To say that I got off on the wrong foot with Brother Augustine Towey, the legendary leader of Niagara University's theater department who died on Thursday at age 75, would be an extreme understatement.
In 2008, he took issue with a review I had written of a local musical. And in his zeal to defend one of his fellow theater artists, he fired off a letter demanding, among other things, my withdrawal from the realm of theater criticism. This was a heavy blow for a young theater critic barely a year into the job, delivered by a giant in the regional theater community, and it could easily have gotten uglier from there.
But it is a testament to Towey's abiding patience and his utter magnanimity that it did not. In fact, after exchanging a few emails, we agreed to sit down for a chat. While neither of us relented from our steadfast positions on that particular review, I will never forget our conversation that spring day in his office at Niagara.
Over an hour or so, he talked about his favorite theater writing and pointed me toward a pair of books – by Kenneth Tynan and Walter Kerr, neither of whom were known for pulling punches – that I continue to rely on.
He told me about his love for the theater, how it grew to motivate everything he did, and about his long friendships with great artists of the form, including the composer-lyricist team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.
It was one of those conversations that might have gone on for years, and which Towey himself seemed willing to continue indefinitely. Later that year, as a graceful token of good will, he gave me a copy of one of his favorite books of poetry by Mary Oliver, inscribed with a kind of conciliatory message.
The next month, when Kander was in town to contribute to a Niagara University production of “Chicago,” Towey set up a lunch interview with the legendary composer that I will long remember. It was just one in a series of great acts of kindness Towey offered not only to me, but to hundreds of the students, actors and regular schmoes he came into contact with – whether he liked them or not.
I saw much more deeply into Towey's generosity as a man and an artist during an event at Niagara University in 2009, when many of his former students and collaborators gathered to read from a new collection of his poetry. That event revealed to me a man many of his students and certainly all of the performers on the Leary Theatre stage already knew – someone with a deep sensitivity to the world around him, whose faith was perfectly intertwined with an understanding of his own humanity.
When an ailing Towey moved from Western New York two years ago to a Vincentian home in Philadelphia, he left that generosity of spirit behind. You can see it on stages all across the city, in productions featuring his former students. You can sense it in the ascendant spirit of this theater community – which continually strives to meet the ideals he embodied.
Despite his original missive, Towey immediately dropped any sense of ill will and took the high road. But where Towey immediately forgave and sought to build a new friendship, I resisted and held on to part of that grudge for too many years. He is still, I think, trying to teach me about the ultimate uselessness of animosity.
To be honest, the sting from that 2008 letter lingers even today. But thankfully, it is almost completely overshadowed by my memories of the man's compassion and good will. That's why I'll miss Brother Augustine Towey, who had more intelligence, passion and kindness than most of us could ever hope to possess.