TIMOTHY S. HEALY, the president of Georgetown University, commonly disobeys Holy Writ by casting pearls before swine, and I do not mean merely his willingness to have me drop by for a chat.
Far more than that, he is that uncommon creature in academe, a large brain who likes medical students. Even to the extent of having them to his house to study poetry, despite the prevailing view of eggheads that med students are valuable only because somebody has to use up the formaldehyde.
Father Healy's university runs one of the world's major medical schools and it is a ghastly budgetary burden.
Surely life would be simpler for university administrators without it. That is my view, not Healy's, however, and when I asked him if he thought maybe a Roman Catholic school could give the apprentice butchers some delicate and elegant ethics (thus justifying the cost of the medical school, religionwise) he leaned back in his throne and laughed like an Irish cop.
"There's no such thing as Catholic medicine to be taught in medical schools," he said, so I assumed the Georgetown sawbones were no different from others when it comes to merry pranks.
"The university would be a lot poorer without them. They have a moral force that would be missed if there were no med school."
It was my heathen turn to rare back and fall off the chair, and I asked him what he meant.
Healy, you should know, is one of those physically large, gregarious, straigh-eyed, animal-energy types with a beautiful voice as well and (for God can be unjust in handing out gifts) a deep aptitude for literature.
One can imagine being jealous of him, or pouncing with delight to find some defect, but it is very hard to imagine not liking him on sight. Sort of like Bing Crosby with brains or Wallace Beery with polish.
He said that if there were some law that doctors could make no more money than the average fellow making a living, hardly any of the Georgetown med students would drop out. Sure, many of them look forward to money and to status, but what they really want is to do something with their lives to help people.
Now Healy, a Jesuit, is a sophisticated man.
You hardly need to point out to him that an accountant, a carpenter or (God save us all) a lawyer can be as dandy as a doctor, and he is not easily deceived (I suspect) by pious or sentimental affirmations of altruism.
So if he detects an uncommon moral force in med students, I take it seriously. So what's all this about his Sunday night sessions at home with 15 of them reading Shakespeare?
Just what it sounds like, he said. They started off three years ago. Healy wanted to share, if you will forgive that particular word, the "joy" of poetry that he specially liked himself. They read a lot of Yeats, Eliot, and hit the big time with Donne and now Shakespeare, skipping "Timon of Athens" by moving right along through the 37 principal plays.
"Thirty-seven!" I said. "I bet I haven't read 15."
Healy beamed at the thought of his literary flock.
They open a play, say "Antony and Cleopatra" (which they haven't got to yet" and take turns reading aloud. They read a scene or two, then talk about it.
"We meet now in my rooms because I have my books there, and if something comes up - suppose Herbert deals with the same theme - it's easy to pull out the volume of Herbert and follow up the point right then."
They do not have any Oliviers or Judith Andersons in the class thus far, but they did once perform "Murder in the Cathedral" which Healy says was wonderful and fun.
"Perfectly awful, except for Healy," said a girl I know who saw it, I toss that observation in for balance.
"I'm in the third year of medical school now," he said, and has learned enough jargon of the trade to open a practice himself. The times of the poetry sessions change, as the students' schedule has changed.
If he spends a good many hours over the year with these few medical types, clearly it means there are other things he can't do. But the fact that he can't do everything - or even very much, face to face with students - has not led him to the common decision to do nothing.
"They asked," he said.
Healy jogs and swims a mile every day and says he sometimes writes vicious letters in his head while swimming. "Take that, sir, and THAT."
This usually gets things out of his system or at least lets him brood and mulll in perspective.
"Some of them get mailed, by damn," he said with delight. If one sees Healy swimming, a wide berth might be wise.
The trouble with Healy, for my purposes, is that he is a conversationalist. He picks up the ball and runs with it, then belts it back and the hours pass agreeably.
"I beg your pardon," said a person in an odd costume holding a balloon, as he, she, or it entered the room.
"Not at all," said Healy. "I do not know what that means," he said with a glance at the retreating figure.
"Now Donne. Of course his stock has greatly risen in our century. He was not esteemed in the past. Anybody who was hung on Tennyson would have found Donne too virile for their taste, I think."
"Excuse me," said another person entering the room. "We were going to set up for the reception, but we'll come back."
"Go right ahead," Healy said. "We can just keep on talking while you set up."
It struck me I should ask something worthy, so I inquired the value, if any, of a good education: Clearly it does not necessarily produce decent men, or people useful to society or a pleasure to be around - a degree from even a very good college does not insure that.
"No," he said. "Sometimes if I am most serious with students telling them the truth they think I'm putting them on. I say to them the crushing thing is boredom. That is what destroys life.And I say if they learn to read books, they will not be bored."
But is freedom from boredom the point of learning? The ghosts of a billion schoolmasters rise to deny it.
Healy is not going to get trapped into saying something grand. He is too fond of Shakespeare to risk balderdash or bathos. And the conversation has been too civilized, too brisk, to burst into daysprings from on high.
But Healy sees the world in moral terms. Can't help it. What can be expected of a person, and how well he does what he can.
It crept out recently in a polite but rather cutting swipe at a position taken by Harvard. With many bows to the tight reasoning and the difficulty of being clearly understood in any position paper, etc., Healy said the idea of a university as morally neutral is simply not acceptable. (Somewhere back of all this is the highly complex issue of South African investment."
Whatever the merits or objections to the investment revenue, Healy's point is that a university cannot say it is not the university's affair where the money comes from. Not that the investments are wrong, necessarily, but that the university has to think whether they are wrong or not.
Life has surprises. One function of eduction that Healy would agree to is the tuning of the instrument before it has to go on stage. Rehearsing some choices before the choice is sprung.
Healy laughs a lot and tells an unprintable quip an actor once made to Sir Laurence Olivier, and is very much part of the world and swims and jogs and joshes.
And you scratch just a trifle beneath the joshing and there's iron. I observed the big feet and my impression - in so short hours it could be nothing more - was that there are times they flat won't budge. CAPTION: Picture, Father Timothy S. Healy