My father was at the wheel of his car a few weeks ago as we drove out Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore.
As we approached the granite walls of Cardinal Gibbons High School, he said casually, "Did I ever tell you about the time I went out here to visit Brother Matthias?"
Now Brother Matthias Boutilier, C.F.X., isn't so well known in Baltimore history, except if you read the biographies of George Herman Ruth.
"He was the greatest man I've ever known," the Babe said of his monumental mentor, friend and baseball coach. Brother Matthias was a member of the Xavarian religious order that staffed the old St. Mary's Industrial School at Wilkens and Caton avenues. Today this site is a Catholic high school, but for decades it was the place that straightened out many a tangled young life.
My father's name is Joseph Kelly. Along with his brother Vincent, the two walked up to St. Mary's front door nearly 70 years ago. They had no invitation, no right to call there. But they had read of this remarkable individual, this force in the lives of young men. They knew he was entrusted with a powerful job.
He was enough of a presence in local amateur athletics (the St. Mary's teams were legendary) that the International League Orioles allowed him to control the free tickets for the Knothole Gang -- the young Orioles fans who were given occasional free passes to games, especially those scheduled for weekday afternoons when normal attendance might be light.
Joe and Vin Kelly heard the tickets were being distributed at Riverside Park in South Baltimore. They -- along with half the neighborhood -- turned up, only to find out the supply was exhausted.
"We were heartbroken about not being able to get Knothole Gang passes," my father said of that summer day in the 1920s.
"We decided to get on a streetcar and go out Wilkens Avenue to St. Mary's Industrial School and see Brother Matthias," my father recalled.
The boys, who lived with their parents on Poultney Street in South Baltimore, threaded their way through the small streets so characteristic of this neighborhood. They took the shortest route, over Little Montgomery Street, north along Sharp to the tracks of the No. 3 streetcar.
"It was a hot day and we just walked in the school. We asked to see Brother Matthias and were soon brought into his office.
"I remember him as a big, tall man, who asked why we were there. We said there were no more tickets at Riverside Park. He said, 'You boys came all the way out here for that?' And then he reached in his desk drawer and pulled out a little pad and stamper and gave us seats for some days for the rest the summer season," Joe Kelly recalled.
The boys thanked Brother Matthias and left. They had a great season of baseball, too.
My father never met Brother Matthias again. But the event stayed with him all this time. He wasn't particularly aware that it was this man who had played such a formative role in the career of Babe Ruth. He recalled a kindly person, a person who could size up a situation quickly and act appropriately.
It was a one-instance immersion into that reservoir of the respect that so many men and boys accorded Brother Matthias at St. Mary's Industrial School. The institution was not all fun and baseball games, afternoons with the Knothole Gang at the old Oriole Park.
It was a school for boys in trouble with their families, in trouble with the law. Sometimes poverty sent them to the imposing Port Deposit granite walls and the iron gates. Here they found discipline, education and manual training. There were farm fields where the boys grew much of the produce that went on their tables.
No wonder the alumni of St. Mary's Industrial School whom you meet in Pigtown, Irvington and Arbutus are as proud as any alumnus of Princeton. And why men such as the great Brother Matthias still live on in memory.