Neal Golden couldn’t really do much with a curve ball, but growing up in St. Raphael Parish and later attending the Sacred Heart Brothers’ Cor Jesu High School in Gentilly, he loved playing baseball and basketball.
Since Cor Jesu didn’t offer a sports program at the time, the 16-year-old’s appetite for baseball was fed by the NORD summer league. One day at City Park, on the diamond near Marconi and Harrison avenues, Neal was at third base in the late innings. His team was getting pounded.
“It was time to take one for the team,” he recalled.
There was a runner on third, and Neal’s manager signaled for Neal to take the mound.
“The outfield there was like the Polo Grounds (in New York) with a long centerfield,” he said. “Our centerfielder was playing in the next zip code. I threw the pitch, and the batter hit this towering fly ball, and our centerfielder was so far back he somehow was able to catch it. Of course, the guy from third walked home.”
But that’s not the story Neal Golden loves to tell. The truth is this: Neal Golden, 16, had forced future major leaguer Rusty Staub, 14, into a flyout to centerfield.
“My other claim to fame,” said the man who would go on to become a Brother of the Sacred Heart, “was playing on a Biddy Basketball team with Pat Screen. This was a 12-year-old team, and Pat was 10 years old, and he was our best player. He also played shortstop on our baseball team, and I would take his throws from shortstop to first. It was clear he was something special.”
An inkling of what might become of his love of sports and mathematics came a few years later, when Brother Neal, aged-out of playing Biddy Basketball, was keeping score on the bench next to the coach and watching Screen, the future LSU great, run circles around the opposition.
“We kept feeding him the ball, and he scored 57 points,” Brother Neal said. “I was keeping the tally. It was a pleasure.”
Over the last 50 years, Brother Neal’s passion for competition and for teaching has led him to influence the lives of thousands of students, and not just at St. Aloysius and Brother Martin high schools, where for decades he has taught math and computer science.
In 1966 – 50 years ago – Brother Neal heard from teachers and students at Mount Carmel Academy about an intriguing competition called “Academic Games” that drew on students’ knowledge of math, language arts and social studies and also created a competitive, fast-paced atmosphere not unlike having to make a winning free throw with no time left on the clock.
“The hook for me was that I was a big sports fan,” said Brother Neal, now 75. “I knew the value of competition to motivate, and I knew how kids behaved when they were on the athletic field or court.”
A small team from Mount Carmel attended the first Academic Games in Florida in the spring of 1966 and then invited any interested Catholic schools to attend an instructional session in the fall to learn how to play. Brother Neal, a young math teacher at St. Aloysius, brought 20 kids with him.
“I may have offered extra credit in class for the students to come,” Brother Neal. “It didn’t hurt that I was bringing the boys over to Mount Carmel to learn.”
The games can be inscrutable for a beginner, Brother Neal said, but they build confidence and affirmation among students who may be looking for a competitive outlet but who can’t hit a 400-foot home run.
“It was a very fertile time in education in the 1960s,” Brother Neal said. “It was not necessarily the guy who made the highest grade in math class who did the best. There was also the competition part of it and coming through under pressure. Just like in any other endeavor, the guy who runs the fastest or throws the hardest doesn’t necessarily come through when he’s on the mound or playing quarterback.”
Leah Wehmeyer was a freshman at Mount Carmel when she first met Brother Neal, who had become such a force nationally in Academic Games that he became known as the Jedi Master. At the national tournament one year, Brother Neal allowed Wehmeyer to sit in with his Brother Martin students for game preparation.
“He was a little intimidating because he was so incredibly smart,” said Wehmeyer, who now teaches the Academic Games teams at St. Pius X School. “We all knew how good he was. I don’t know that he’s ever been stumped. It’s a little hard to stump the Jedi Master.”
In his spare time in the 1970s, Brother Neal wrote a computer programming textbook. Even he is astonished by the quantum leaps in computing that seem to come every two weeks.
“I don’t think we saw the miniaturization of everything where we would end up with holding computers in our hands,” he said.
But the man of faith and the man of science reflects somewhat wistfully on the ways in which kids were taught before computers, a time before the primacy of self-esteem and Little League trophies all around.
The nuns teaching in Catholic school, he said, had the time every night to correct papers and insist on every comma being in its place and every participle not dangling. There were sliding-scale consequences for incomplete homework. Students, for the most part, actually listened to their teachers.
“That’s changed a bit now,” Brother Neal said. “In so many cases, the important thing now is that they all feel good. We in Catholic schools, of course, are trying to push back against all of that.”
Brother Neal is smart enough to know that computers, at least for the time being, are not in control.
“People treat any printout from a computer as if it were a stone tablet etched by bolts of lightning,” he said. “It’s only as good as the programmer.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.