The man who would give you the clothes off his back

By Peter Finney Jr.

School Sister of Notre Dame Elizabeth Newman was just a few years older than Glenn Gennaro when they met for the first time in 1971 as teachers at Redemptorist High School in the Irish Channel.

Gennaro, a 1966 graduate of Jesuit High School, was only 22, and the ink was still wet on his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of New Orleans.

“I used to tease him that he was this Jesuit boy from Metairie coming to the Channel, and I was this Channel girl who had to teach him the ropes,” Sister Liz recalled.

There was something about Gennaro, Sister Liz remembers, that immediately distinguished him among his peers on the Redemptorist faculty. He had a way of speaking to students that had them eating out of his hand.

“I think they knew he trusted them, and they knew they could come to him when they needed him,” Sister Liz said.

Gennaro and Sister Liz chaperoned Redemptorist’s ball games and dances. Gennaro could tell a dancing couple, without being viewed as a killjoy, to leave some room for the Holy Ghost. In those days – a different time, for sure – the two young teachers took a senior who had just turned 18 to the French Quarter to celebrate his birthday.

“We had to tell him to stop calling me ‘Sister,’” Sister Liz said, laughing. “The big thing was this kid liked chocolate chip ice cream, so we snuck him into the convent late at night so he could eat his chocolate chip ice cream. We were both much younger then. We were absolutely nuts.”

Grappling with the reality

It is difficult to identify exactly what makes a great teacher, principal, mentor and friend, but Gennaro’s former students and colleagues tried their best last week upon hearing of his unexpected death at the age of 68.

Gennaro’s resume reads as though it belongs to a Catholic free agent, someone who would plant seeds and then move on, but always cheerfully pulling with him another boxcar containing the students and teachers he had touched along the way.

“I always called my brother a missionary,” said Barbara Gennaro Oddo. “He never believed in staying anywhere longer than six years.”

In addition to Redemptorist, he taught at Holy Angels Academy and then got his first principal’s job at St. Christopher before becoming the founding principal of Pope John Paul II High School in Slidell in 1980. He later returned to Jesuit, his alma mater, as director of admissions for eight years and then became principal of St. Clement of Rome in 1992.

He subsequently became director of the School Leadership Center, which offered leadership training to principals and assistant principals throughout the region, and then, after Katrina, became principal of Jefferson Community School (JCS) from 2006-11.

His ‘last-stop’ school thrived

That unique public school – serving 125 struggling, middle-school kids who had been expelled from their original school – may have been the most Catholic thing Gennaro ever did in his life.

“Glenn demanded excellence of everyone,” said Nancy Marcello, who served with Gennaro as disciplinarian at JCS. “When everyone was cutting corners (with the budget) just to make it, Glenn said that was never going to be good enough, and he kept on the school board until it fixed things. Our morale was impressive. Our test scores compared to any other middle school. That was a trickle down from everything Glenn did.”

Gennaro believed in the “broken glass” theory of education. He knew that a shattered window, an unresponsive bank of lights and a broken computer made a statement. For an expelled sixth-grader, one step away from juvenile detention, a deteriorating physical plant sends a message: You don’t count.

“I used to ask Glenn, ‘Why are you doing all of this? Why? Why?’” Marcello said. “He said, ‘This will improve everything. If you don’t start at the ground level, you can’t go up.’”

Gennaro’s gifts went far beyond caring for the physical plant. The interpersonal skills he had employed during his years inside the privileged Catholic school system translated into helping kids at the other end of the academic spectrum.

“I’ve never seen another principal take so much time with the interview process,” Marcello said. “Usually, when you got expelled, you’d come in with your parent or guardian and sign paperwork, and that was it. Glenn would sit down with the parent and the kid and the disciplinarian for 30 minutes and set out expectations. We didn’t set out the punishments. That was a big difference, and the parents picked up on it. He didn’t expect you to fail.”

Forged lifelong friendships

Dr. Brian Leach, a surgeon specializing in treating skin cancer and in facial reconstruction, was a rather timid, 4-foot-8 student at Pope John Paul II in Slidell in the early 1980s. Leach first was introduced to Gennaro when he toured the school with his parents.

“My dad was an ex-military guy,” Leach said. “As we were walking around the campus, Mr. G told my Dad, ‘I assure you, Brian would do well here.’ Then we walked into the cafeteria, and there was a group of kids sitting at the table. Mr. G put his hands on the shoulders of one of the kids and said, ‘Joe, how are you doing?’ And Joe said, ‘Fine, Mr. G.’  And then Glenn said, ‘If you want to stay that way, get rid of the gum you’re chewing right now.’ And he ran and put the gum in the trash can. We were walking back to the car, and my Dad said, ‘You’re going here.’”

Leach said long after he had graduated from PJP, he found out how Gennaro had been so adept at finding out everything his students did on the weekend that they tried so desperately to keep quiet.

“He told me on Monday morning, he would go up to any group that was laughing and pull one of the boys aside and ask, ‘You want to tell me something?’ and they would always spill the beans,” Leach said.

Just a phone call away

When Leach, who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina, found out Gennaro had died, his thoughts raced back to 2012. Leach, the father of three, had recently gone through a divorce, and Gennaro flew to Charleston to spend a few days with him and his children.

When Gennaro returned to New Orleans, he wrote two letters – one to Leach and the other to Leach’s parents – that identified one of “the great blessings of teaching” as seeing his “kids” years later and celebrating “the adults they have become.”

“Glenn had the uncanny ability to interact with you on your own terms,” Leach said. “He always knew what you needed at that time and how to help. I guess he found out through my parents that I had gone through a divorce, and he just decided to circle the wagons. It was the first time he met my kids, and they just adored him. They were saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, give us more dirt on dad!’”

Gennaro wrote to Leach after his visit: “I am proud of the man you are – though not surprised. The seeds of who you are were always there. Know that you are loved and lovable.”

Leach’s father passed away in May, and Gennaro attended the funeral. In June, Gennaro sent Leach an email: “I realize this is not going to be the best or a fun Father’s Day for you. Just remember the part of your dad that is in you and the part of you that is in your children, and revel in that.”

Dominican Father Cassian (Todd) Derbes, who met Gennaro when he was a student at Jesuit in the 1990s, flew to New Orleans from Rome to concelebrate at Gennaro’s funeral Mass. Father Cassian grew up Methodist, and he recalls at a Jesuit open house Gennaro greeting him at the front door with a puzzling question: “Kid, why do you want to go to Jesuit?”

“I remember a few days before I arrived as a pre-freshman, I was scared to death and overwhelmed by the thought of never fitting in,” Father Cassian said. “Mr. Gennaro would seek me out. Teachers tend to gravitate to people who answer questions in an exact way or who laugh at your jokes, and he certainly did that. But he had a real knack for finding people in the nooks and crannies and for finding people who were struggling to find their way.”

Gennaro became Father Cassian’s confirmation sponsor when he entered the Catholic church while in college.

“Glenn Gennaro was the most caring person I have ever known,” he said. “Ironically, he taught me to be a good confessor, how to listen to people well, in love, and how to help them see their goodness and to see grace, when that vision of the activity of God’s grace has become dulled by sin, fatigue or circumstance.”

When Roy Dickinson Jr.’s father died when he was 13, Gennaro took him under his wing as a second father. 

“Glenn wasn’t just a friend,” Dickinson said. “My mother referred to him as ‘my oldest son.’ I credit Glenn for teaching me to be a man of my word and that a simple handshake meant as much or even more than a written contract.”

As a single man, free to serve

Gennaro never married, and Sister Liz asked him once why.

“What he told me was, ‘I could never ask anybody to be here knowing that if a kid calls me in the middle of the night, I would have to go help,’” Sister Liz said. “As great a husband as he would have been, he really felt his call in life was to be there for people.”

Halfway around the world – in Ghana, where the “harmattan” blows in red sand from the Sahara Desert and splits bookcases in two – Sister Liz has served as a missionary since leaving Redemptorist High School and the chocolate ice cream 43 years ago.

As a pledge to his lifelong friend, Gennaro spent the last four decades raising funds for the Orthopedic Training Center in Nsawam, where Sister Liz has helped children without feet, legs or hands receive dignity and hope through prosthetics. He paid for a liner to the outdoor swimming pool, where patients go to exercise, to keep their feet from scraping on the sharp cement surface.

Gennaro even floated the idea of somehow booking Sister Liz on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” in hopes of getting one famous New Orleanian to let the nation know about a fellow New Orleanian doing God’s work. It hasn’t worked out yet, but as Gennaro would say, never give up hope.

On his only visit to see Sister Liz in Ghana 20 years ago, Gennaro arrived with as many supplies as he could carry. He also had several suitcases packed with his trousers, shirts, underwear and shoes.

He returned to New Orleans with the clothes on his back.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org

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