January 13, 2012

The secret to happiness

Bob Tully gives his hand to God and his heart to students in five decades of Catholic education

In his 50th year of Catholic education, Bob Tully still connects with students as the chairperson of campus ministry at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. Here, Tully visits with Roncalli seniors, John Caito, left, and Sean Dunlap during a lunch period on Jan. 3. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

In his 50th year of Catholic education, Bob Tully still connects with students as the chairperson of campus ministry at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. Here, Tully visits with Roncalli seniors, John Caito, left, and Sean Dunlap during a lunch period on Jan. 3. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Bob Tully—at the edge of death with someone trying to shock his heart back to life.

When Tully entered the hospital, the longtime teacher-coach-bus driver-and-campus minister at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis was scheduled to have a stent placed in one of his arteries. Yet during the procedure, the artery ruptured.

Tully was rushed into open heart surgery. Shock paddles were pressed against his chest.

His heart still didn’t beat.

They shocked Tully’s heart again.

This time, a hint of life.

As the doctors operated on Tully, the news about his sudden change of health raced through the Roncalli community. People prayed. Father Stephen Banet, the pastor of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis, where Tully is a member, rushed to the hospital. Longtime friend Father Gerald Kirkhoff followed closely.

Hours later, Tully pulled through the operation.

In the days after he came so close to death, Tully realized just how much his life meant to so many people.

“I got hundreds of cards, letters, phone calls and flowers from people telling me how much I meant to them and their kids,” Tully recalls. “You don’t always see what you’re accomplishing.”

The story of his close call with death on Jan. 18, 2011, reveals the faith, the impact and the spirit of Tully, who recently celebrated his 50 years of service in Catholic education.

Still, there is one telling part of Tully—his robust sense of humor—that is missing from that story, at least until he shares an anecdote about nearly entering the after-life.

“My wife asked me if I saw the light,” Tully says. “I said, ‘No.’ Then one of my granddaughters asked me if I had felt the heat. I said, ‘No.’ Neither one of them wanted me.’”

The secret to happiness

While the story of Tully’s near death sheds light on how much he means to so many people, it also serves as a starting point for understanding how much those five decades of influencing the lives of high school students have meant to him.

“There have been so many good memories and so many good people who have come into my life,” he says. “God’s generosity amazes me. I tell the kids here, ‘If I could convince you to put your hand in God’s every day, that’s the secret to happiness.’ Does that mean everything goes great? No. I went through open heart surgery. But I received a lot of love and support. Why would I want to change that? Why wouldn’t I want to keep teaching?”

When Tully turned 70 on Jan. 9, it also marked the 50th anniversary of signing his first education contract with the archdiocese.

“I signed it on my birthday in 1962,” he says. “That contract was a whopper. It was $1,800 a year. I thought I was rich. And I ended up being rich.”

He started work at Bishop Chartrand High School in Indianapolis, where he taught religion, cleaned toilets, washed floors and coached football, basketball and track. He continued his multi-purpose approach to Catholic education when Bishop Chartrand High School and John F. Kennedy Memorial High School merged to become Roncalli High School in 1969.

“The first word that comes to mind about him is energy,” says Joseph Hollowell, Roncalli’s president. “He’s relentlessly positive, giving rise to a can-do philosophy that says, ‘We can put our energy and gifts to make things happen.’ I think that’s Bob’s greatest gift to us—the enthusiasm for making our futures possible, with God and the power of prayer.”

Hollowell pauses, laughs and adds, “Of course, if you want to know the true story of Bob Tully, you’d have to see him on a football field. He’s extremely animated and very motivational. As much as kids loved him in the classroom, they loved him even more as a coach.”

Roncalli’s principal Chuck Weisenbach won’t forget the first time he heard Tully as a football coach.

“As a child, my first house butted up to Roncalli,” Weisenbach recalls. “It was in the ‘60s when there was no air conditioning. It would be seven in the morning, and this loud voice would be booming and yelling at football players. It was Bob.”

Still, Tully’s most lasting impact on Weisenbach came later.

“I was a student of his,” Weisenbach says. “I’d say the impact he had on me is the same impact he has today. He has an innate ability to make young people feel good about themselves and who God wants them to be. He did that for me. I can still remember his disposition as a teacher—passionate about you as a student, and passionate about you having Christ in your life.”

Living life as a prayer

After the open heart surgery, Tully’s doctor recommended that he stop coaching. Tully reluctantly did, but he hasn’t stopped pouring his attention and energy into connecting with students during Roncalli’s four lunch periods.

He’s all over the cafeteria, greeting students, hugging them, asking them questions, leaning toward them to hear their answers and listen to their concerns.

“He knows which kids are struggling, which kids’ parents are getting divorced, which kids’ dog has died,” Weisenbach says. “The kids clearly keep him going. It’s almost like he has an intravenous bloodline to the kids.”

At 16, Roncalli sophomore Daulton Kramer describes Tully’s impact succinctly.

“He just makes your day,” Daulton says. “I also had him as a sub in my Catholic Worship class, and he was the best.”

Tully especially reaches out to students who are often overlooked.

“He has an incredible gift for connecting with the kids who are out on the fringe,” Weisenbach says. “Maybe they don’t like school. Maybe they don’t care about religion. And he has a way of connecting with them. They have a hard look on their face, and after a semester with Bob Tully, they want to run the canned food drive.”

Tully has seen how that kind of caring has made a difference in his own family.

“Our son, Michael, was born [in 1974] with a multitude of birth defects,” says Tully, who also has a grown daughter, Leigh Ann, with his wife of 46 years, MaryPat.

“We were told he would be a vegetable his whole life. All the priests, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of Providence, the Sisters of St. Benedict and the whole south side community prayed for him. Now I have a miracle walking in my home, a miracle who tells me every day that he loves me. He works here at Roncalli. He has a normal life. I attribute that to all the prayers.”

More than a few people regard Tully’s life as a living prayer.

50 years, one hope

“He’s one of the most dedicated and dynamic youth leaders I’ve ever met,” says Bill Sahm, the president of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis whose longtime friendship with Tully started in 1977 when Sahm began a 7-year stint of teaching and coaching at Roncalli.

“He has a God-given gift for always looking at the bright side of things and always challenging both students and adults. He challenged students to be their very best, and gave them the tools and the motivation to become that person.”

Tully has no plans to end that connection with students. At 70, with 50 years of experience, he still loves being Roncalli’s chairperson of campus ministry. He beams when he mentions the students’ response to helping people in need on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 2011: how they donated 150 pints of blood, how they collected more than 85,000 cans of food, and how 300 registered to be potential bone marrow donors.

“I’m in the kid business,” he says. “I love the way they respond. I love looking forward to coming to work. It’s been 50 years of goodness, of great things.”

Fifty years that have always come down to one constant hope for Tully.

“I want a student to believe his life has become better because of knowing me, and my life has become better because of knowing him.” †

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