An American educator’s story

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Dick Martin is a familiar face to students, faculty and parents at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington. He spent nearly 50 years at the school as a coach, teacher and administrator before retiring in 2014. But many might not know the adventures he had along the way.

Author Frederick J. Day's new book, Of Mice and Miracles: An American Educator's Story (2 Donn Books, 2014), chronicles Martin's journey, starting as a sickly child in Mount Lebanon, Pa., to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where he was a standout varsity wrestler, and eventually to O'Connell.

Along the way, Martin rubbed elbows with some true American legends: baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney and Holy Cross Father Monk Malloy, former president of Notre Dame.

Martin also was influenced greatly by Msgr. James W. McMurtrie, O'Connell's charismatic former principal who turned the school's fortunes around in the early 1970s when it was in danger of closing. Msgr. McMurtrie established many of the school's traditions that are still in place today. The annual Superdance, for example, has become the nation's largest school fundraising effort for cystic fibrosis research.

It was Msgr. McMurtrie who encouraged Martin to get his master's degree in school administration, which opened professional doors for him, including the top job at O'Connell.

Day, who operates a private law practice in Falls Church, details the friendship between Martin and another O'Connell icon, former Principal Al Burch. The two were known as "Batman and Robin" for their ability to complement each other. Burch was known as someone who would bend the rules a little, while Martin was more of a strict disciplinarian.

The book's curious title refers to an incident in 1984 involving former O'Connell student Stephen McGraw, who later would be ordained a priest of the Arlington Diocese. (He currently is chaplain of Christendom College in Front Royal.) As a senior prank, McGraw let loose in the school 21 mice he had purchased at a pet store.

One of the highlights of Martin's academic career was the visit of Mother Teresa of Kolkata to the Arlington school in June 1982. The visit was arranged thanks to the friendship between Mother Teresa and Sandy Andreas McMurtrie, the wife of Msgr. McMurtrie's brother Bill.

Two hours before Mother Teresa arrived at the school, Martin received a phone call from the Arlington County Police Department, which had received a threat on the saintly nun's life. Martin and Burch weighed their options, but decided to proceed with the assembly.

"For Martin, more than 30 years later, the thought of Mother Teresa's visit to O'Connell continues to conjure up a wide-range of diverse emotions - terror, amazement, serenity and ultimately, relief," Day writes. "For Martin and the entire O'Connell community, June 1, 1982, provided an unparalleled opportunity to learn from the one person in the world who could most authentically lay claim to the title, 'professor love.'"

There's a long list of coaches, teachers and friends who helped shape Martin's character and guide his professional career. Ultimately, the book is the story of Martin's maturation from an undisciplined teen, who often ran afoul of the law, into a man with a gift for teaching others the importance of love.

At less than 180 pages, this book is a quick read for those who have walked O'Connell's hallways or simply appreciate the value of Catholic education.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014