal best in each competition. ... I have never sought victory at the expense of individual commitment, team spirit, or sportsmanship."

In a 1991 Sun story, he described living in a farmhouse on the school's campus. He called it a "terrific place to raise a family." He said, "It is utopia. Probably the most gratifying thing about living on campus is hearing the door open and you find yourself sitting down with some student. [It's] the feeling that you're a shoulder to cry on."

Friends said that over the years the farmhouse and its porch became a gathering place for students and alumni. Mr. Corcoran planted a large vegetable garden and encouraged friends to help themselves to his corn, potatoes and tomatoes. After retiring and moving off campus, he kept a smaller garden plot. He made his final visit to the plot Sept. 5, using a walker.

A Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church, 101 Church Lane, Pikesville. A memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the McDonogh School Chapel, 8600 McDonogh Lane.

In addition to his wife of 44 years, survivors include two sons, Brendan Corcoran of Chicago and Sean Corcoran of Sydney, Australia; a daughter, Niamh Corcoran of Severn; two brothers, Gerry Corcoran of Banagher, Ireland, and Joe Corcoran of Dundalk, Ireland; a sister, Marie McCooey, also of Dundalk; and four grandchildren.


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