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Joseph Anthony Breig


THERE WAS A BOY NEARLY A HALF A CENTURY AGO who was a cause of sighs of helpless exasperation among the adults around him. He hardly seemed to live in the same world with other human beings. His mind was always away somewhere; he stumbled over things in his path; he forgot everything he was told in about ten seconds; he could not be persuaded to go outside and play with other youngsters; and he was usually to be found prone on the floor, his eyes close to the pages of a book in front of his face.

As often as not, too, he was right in the line of traffic in the parlor or dining room, and had to be stepped over. He had an uncanny ingenuity in devising stratagems for lying awake in bed reading when he should have been sleeping; and he woke before everyone else-except sometimes his patient father-so that he could go on with the story he had started the night before.

When the boy was about eight, either his teacher or his mother, or both, discovered that he was so nearsighted that he lived in a blur. He will go to his grave remembering the marvel of seeing clearly, through spectacles, for the first time in his life. He had supposed, without really thinking about it, that the vague vision he had always known was the vision common to mankind. Seeing the sharp edges and the details of things, he was startled, he was dumbfounded; it is hardly too much to say that he was frightened.

Obviously, the reason the boy had grown up in the world of the printed page, held close to his eye, was that it was the only world in which he did not have to grope his way, bumping into things and being inexplicably clumsy. The spectacles ended the fumbling and encouraged him to become conscious of everything around him and he did take to hiking through woods and fields in the hills of western Pennsylvania, outside his small steel-coal home town of Vandergrift, with his younger brother and a friend named Herb Brown. But by this time he was, when all was said and done, an incurable bookworm; and the one thing he thought worth striving for in life was to be a writer as well as a reader.

He did not want to be pope or president or chairman of the board of U.S. Steel Corp.; he wanted to put words on paper and have other people read them, and be known, if only in a small way, as an author.

The boy's father was George Francis Breig, who could do almost anything under the sun except spell, and who, strangely enough, liked to read too. The father was an electrician, an electrical contractor, the proprietor of a business that sold chinaware, electrical appliances, toys, and any number of other things. In the basement of his store was a shop equipped with much machinery, and there were plenty of chores for a growing boy.

But the father would come into the basement and find the chores neglected because young Joe had been laboriously writing on scraps of paper which he would not show to anyone. The boy erased and crossed out and rewrote with endless patience; but he had no patience with any other work.

In the first grade of the Vandergrift public school, the boy resolutely refused to try to write with his right hand; but in the showdown his family doctor ordered that he be allowed to go on being left-handed. But the teacher insisted that all the papers on all the desks be slanted the same way; and so Joe learned to write upside down, so to speak, with his wrist curled up and around the line on which his pencil was moving.

In the fourth grade young Joe had a teacher whom he thought he detested but has come to admire in retrospect. She forced him to learn to spell in the only way that the spelling of English can be perfected-by the sheer brute labor of writing words over and over. Joe was a get-by sort of pupil in arithmetic; he was not bad in history and geography; but in reading and in writing compositions he had no rival.

By the time he entered Vandergrift high school, Joe was a healthy and reasonably strong chunk of a boy who had amassed a little stock of painstakingly created short stories; and to this fact his elder sister, who was a secretary in the school, was privy. She started a campaign of attrition to wear Joe down into agreeing to submit stories to the high school literary magazine, the editor of which was a remarkable senior named Kenneth W. Thompson.

Two persons more unlike than Thompson and Joseph A. Breig would be difficult to imagine. But Thompson instantly accepted Breig's stories for publication when Breig's sister filched them and handed them in. Breig saw his name and his beloved words in print, and immediately was lost to everything except writing, although he did not then know it.

His mother thought he ought to become an electrical engineer, and he dutifully took science courses all through high school, struggling with algebra and chemistry, neither of which interested him. No more did geometry or mechanical drawing. But Joe managed to get reasonable grades, and was graduated, and then--.

But for two years between the sixth grade and the first year of high school, Joe had gone to St. Vincent Prep School at the Benedictine Archabbey near Latrobe, Pennsylvania. There, he was to realize in later years, he got an extraordinary education in reasoning, in thinking, in appreciation of the achievements of religious and civilized man, and even in baseball. Because he was forever arguing--taking either side in any question at the drop of a word-his fellowstudents nicknamed him The Philosopher.

Until the night before commencement exercises at Vandergrift high school, Joe assumed that he was going to become an electrical engineer. That evening, he was out strolling with the president of his senior class, a penetrating Jewish young man named Schuler, who inquired what he was going to study in college. Schuler's eyebrows lifted when Breig replied, "Electrical engineering."

Convincingly, Schuler ticked off an argument-Breig was the best writer who had ever gone to Vandergrift high; he was only so-so in any field involving mathematics or mechanics. Obviously, Breig ought to become a newspaperman.

A light went on in Joe's head. He went home and told his mother that he had decided to become a newsman.

His intention was to go to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, but his canny sister (who was eventually to become a Sister of Charity) changed his mind by taking him to Forbes Field to see Notre Dame defeat Tech. To Notre Dame, Breig went.

There he came under the influence of such extraordinary beings as the late poet Charles Phillips; Dr. George Shuster, later of Hunter College fame; Father John O'Hara who was to be cardinalarchbishop of Philadelphia; the powerfully-intellectual Father John Cavanaugh, and a lot of others.

Breig wrote for the Dome, the Juggler, and the Scholastic, becoming editor of the last-named. He was a member of The Scribblers. He won a couple of firsts in literary compositions sponsored by Culver Military Academy, and was escorted, bewildered and pleased, by cadets and rolling drums. He got no degree because he had signed as a special student in order to take postgraduate courses. At the end of his third year, he dropped out because the approaching depression was catching up to his father.

Joe was too shy to ask for a job. His mother-who never misspelled a word in her life, who might well have been an artist in other circumstances, and who loved truth, beauty, and goodness with a strange poignancy-got the job for him, and he went to work on the Vandergrift News, a weekly that became a semi-weekly and then a daily.

Breig had not changed. The only thing he really wanted to do was write; he hated petty smalltown "personals" and trivial stories; and finally an editor "kicked him upstairs" by sending him to the rewrite desk of William Randolph Hearst's Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. For ten years he did rewrite and feature stories, wrote a column, and for a while covered City Hall. But by this time, what with his friendship with Father Thomas F. Coakley of Sacred Heart parish and an assistant, the late Bishop Howard F. Carroll of Altoona- Johnstown, Breig became "so Catholic" that only Catholic journalism could make him happy.

He went to Cleveland as assistant managing editor (he still is) of the diocesan papers of Cleveland, Toledo, and Youngstown. Encouraged by his managing editor, Joseph A. Gelin, than whom no better editor the Catholic
press (or any press) has seen, he started a column that spread through many Catholic papers in the United States and Canada. He wrote eight books, became associate or contributing editor of Family Digest, Crosier Family Monthly, Our Lady's Digest, and Ave Maria magazine, and wrote for dozens of Catholic magazines.

A few years ago, Breig received an honorary doctorate from St. Vincent College at Latrobe, particularly in recognition of his writings in defense of, and in promotion of, Christian marriage and family life. Much of his writing has centered on that theme.

Not long ago, he tried in an article to answer the question, "How do you get so much writing done?" He alleged, humorously, that he did it by making himself so uncomfortable at his typewriter--whether in the office or at home-that he had to write to take his mind off his discomfort.

Douglas Roche of Sign magazine, who worked with Breig in Cleveland for a while, has another explanation. He holds that Breig cannot endure the sight of a sheet of paper not covered with words.

Breig's wife Mary-for whom he wrote Life With My Mary-and his children have another theory. They know that if Breig stopped turning out words, the family budget would collapse.

In one of his syndicated columns for the Catholic press, Breig once dismissed the whole subject by calling himself "a writing guy"-a chap who has never got over the compulsion he felt in his father's shop when he was supposed to be doing his chores.

The Breig's live at 2227 Westminster Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Two children died with the waters of baptism wet on them; five are living. One has joined Breig's sister as a Sister of Charity. There were three grandchildren at last count.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. Breig's books include God in Our House (America Press, 1949), The Devil You Say (Bruce, 1952), A Halo for Father (Bruce, 1953), My Pants When I Die, and Under My Hat (McMullen, 1952 and 1954; both since transferred to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy), Life With My Mary (Bruce, 1955), The Story of Pope John (Summit Press, 1959), and The Family and the Cross (Regnery, 1959).

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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