The most well-read man I ever knew


As a kid I often read sprawled across my bed on summer evenings, anything from Jack and the Beanstalk, to astronomy, to the encyclopedia, to sports. I’d fill my head with all sorts of facts and figures, anecdotes, oddball characters, inventors, murderers, whatever caught my fancy. By age 10, I thought I was a pretty good reader.

Then I met Andy Mullally.

Andy was the husband of my third-grade teacher, Camille Mullally, who I have written about on this blog. Andy and my father, Carmel, were good friends and each liked to read. They’d tackle all sorts of subjects but in the end, I’d give Andy the edge as the greater reader — by far.  And so did my father.

In 1962, our family was over Andy’s house and he turned to my dad and me and said, “Want to see my book collection?” He had a glint in his eye and I could tell something was up.

Upstairs we went and when he opened the door to one of the bedrooms all I could see was title after title after title. But I had to turn my head sideways because the books did not rest on bookshelves. Instead Andy carefully piled them one on top of the other. Each time he read a book, he’d bring it to the bedroom and gently place it on top of whatever stack was currently building. He stopped when that stack reached the 12-foot ceiling. Then he’d start another stack and stop at 12 feet. This went on for years in that 15-by-12 foot room.

According to his wife, Camille, it was a continuation of a book collection that Andy had begun when he was six years old.

“Andy read everything,” said Camille. “History, ghost stories, boxing, baseball, politics, philosophy, psychology, science, film — you name it.”

The night he was showing my father and me his quirky bookroom, my father asked, “Andy, what if you want to look something up, how do you remove the book without creating the Domino Effect?”

“I don’t remove anything,” he said. “I have a photographic memory.”

But what if your son wants to read something?” my father said.

“Good question.”

(Andy eventually dedicated another room for his thousands of books so his young son, Bill, could access a title without living in fear of bumping into a column of books and being crushed to death by literature’s greatest authors).

Wherever Andy went, he was the Pied Piper of general knowledge. All sorts of people gathered around him to discuss, well, anything. Even kids.

At Camp Coah, a Boy Scout camp on the Delaware Water Gap, a second class scout named Thomas Carasiti once asked Andy at lunch if he would tell a ghost story.

“Sure, but not now,” Andy said, adding ominously, “let’s wait until it’s dark.”

So at 9:30 on an August night, he gathered the members of Troop 53 of Fords, New Jersey, around a campfire and spun a story about a man who was traipsing through a forest looking for his brother somewhere in Europe. The man eventually arrived at a castle, explained his predicament, and gained entrance. The butler took the man’s coat and announced his presence to the owner who was seated at the head of the dining room table waiting to be served.

The owner motioned his guest inside and invited him to supper. The weary traveler sat down and they talked. Then a servant placed delectable dishes of food around the table. Later, the guest commented on the meal saying that the meat dish, in particular, was superb. At this point, one silver plate was still covered and the host asked his guest if he wouldn’t mind lifting the cover. As the guest did, he let out a scream. On the plate was the head of his brother.

I have no idea who wrote that story or how accurate my telling of it is after all these years. But of one thing I am certain: Andy’s dramatic reading that night sent chills down my spine and half the guys in the troop who often moaned and groaned when the scoutmaster shouted “Lights out” couldn’t wait to beat it back to their leantos and throw the covers over their heads.

The next day at the firing range Andy regaled us with stories about Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson. He could tell you all sorts of particulars about each man. By the way, did you know that Bat Masterson went on to become a sports editor in New York City? Well, I do, thanks to Andy Mullally.

Don’t get the impression Andy was some savant who rattled off facts and figures just to impress people. Not at all. He was the best of conversationalists because he listened to you, too. Even when I was a kid, he sat quietly as I told him about the great escape artist Harry Houdini and how he died with a punch to the gut in 1926. I’m sure Andy knew the story — and more — but he nodded assent as I spoke. And he didn’t try to top me either.

Years later we would meet every second Saturday in December at the St. Patrick’s Guard of Honor Luncheon at Mayfair Farms in West Orange, New Jersey. By then I was a sportswriter and Andy loved sports. Now it was Andy’s turn to ask me questions. He was an insightful boxing aficionado, but he wanted to learn the back story to every fight and every fighter I had covered. I now was able to fill him in on all sorts of information and — get this — he was hanging on to my every word as I had hung on to his so long ago.

So what did Andy get from all of his reading?

“Reading teaches you how to live your life,” he said. “And, remember, while it’s good to educate your mind, don’t forget to educate your heart.”

Fifty-two years later as I teach my English III classes, I’m often inspired by the tales Andy told me long ago, and I try to teach my students as if I’m telling them a story, and one that’s good for the heart as well as the mind. The little techniques Andy used to reel people in to whatever he was speaking about I now use to capture my students’ attention. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Andy Mullally died in 2005, and I’m certain that he’s in Heaven striking up his pipe and bending more than a few ears. He was a great man — and a great loss — to all who knew him.


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