By Peter McDermott
A few years ago, Joe Long got an email that piqued his interest and would eventually make his schedule a lot busier.
It was an announcement from Glucksman Ireland House about its new Masters program in Irish and Irish-American studies.
"So I talked to Julie, my significant other," he recalled. "I said: 'I think I'll give it a run,' and she said: 'Why not?'"
Long applied and was accepted as a student at New York University. He was then 55. He was going home, in a sense, as he was raised by County Wicklow-born parents on 17th Street on the Lower West Side, just a few minutes away from NYU's campus.
Over the past three years, the business development officer at Otis Elevator has done one class per semester. He is on course to graduate in 2011, a couple of years after his colleagues in the inaugural class.
As a fulltime worker, however, he has had one big advantage: the backing of his company. Otis is a subsidiary of United Technologies, which has a policy of funding the college studies of its employees, with the proviso that a degree is the ultimate result.
Long has had the moral support of his work colleagues, but encouragement from one of them in particular has meant a lot to him: "She said to me: 'Think about all of the young kids you're going to influence,'" he recalled. "I'd never thought about it like that."
He also appreciates both the understanding given and the standards set by his NYU instructors, who are among the best-known names in Irish-American intellectual life. So far, he's been taught in Glucksman Ireland House classrooms by Professors Mick Moloney, John Waters, Pádraig Ó Cearúill, Marion Casey, Joe Lee and Tom Truxes. "Every teacher that they have down there is a treasure in his or her own right," he said.
"I've had a wonderful experience doing it," he added. "I'm thrilled with having made the decision to do it. I can't say enough about the program."
His education began at St. Bernard's parochial school in the 1950s and continued at Cardinal Hayes High School. in the Bronx. But going from that disciplined and structured setting to the undergraduate world of Baruch College proved too much.
"I went from one end of the spectrum to the other," he said about his decision to quit early on. "I wasn't ready for it."
Eighteen months later, he was given another chance by Manhattan College, and he started out his business degree in marketing taking night classes at that institution. In time, he and a friend, who was also the son of immigrants, got permission to study Irish literature as part of their degree program.
Long would continue to pursue his study of Irish culture after graduation, but the roots of his interest, he believes, go back to when he'd listen to his father and his friends from back home talk about Ireland's heroes while they had a drink and played cards around the kitchen table. One giant of the 19th century figured prominently in such discussions - Charles Stewart Parnell, who was a native of their county.
Immigrants from seafaring Wicklow were drawn to the waterfront in New York. Long's father found work as a barge tugboat captain. His oldest brother George, who is 12 years his senior and now retired, began his working career as a longshoreman. But the NYU graduate student got his breakthrough thanks to his other sibling, who is deceased.
Bill Long, his senior by 10 years, worked in finance for a famous company in the neighborhood. "If you didn't work on the piers, another big employer was Otis Elevator," Joe Long said. When the company relocated its headquarters to Connecticut he got a job driving his brother, who suffered from poor eyesight. He has worked in the elevator business since then, though not continuously with Otis.
Long is still a Manhattan resident, but now lives close to the East River rather than the Hudson, and further uptown. "In my eyes, Greenwich Village and Chelsea were always pretty Irish," he said of a world that was part inspiration for the classic film "On the Waterfront."
"My group - we were at the tail end of it," he added. He recalled the nuns teaching Puerto Rican girls "My Wild Irish Rose" for a school show in 6th grade. "You weren't changing them any time soon," he said of the sisters.
Change was in the air, though. He remembered gravitating as a teenager to the "hippiedom and madness and what not" in Washington Square Park.
"Here I am 40 years later looking out at the park and taking it all in," Long said. "I just think it's great."