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Deacons like Dan offer wisdom of experience


Daniel Joseph Collins was an elevator operator, security guard and, later, the site supervisor at the 645 North Michigan Avenue Building on Chicago’s Northside. You couldn’t miss him when you crossed the lobby. He greeted everyone. He nudged people out of their compulsive little egos and made them feel good.

Ursula and Stanley Johnson run a high-level art gallery at 645. Jean and I visited often, responding to Dan’s greeting with a smile and a nod of the head.

My friend Marty Hegarty once had an office in that building and, years ago, informed me that Collins was one of the Chicago archdiocese’s now 595 permanent deacons and that he worked with people with addictions. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about “Deacon Dan,” although I later learned that he liked my columns. Had I known that, I would have brought him boxes of candy.

Recently, I learned that Dan Collins had been found dead in his Elmwood Park home of what appeared to be cardiac arrest. He was 73 and had long suffered from diabetes. He had never married. There were no immediate survivors. He gave his body to science.

I learned all this when his friend, Fr. John Lynch, pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy’s in Oak Park, Ill., called and suggested that I come to his funeral service at Our Lady of Ransom Parish, where Dan served as a deacon. “Come and hear the people’s stories,” Lynch said. “You’ll learn a lot.”

I went and met St. Francis of Assisi.

Daniel Joseph Collins would merit at least six pages in the Old Testament. “The Old Testament is filled with raw passion and great characters,” John Lynch said during Dan’s memorial homily.

“Dan belongs in the Old Testament.” He could make Moses blush. There were no empty calories in his homilies or talks. His language was often R rated, but you never missed the message. In a world where even dioceses hire public relations people to spray deodorizer over their decisions, Collins simply thundered the truth in unfiltered, unvarnished language. “I’ve been there. Done that. Don’t do it,” he would say. “But if you do, I’ll be there.”

To one of the thousands of troubled teenagers he dragged kicking and screaming out of addictions, he was known to say: “Pay attention! Listen to me! Or I’ll drop kick your ass out of here!”

They listened.

Collins had been there all right. He was raised in a wealthy family in Cincinnati. He learned drinking at his mother’s knee. The poor soul wasted her family’s money and eventually drank herself to death. She bequeathed her alcoholism to Dan.

He was bright and industrious with a good head for figures. He entered the Jesuits with the intention of becoming a priest. Somehow, he got close to the cash box and, when the Jesuits dismissed him for failing to keep the cork in the bottle, he took a bundle of cash with him -- funds essential to his drinking.

There was a series of other jobs, all seemingly near the check-writing machine or cashbox. At one bank, he worked his way up to head teller before being let go for drinking and after he had cleaned out some cash from the vault. Finally, he spent a period in another congregation where one version has it that he was placed in a position of trust -- near the money. He was invited to leave when his drinking became obvious. He cleaned out their cash drawer and left, went on a spree of drinking and traveling, confident that this was occult compensation of some kind.

This time the feds followed, and he went to the slammer five years for embezzlement. While there, he enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous, not to stop his addiction, but to cut his jail time -- so that he could get back on the bottle. On the day he was released, he did just that.

In February 1968, he ended up in the drying-out tank at a Chicago hospital. The doctors there informed him that he was going to kill himself. He checked himself out of the hospital, pulled out $10 he had hidden in one of his socks and went on his final bender.

John Lynch was then a newly ordained priest, working with the legendary Msgr. Ignatius McDermott, who had spent most of his 63 years in the priesthood as an addictions activist. Lynch literally pulled Collins out of the gutter and got him into one of McDermott’s treatment programs.

For the next 31 years, Daniel Joseph Collins never drank another drop. He helped literally thousands of others, particularly young adults, to sobriety and to what he called “an attitude of gratitude.” His pleas didn’t always take root. According to Dan’s count, at least 100 young adults could not be saved from premature deaths. For Dan, it was the equivalent of a mine disaster.

His modest job kept him in food, shelter and clothing, and the phone at his security desk permitted him to field calls from people on the edge. He drove to work each day, praying instead of succumbing to road rage. Virtually all his off hours, including weekends, were spent in volunteer work. He spoke at AA and Alateen meetings. He counseled youths in addiction programs in prison and at treatment centers. He brought the Eucharist to mentally challenged adults at developmental centers. He took his turn preaching at Our Lady of Ransom. He simply had no other life. Deacon Dan was the corporal and spiritual works of mercy rolled into one burly body.

The church was filled with people, pony-tailed men in leather jackets. It was clear that some were not Catholics. Yet, all responded to the kiss of peace, something Dan must have taught them. Dan’s friend, Mike, a recovering alcoholic, gave the eulogy.

He had run it by his pastor who cautioned: “Mike, you can’t say that in church!” But Mike said it anyway. Citing Dan, he thundered: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. And, if you don’t like that, ram it!”

Preach always,” Collins would say, quoting St. Francis of Assisi. “If necessary, use words.”

At the reception following the Mass, people shared stories about the man they all knew. It’s odd but one measure of a person’s greatness is that people feel enriched when talking about them after they’re gone.

“He was my sponsor for 15 years,” a young truck driver said. “If he wasn’t there for me, I’d be dead.” There were others who had been raised in addictive families and who have avoided the contagious disease because Dan taught them about both tough love and forgiveness. He was a healthy adult figure for many teens who had grown up among unhealthy adults.

Although they are likely the fastest growing group in the church, permanent deacons don’t get a lot of ink. Currently, there are 11,788 of them in all kinds of ministries.

They are now in all but seven dioceses in the United States. It’s likely that if the church ever loosened the celibacy restriction, the already ordained permanent deacons would be the first to be recruited. They are men with mileage on them. Few, if any, have had as many experiences as Dan, but virtually all bring the kind of wisdom that comes only with living.

Chicago’s major papers gave Dan a much longer obit than they do for some of its more prominent citizens. One never knows, but his remembered life might save another from the earthly hell of addiction.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. You can reach him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999