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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Tom Playfair's Creator at Tom Playfair's School

by William B. Faherty, S. J.

May 1943 (Vol. 12, No. 2), pages 190 to 195.
Transcribed by lhn;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

FRANCIS J. FINN, or "Father Finn," as he was affectionately known to hundreds of thousands, spent less than five years in Kansas. But these years as a teacher at St. Mary's College, St. Marys, were the source of his widespread prominence. Here he wrote his most popular novel, Tom Playfair. Here was his inspiration and the experience that started him on the road to literary fame. He wrote twenty-seven books, with St. Marys as the setting of the three most popular of them. Fifteen were translated into French, six into German, eighteen into Flemish, four into Italian, four into Polish, three into Bohemian, and several into Hungarian, Spanish and Portuguese. [1] Already eleven have come out in Braille editions. Two more will soon appear. [2] Even today, fifty years after his first publication, his annual sales average five thousand copies.[3] This record ranks him unquestionably among Kansas' more esteemed authors.

The American Catholic Who's Who, for 1911, spoke of him thus: "Father Finn is universally acknowledged the foremost Catholic writer of fiction for young people." [4]

Finn's early years were unspectacular. Born in St. Louis, October 4, 1859, he attended St. Louis University High and St. Louis University. He entered the seminary of the Jesuit Order at Florissant, Mo., on March 24, 1879. [5] A year of classical studies followed a, year of religious training. [6]

In February, 1881, Finn entrained for St. Marys, Kan., and taught grammar to the preparatory classes at St. Mary's College. [7] At first an Indian mission, this Jesuit establishment had gained its charter as a college on December 24, 1869. [8] Finn's interest in litera-



ture and his ability to tell stories-which he always held in reserve for worthy classes-helped to make his teaching a success. His classroom was a one-story log building.

At the time of his arrival, the young school had an enrollment of 183 students.' Besides his teaching duties, he was the general supervisor of the boys. Whatever activity they indulged in, whether it was hiking, swimming, hunting, soccer, or any other sport, Finn joined them. This opportunity of being with boys in their varied occupations, helped to give him the wealth of experience that flooded his books.

When the enrollment leaped to 252 the next year, [10] the students were split into two groups according to size. Finn was put in charge of 112 small boys. He was dean of their dormitory, which was the second floor of a frame building, [11] and he taught second high grammar. [12]

He advanced to third year with his class in due time, and directed the small boys' sodality, a religio-social organization common to all Jesuit schools. [13] Finn's pupils who gained prominence later were two, Borglum and Kister. [14] Gutzon Borglum is well known as one of America's foremost sculptors. He seems to have had trouble fitting into the routine of boarding school life, due to his artistic and individualistic temperament. Finn admitted later that Borglum was the one student he did not understand. But these same qualities, he declared, made Borglum famous later. [15] It is interesting to note that Borglum's brother, Augustine, was mentioned for excellent deportment and diligence.'" But not Gutzon!

George Kister, who figured prominently as a character in Tom Playfair, had a distinguished career in the field of education. After entering the Society of Jesus, he became Vice-president and prefect of studies at St. Mary's, president of Campion College, Prairie du Chien, Wis., [17] principal of Xavier High School, Cincinnati, [18] and


finally ended his active career as president of his beloved boyhood school, St. Mary's. [19]

Finn went to Woodstock College, in Maryland, in the fall of 1883 to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. [20] The following summer found him back in the valley of the Kaw, seeking to recuperate his shattered health. At the beginning of school, he returned to his old work as prefect and teacher of first high. [21] One day he found himself "doodling" away his time, while his class worked on compositions. "Why shouldn't I write, too," he thought. In fifteen minutes he had composed the first chapter of Tom Playfair.

His dread insomnia turned a blessing. He used two of his sleepless hours every night on his story. The ordinary familiar incidents of Catholic residential school life filled his pages. Finn hoped to give his readers-if he might have any-his ideal of a genuine Catholic American boy.

By the first of January, 1885, he had to call "Time Out," and he returned to St. Louis for medical attention. Undoubtedly Finn little dreamed of the great success that was to be his. Discouragements were on all sides. Ill health plagued him. The routine of boarding school life was trying.

The following year found him back in the classroom, but now in Cincinnati. [22] His first published short story, "Ads Merton," appeared at this time in the Messenger of the Sacred Heart, a monthly magazine published at his former college at Woodstock, Md. [23]

He was able to resume his philosophy course at Woodstock in September, I886. [24] In the bottom of his trunk, temporarily forgotten, was the battered manuscript of Tom Playfair.

He successfully finished his philosophical studies in the spring of 1888. [25] The next two years found him teaching rhetoric at Marquette in Milwaukee. [26] Back to Woodstock he went in 1890 to begin his theological studies in preparation for his ordination to the Catholic priesthood. [27] The popularity of Percy Wynn, a story he wrote after Tom Playfair, but published before it, prepared the way for the appearance of


his first and most popular novel. Idealism and deft moral teaching hid themselves in the pranks of Tom Playfair and his fellows. Hardly had the book appeared in 1890 than it came out in a German translation. That boys of all nations liked Tom Playfair can be seen from the following: Besides several editions in German, a Portuguese version appeared in 1908, an Italian in 1910, a Polish in 1913, and French, Flemish and Dutch Versions in 1925. [28] Its universal appeal, manifested by the volume of sales, ranks it with the Frank Merriwell and Tom Brown books. Tom Playfair was always to remain Finn's favorite character, and became in the eyes of hundreds of thousands the typical American Catholic boy.

An unusual letter, which arrived at St. Marys about 1910 attests the universal appeal this book was to have. A young Bavarian boy, anxious to find out if Tom Playfair really lived, addressed a letter in his native tongue to "The Very Distinguished Father President of the Jesuit College, near Pawnee River, U. S. A." The state of Kansas was not mentioned; not even the Kaw river; the "Pawnee" was the name Finn gave in his stories to Bourbonnais creek near the college. Yet the letter arrived in due time. [29]

Father Finn returned to St. Louis, to study privately for his final examination in theology, the last hurdle on his hard trail of education. [30]

When Father Finn returned to St. Marys in 1894, 31 he found many improvements. St. Mary's College was booming. A three-story stone structure, north of the faculty building, housed the students' dormitory, senior reading room, and science rooms. A small gymnasium provided indoor playing space. An infirmary had usurped the place of Father Finn's first classroom. The basement of the old college building, the relic of a disastrous fire, had become a swimming pool. The students watched the sporting events from a new grandstand. Electric lights and a telephone system were the final material improvements of the period. [32]

Father Finn became moderator of The Dial, a college publication inaugurated a few years before. His term in this office marked one of the high sierras in the history of this monthly magazine. Among his personal contributions were a short story, and a regular column


entitled "Literary Notes." [33] In November, The Dial ran a discussion of college football. Three writers favored the game. Two discountenanced it, because of injuries. In place of this interesting student discussion were two long accounts, in the next issue, of St. Mary's football victories over Kansas State and Fort Riley. [34] Football had triumphed for the moment.

The Philharmonic Society, including orchestra, band and choir, was under Father Finn's direction. [35] A picture of the band, in the files of St. Mary's College, shows a group of young men arrayed in uniforms that Grant's veterans might have been proud to wear in Memorial Day parades. The music director, seated beside Father Finn, looked like Admiral Farragut after his triumph at Mobile Bay.

After a year each at Milwaukee, [36] and Florissant, Mo., [37] Father Finn taught rhetoric at Xavier College in Cincinnati. [33] Unsteady health forced his gradual withdrawal from the classroom. He turned to pastoral work at St. Francis Xavier Church, in the Queen City, where he directed the parish school for many years. [39]

Though a character who combined literary ability and administrative talents is unusual, Father Finn had a remarkable record in this new work. It is beyond the province of this paper to discuss it in detail. Suffice it to mention that news of his death in 1928 was first-page material in the larger Cincinnati papers, and his life was the subject of many features and editorials. [40] But that's leaping ahead.

When St. Mary's celebrated its diamond jubilee in 1923, Father Finn returned to receive the degree of Doctor of Laws. [41] By this time, he was a prominent man, and St. Mary's a well known institution. Not the least important sources of its prominence were his stories. He created an influence which endured and helped make St. Mary's known favorably in many lands.

But what of Father Finn's personality? Buoyant, cheerful, with a nice sense of humor, and a pleasing and open address, he always shrunk from being classed as a man of letters. Physically he was a heavy-set man. No one would describe him as handsome. He was just ordinary looking.


As to the style of his writing, it would be well to confer the opinion of a literary man. James J. Daly, professor of English at the University of Detroit, and author of several books, wrote: "He told his story with inexhaustible gusto, relying less upon extraordinary incidents, characters and situations than upon a breezy, hearty and vigorous presentment of easily recognized occurrences in American Catholic school-life." [42]

Tom Playfair, the typical American Catholic boy, became a waif, when Father Finn died in Cincinnati, November 2, 1928. St. Mary's knew it had lost a great friend. The subsequent issue of The Dial was dedicated in his honor. The editor at the time was Kenton Kilmer, son of the great soldier-poet, Joyce, who was killed in World War I. A portrait, a group picture which showed him with The Dial staff of 1894, some verses, and two articles recalled the memory of the beloved Father Finn. [43]

Three years later, when St. Mary's College was converted from a residential high school and college to a theological seminary, Tom Playfair, the waif, became an alumnus without an Alma Mater.


1. A complete bibliography of Father Finn's books is given by Daniel A. Lord, s. J., ed., in Father Finn, S. J. (Cincinnati, Benziger Bros., 1929). A list of his novels, with dates of publication, appears in Who's Who in America, v. XV (1928-1929), p. 766.
2. Kenwood Alumnae Braille Association, Inc. (Albany, N. Y.)
3. Records of the Missouri Province Educational Institute, 4511 West Pine Blvd., St. Louis, Mo.
4. American Catholic Who's Who, edited by J. P. Curtis (St. Louis, B. Herder, 1911), p. 204.
5. Catalogus Sociorum et Oficiorum Provinciae Missourianae Societatis Jesu (St. Louis, 1880), p. 13.
6. Ibid. (1881), p. 11.
7. Catalogue of St. Mary's College. 1880-1881 (St. Louis, 1881), p. 4. 8. St. Mary's College Bulletin, January, 1913, p. 8.
9. Catalogue of St. Mary's College, 1880-1881, p. 26.
10. Ibid., 1881-1882, p. 27.
11. John F. O'Connor, S. J., '84, "The Eighties," in The Dial, St. Marys, v. XXX (June, 1919), No. 5, p. 214.
12. Catalogue of St. Mary's College, 1881-1882, p. 4.
13. Catalogus, etc. (1883), p. 22.
14. Catalogue of St. Mary's College, 1881-1882, pp. 20, 24.
15. Alumnus Collegii Sanctae Mariae (St. Marys, 1929), v. I, No. 18. p. 123.
16. Catalogue of St. Mary's College, 1881-1882, pp. 28, 30.
17. Catalogus, etc. (1913), p. 62.
18. Catalogus Provinciae Chicagiensis Societatis Jesu, 1931, p. 16.
19. Catalogus Provinciae Missourianae, 1932, p. 51.
20. Ibid., 1884, p. 36.
21. Ibid., 1885, p. 20.
22. Ibid., 1886, p. 27.
23. Messenger of the Sacred Heart, v. II (1885), p. 447.
24. Catalogus Provinciae Missourianae, 1887, p. 36.
25. Ibid., 1888, p. 35.
26. Ibid., 1889, p. 30.
27. Ibid., 1891, p. 35.
28. Lord, Daniel, Father Finn, pp. 158, 159.
29. O'Connor, J. F., "The Jesuits in the Kaw Valley" (1925), p. 577, footnote.-MS. copy at St. Mary's College.
30. Catalogue Provinciae Missourianae, 1894, p. 4.
31. Ibid., 1895, p. 22.
32. St. Mary's College Bulletin, January, 1913, pp. 15, 16.
33. The Dial, v. VI (1894-1895), No. 1, passim.
34. Ibid., pp. 131-134.
35. Catalogue of St. Mary's College, 1894-1895, p. 42.
36. Catalogus Provinciae Missourianae, 1896, p. 33.
37. Ibid., 1897, p. 10.
38. Ibid., 1898, p. 29.
39. "Obituary of Father Francis J. Finn," in "Woodstock Letters" (Woodstock, Md.), v. LVIII (October, 1929), p. 119.
40. O'Connell, D. M., "Father Finn," in America, v. XL (November 17, 1928), p. 132.
41. St. Mary's Star, June 14, 1923.
42. Daly, James J., "Father Finn," in The Dial, v. XXX (June, 1919), No. 5, pp. 221-225.
43. The Dial, v. XL (December, 1928), No. 2, p. 88.