Brother Augustine Towey, C.M., Ph.D., also known as Denis with one “n,” Augustine, Augie, Gus, Gussie, Gussela, and Bro. Most people remember him as Bro. For me, he was “my” Bro, as he always signed notes or cards or poems to me with “Your” Bro. And so, he became “my” Bro for almost 50 years.
I first met Bro in the fall of 1964. He was my teacher for a course in contemporary literature. During the previous summer, my classmates and I heard through the rumor mill that a new, young Vincentian was being assigned to Niagara. This young Vincentian, only 27 years old, was a Ph.D. candidate in theatre from New York University, a poet, and a published playwright. Also, he had lots of directing experience, including summer stock. His name was Brother Augustine Towey. Needless to say, my interest was piqued.
And so, Brother became my teacher. While I had had many good teachers, Bro was an exceptional teacher, the kind of teacher who made me want to go to class, the kind of teacher who made me want to learn and to absorb everything he was saying. Bro opened my eyes to the likes of such poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickenson, W.H. Auden, the novelist Murial Sparks, and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, among others.
Bro also introduced my classmates and me to some of the “finer” things in life, such as Manhattans on the rocks, Partager Sauvignon Blanc before dinner, double Grand Marniers after dinner, lobster tails at Ye Old Tavern Restaurant when downtown Niagara Falls was thriving, steaks and lobster dainties at the landmark Clarkson House in Lewiston, and liver pâté a la Augustine.
During late spring of our senior year, my classmates and I wanted to give back, to reciprocate, to show Bro how sophisticated we had become. And so, we planned a grand picnic in the park in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We chose an idyllically verdant section of the park overlooking the lower Niagara River. A couple of us took Bro on a long walk, something he was not normally accustomed to as he always preferred to be driven to his destinations. The others set up the picnic table, adorned with an English lace tablecloth, two sterling silver candelabras, sterling silver place settings (compliments of my mom), Waterford crystal stemware, a loaf of fresh-baked French bread, two bottles of Partager, and a bone china serving platter filled with coq-au-vin (first introduced to us by Bro). When we arrived back from our walk, Bro saw the table from a short distance, candles lit and glowing in the late afternoon sun, and surrounding the table his “gals.” A smile flashed across Bro’s face as he proclaimed us his [Bro]die set, his “crème dela crème.” We knew we had arrived.
After Niagara, my mentor, Bro, encouraged me to go on to graduate school, which I did. I received my master’s degree in speech and drama from the Catholic University of America in June 1968. Two months later, Bro called and said there was an opening in the English department and if I was interested, the position could be mine. Well, how did you say no to Bro? And so I began teaching at Niagara in the fall of 1968. Bro then became my colleague. Of course, it was not until years later that I realized what was going on in Bro’s devious little mind. His vision was to create a theatre department, beginning with a theatre studies concentration in the English department, and growing to a full-blown BFA program featuring aconservatory approach to actor-training set within a liberal arts curriculum. Twenty years later, in 1988, approval for our program was granted by the State Education Department. And the rest is history. Our journey through the years was truly a joy ride, although there were many bumps and curves along the way. Throughout all those years, Bro forged ahead, never taking no for an answer, always taking on new challenges, setting new goals and consistently meeting them with success.
In the early years, when there were just the two of us, we managed to direct and produce two to three shows per year. This was augmented, however, by Bro’s brainchild called “The Festival of the Arts,” a two-week intensive exposure to the arts including dance, visual and performing arts, film and cinema, design and architecture and, of course, music. During those years we brought to Niagara’s campus legendary actresses such as Lillian Gish and Siobhan McKenna, film and theatre critics John Simon (New York Magazine) and Andrew Saris (The Village Voice), the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Alwin Nicolais Dance Theatre, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and so many more individuals and groups. The festival was the cultural highlight of the spring season, not only for the university community, but also for the Western New York and southern Ontario communities.
Over the course of his career, Bro also successfully forged strong and deep friendships with such theatrical luminaries as Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye, Bye Birdie), John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Steel Pier, Curtains), Chita Rivera (West Side Story, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago), Debra Monk (Steel Pier, Curtains, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), David Hyde Pierce (Frasier, Spamalot, Curtains), and the list goes on.
Truly, the real and genuine inspiration for what is now the Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre at Niagara University was Bro, a man with a vision whose passion for life, and life in the theatre, fueled his existence. Bro was one unique individual who touched a million lives.
Bro was a vital part of my life for almost 50 years. He was my exemplary teacher, my devoted mentor, my dedicated and compassionate colleague, and my dearest friend. One of my friend’s favorite poets was Gerard Manley Hopkins who, in a poem titled Spring and Fall: to a young child, wrote the following lines:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah, as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sights
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why . . .
Like Margaret, Bro left his earthly Goldengrove on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 2012. He’s now resting and rejoicing in the bliss of his heavenly Goldengrove. We who remain “weep,” but we also “know” that we are thankful for the life and legacy of Brother Augustine Towey, C.M., Ph.D., who will forever be in our hearts, thoughts and prayers.