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Island profile: Jack Monaghan, teacher and mentor

PETER BOODY PHOTO |  Jack Monaghan in his waterfront condo at the Dering Harbor Inn.

PETER BOODY PHOTO |
Jack Monaghan in his waterfront condo at the Dering Harbor Inn.

It’s said of certain Irish gentlemen that they have the “gift of gab.” That crude phrase with its notes of blarney and baloney does not apply to Jack Monaghan, a former Brooklyn schoolteacher who worked across the U.S. and Europe as a speech and language consultant for ITT and other corporations.
He’s Irish all right. A former lead actor, producer and director with the Thomas Davis Irish Players in New York and a medal-winning dance performer and teacher of Irish history and culture with the Gaelic League in the city, he owned an apartment outside Dublin for years, dropping his bags there whenever his work took him to London or Brussels.

Retired for the past 15 years or so to Shelter Island, which he said had captured his heart — “How could it not? The place really grabs you” — he’s well known here as a substitute teacher, a volunteer mentor at the Shelter Island School and a leader of the Shelter Island Lions Club helping with programs for people in need.

Besides theatre and dance, he’s a trombonist who played with the fondly remembered Brooklyn Dodgers Sym-Phony atop the dugout at Ebbets Field and an athlete who coached football and basketball teams throughout his career, heading the English department and coaching debate teams at St. Francis Prep and St. Francis College in Brooklyn. He still helps out as a volunteer basketball coach on Shelter Island. A former regular on the tennis court, he served on the board of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “Everything just fell to me.”

More likely, a love of people and a knack for making lifelong friendships is the real reason for his success. That capacity plus some hard work and a bit of talent make their own luck.

Take, for example, the “almost unbelievable” way his lucrative consulting connection to ITT came about.

He had stopped off one day in the late 1970s at St. John’s University, where he’d been an adjunct professor, to see his friend Jim Hall, a speech specialist and English teacher who happened to be the substitute announcer at Yankee Stadium for the great Bob Sheppard.

“We were having coffee,” Jack recalled, “when his secretary comes in and asks, ‘Do we know a John Monaghan?”

She had a caller on the line who’d been in a seminar that Jack had taught at IBM a couple of years before. All the caller could remember was that he coached basketball at a city school called “Saint Something.”

“When you talk about basketball in New York, there’s only one school: St. John’s,” Jack explained. “So this guy called the speech department and asked for me.”

The caller was a corporate headhunter looking for a consultant to help ITT with its training and marketing seminars, board-room presentations, and corporate speeches.

It was the beginning of a long relationship including working directly with ITT President Harold Geneen, by which time Jack had had two heart attacks — heart disease was a family curse — and was phasing into retirement.

At the height of his consulting career, friends told him he should hire staff and set up a business so he wouldn’t have to do all the work himself. But “I wasn’t ambitious,” he said. “I was making as much money as I wanted and who wanted the headache of running a business?”

Where did his interest in speech, language and literature come from? A certain Irish gene leans that way, of course — Jack will offhandedly quote from Yeats — but he said he didn’t know the answer. All he could say was: “I always wanted to teach.” And it had to be language and literature because writing is so important as a life skill.

“You can do without trig but you can’t do without language,” he said.

Despite his affection for all things Brooklyn, Jack was a Forest Hills resident from his birth in 1935 until the late 1990s.

His father was an executive with the Borden Company. When he died at the age of 42, when Jack was 2, his mother moved with him and his brother into an apartment. She went back to work as a secretary, never remarrying and somehow enduring the death of Jack’s brother, who was killed by a train, when Jack was 10.

Before that, trying to keep them from being “smothered” by her attention, Jack said, Mrs. Monaghan had begun sending the boys to a Franciscan summer camp in Centerport. Jack thrived there and developed a “love for all things Long Island,” he said, continuing to head to Camp Alvernia every summer right into adulthood, working as a counselor until his consulting work made that impossible.

A scholarship student, he had to leave St. Francis College before graduating because he needed money. He took a job for a while writing news and sports for NBC TV and radio at Rockefeller Center. One of his assignments, he recalled, was riding around city neighborhoods in a red Ford Thunderbird with a young reporter named Gabe Pressman. Meanwhile, he worked toward his bachelor’s degree at night at St. John’s, which offered a part-time program, unlike St. Francis.

Years later, his friend from St. Francis basketball days, Frank Machiarola — who by then had become the chancellor of the city school system — learned that Jack’s B.A. degree came from elsewhere. He pulled strings to get him a degree from St. Francis. Jack, who did doctoral work at NYU but didn’t finish because his consulting business had taken off, also has an honorary doctorate from his old alma mater.

Throughout his career, Jack lived in a six-room apartment in Forest Hills, owned that weekend place in Vernon Township — where he played tennis and relaxed by a lake — and had the apartment in Monkstown, just outside Dublin. In 1998, the wife of a tennis friend from Forest Hills, Al Gaudelli, invited him to their place on Shelter Island for Al’s 60th birthday party. Within days, Jack had made an offer on a unit at the Dering Harbor Inn. He moved to an even nicer one on the bluff overlooking the water about eight years ago.

Jack sold all his other homes in the late 1990s, using the capital to set up low-interest mortgages for godchildren and cousins’ kids. “It provides a good income for me,” he said.

Seeing an ad in the paper here for mentors to work with local students, Jack thought he’d see what today’s teenagers were like after not having worked with them for 25 years. He called adviser Brian Becker to offer his services. Brian assigned him Joey Emmett, son of teacher Frank Emmett, and later Joey’s best friend, Joey Theinert.

When Jack spoke of the loss of Army 1st Lt. Joey Theinert in Afghanistan in 2010, the tears came like a storm, clearing almost as suddenly as he told of his continuing friendship with the other Joey, who lives in England now and whose wedding Jack attended in 2011. “I visit them whenever I’m over there,” Jack said. “We have a great time.”

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