From The Men of St. Charles, a book commissioned by
Robert L. Dilenschneider and written by Ann McFeatters
When Michael Calvert gets a call on his cell phone these days, chances are he is on his way to class or just leaving class or writing in his home office in Birmingham, Ala. After a lengthy career as an urban planner, he’s back at school studying the craft of creative non-fiction writing. Currently, he is working on a 60,000-word memoir for his family and friends.
Calvert was encouraged to apply for St. Charles Preparatory School by his eighth grade teacher, a Dominican nun, who thought the conscientious, studious young man would be a perfect fit at the prestigious academic high school. And when the principal at St. Gabriel parochial school in Columbus called young Calvert in to insist that he consider St. Charles but recommended nobody else from his class, “I was so complimented I didn’t think I had a choice.”
Calvert’s father was a disabled veteran from World War II who had served in North Africa and Italy and returned home with what was then called shell shock and is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. When young Calvert was in grade school he remembered his father having bouts of being so depressed he couldn’t go to work followed by periods of “overblown optimism,” which ended up with excessive behavior and drinking and spending money we didn’t have.” As Calvert entered high school, his father could no longer manage his bipolar symptoms and entered a Veterans Administration Hospital on several occasions. Calvert’s mother, who had six children to care for, went to work for the state of Ohio in a clerical position. “My mother heroically kept everything together.”
In high school Calvert struggled with conflicting feelings about his father. “Mostly I felt loyalty but sometimes I felt some anger and then I felt guilty for being angry. I had a lot of help from family members explaining that mental illness is not a character flaw. But we had some rough years financially and that forced me to pay my own tuition.” He caddied at Winding Hollow Country Club, sold magazines door-to-door, worked as a janitor, stocked shelves at a grocery store, and had a brief stint picking beans, which convinced him he had to keep his grades up and go to college. “I took care of my own expenses and grew up kind of early, I guess. I knew I was responsible for staying out of trouble and being helpful to my mother. My five brothers and sisters all turned out well.”
When Calvert arrived at St. Charles, like a number of his classmates, he was unprepared for the higher economic status he saw. “The first impression I had was that there certainly seemed to be a lot of rich students.” He was determined to show them that someone “from my part of town, on an economic level well below many of the others” could do as well academically as they did. I was competitive and near the top of the class.”
And even though he was small in stature, he played football for the first two years. “I used to joke that I might be small but I sure was slow. I just couldn’t compete with some of the guys. Jim Donley weighed 220 pounds in high school!” And like his fellow athletes, he was enthralled with the charismatic coach, Jack Ryan. “He was memorable. He always had nicknames for people, most of whom didn’t like the nickname he gave them. One of the things I remember is that he had true-false tests every Friday. He said whatever we did, don’t cheat because sooner or later we’d get caught. If you ever commit a crime, he said, make it big because small ones aren’t worth it.
“He was a leprechaun of a guy, Irish and charming. He engaged more in facts than historical movements. He taught us the second person to circumnavigate the globe was Sir Francis Drake and said to remember that because that question won a lot of money on a TV quiz show.”
As with so many St. Charles students, Calvert remembers the four-year Latin requirement. “I really honed in on Latin. I really put my time in on that class. And it was a good investment. When I went to Ohio State, I was able to pass the proficiency test in Latin and didn’t have to take a language. I got so I could almost sit down and read Latin straight through. In our third year we did Dante’s Inferno, translating it into English.”
He also remembers a solid grounding in literature. Our teachers were inspiring and enthusiastic, always enthusiastic. One year we studied very little but The Caine Mutiny with Father Duffey. Months and months. I still remember that the characters’ names foreshadowed who they were.” At St. Charles Calvert developed a lifelong passion for reading and has been in a book club for 30 years.
After high school, Calvert took a quarter off to earn money and realized Ohio State was the obvious choice for a young man who had to earn his own tuition. He decided to major in liberal arts and finished in four years. In his junior year, he said, “I got nervous that I’d be unemployable. By chance I happened on a Time magazine article on urban planning. I didn’t know much about it but I read that only 12 universities had a program in it and one was Ohio State. So I got my master’s in urban planning, with a no-strings-attached fellowship from Pittsburgh Plate Glass. I was so used to getting by on little money that I saved most of the fellowship money I got for living expenses.”
Asked if he ever feared being sent to Vietnam, Calvert said, “Oh no. I made love, not war. I got married right out of graduate school and had a child right away. We headed to Baltimore in 1967 and worked for the city.” The marriage lasted twelve years and produced two children and a lifelong affection for Baltimore, relishing the zeal he put into revitalizing bad neighborhoods. “There still is a lot of work to do,” he said.
After the divorce, Calvert got a job working for a nonprofit consulting firm in Washington D.C. that sent him all over the country to provide free advice on city planning, economic development, and obtaining federal loans and grants. He spent time in more than 70 cities. Three years later he met a woman in Birmingham, Susan Matlock, who worked in the mayor’s office. After many months back and forth on airplanes she told him that if he really loved her, he’d take an available job in Alabama.
He became president of a non-profit focused on improving downtown Birmingham, half with public money and half with business contributions. Calvert’s job was to revitalize the downtown core as a destination living trend, much like San Francisco and Manhattan. His plan was to develop loft apartments and get historic buildings qualified for tax credits, and it worked. Calvert stayed in the job for 28 years. There now are 10,000 people living in downtown Birmingham.
But he isn’t one of them. He and his wife live in a close-in neighborhood in a house with a flower garden that she owned when they met. His wife became the founding president of a business incubation program emphasizing tech start-ups and now employs 600 people. She retired after 27 years. Her son from a previous marriage is a physician in Minneapolis. His daughter is in sales in Washington and his son is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. There are five grandchildren.
If there is one word that would describe Calvert, he says it is “curious.” He’s traveled to fifty countries, most recently Russia to see what Moscow and St. Petersburg are like, and he keeps reading.
Calvert jokes that his definition of success is “staying out of jail.” But his real definition of success is “being comfortable in your own skin.”
Like so many of his classmates, he credits St. Charles with giving him the means to a happy life. “I think going to St. Charles was the major fork in the road for me growing up. Had it not been for that eighth grade teacher, I probably would have gone to college and done OK but I really credit St. Charles with introducing me to the life of the mind and intellectual pursuits. I remember Father O’Dea saying on the first day of school that it was a shame the school no longer required Greek because we couldn’t get the full classical education. That impressed me, that people thought like that.
“St. Charles allowed me to live a much fuller life in terms of literature, getting interested in broad social issues and stimulating my curiosity and interest in a broad range of activities.”
And he is still learning, loving being back in class and learning a different kind of writing skill. “I am gratified that a friend, who owns a local bookstore and edits the Birmingham Arts Journal, asked to see some of my writing and published a story about one of my part-time jobs.”