During Benedictine Military School’s second consecutive state championship-winning football season in 2022, after another victory under the Friday night lights, I stopped at the Enmarket around the corner from BC to buy a Coke. A man inside the convenience store noticed my BC football shirt and said, “I went to BC. Graduated in ’79. Man, that place has really grown.”
To which I replied, “Did you ever have Fr. Ronald as a teacher? He’s retiring at the end of this school year.”
“HE’S STILL THERE?!!” the man shouted in disbelief. “FR. RONALD IS STILL AT BC?”
Being taught by Fr. Ronald or participating in BC’s campus ministry, which he leads, has been a rite of passage for generations of Cadets. Sadly, the end of a BC era is quickly approaching as Fr. Ronald Gatman, O.S.B., will retire after 44 years of service to Benedictine Military School. His final duty will be to serve as the graduation guest speaker at 2 p.m. May 14 at the Cathedral Basilica at St. John the Baptist.
“Fr. Ronald has meant so much to the Benedictine community,” BC Director of Athletics Jack Holland ’03 said. “The sheer number of students he’s taught and impacted is incredible. He has been involved in so much of what has taken place at BC. He’s been an educator, a coach, an avid supporter of our Cadets, and, most importantly, a priest who has instilled character and values in so many young men. I was lucky to have Father as a teacher, and he was generous enough to baptize my son. The Benedictine community has been so lucky to have Fr. Ronald and there is no doubt there will be a huge void at BC moving forward.”
For Fr. Ronald, forward (always forward) will mean moving to Latrobe, Pa., home of Saint Vincent Archabbey, where he will join retired Benedictine Military School Media Center Director Br. Tim Brown, O.S.B., and other monks at the monastery.
“I probably don’t understand how much of a change I’m going to have to make,” Fr. Ronald said. “But I’m not nervous or worried. I’ve been here since 1979. I was ordained in May of 1979, and in July of 1979 I came here to BC. And I’ve been here ever since. Before I came here, I lived six years at our monastery, Saint Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pa., and I know people up there.
“Every year, I’d go back for our retreat in the summer, renew my friendships and things like that, so I know a lot of the community, except for the newest ones that are there,” Fr. Ronald continued. “I’m not nervous about going back. There will be a change. The thing that will give me sadness is leaving such good people here in Savannah. They’ve been wonderful to me. They’ve taken care of me in a lot of ways and seen me through stuff. That will be the hard part. I’ll be kind of in mourning for a while. I’ll miss those people. But it’s not goodbye forever. Hopefully, my abbot, Archabbot Martin (de Porres Bartel, O.S.B.), will send me down here when it gets real cold up in Pennsylvania, and I’d arrive down here, say, in January, February, and maybe even March. My gosh, it would be one of the biggest sins to miss St. Patrick’s Day, so maybe he would allow me to do that.”
As for Fr. Ronald’s upcoming graduation speech, he wants everyone to know this: “I’ve thought about it already and it’s going to be three hours long,” he said, laughing. “A lot of people may want to leave and go to Pinkie Masters. Yes, I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t written it yet. Once I’m close enough to it, I’ll sit down and work. And once I sit down to work, I work. It might take a good while. It won’t be eternally long. I’ve got my idea of what I want to say already. I just haven’t sat down and gotten it refined.”
Fr. Ronald has an abundance of memories from which to select for his speech. After all, he’s been at BC for 44 years. “Longer than all of ‘em,” he said of his tenure.
A LIFE DEVOTED TO BENEDICTINE
What kept Fr. Ronald at BC for more than four decades?
“What kept me here is I love the people,” he said. “Savannah is a beautiful city. I had my freedom to come and go. What kept me here was I love the people. Savannah is nice but it’s the people. It’s the people that I love that make Savannah nice. And it’s the people that love me. That’s what kept me here. I enjoy working with the teachers and other people in the administration, in the business office. They are wonderful people. We just had an enjoyable relationship. It’s the people that matter. That’s what matters. The ‘school with a soul,’ that’s nice, it’s beautiful, and the city is a beautiful city, probably the prettiest one I’ve ever seen, but it’s the people. I will miss the people as I move north back to our archabbey. But it was the people. That was the difference. That’s what made me stay here.
“I really enjoyed it here,” Fr. Ronald continued. “Some people are sent down here. They don’t really want to come but they are needed. But I wanted to come. There were two things I enjoyed. First of all, I had lived in community with people. I didn’t want to be a priest living out in the middle of nowhere by myself and not have any community. It was wonderful to come down here and have a community. The second thing is I’m always interested in education. I’m always interested in learning and so forth. And the educational setting is my cup of tea. I really enjoy it. I love the students. I love the young people; they’re wonderful, and the faculty and staff. I had my home here and I had the many activities in the school that can constantly keep you busy. I enjoyed it very much.”
Benedictine Military School’s Campus Ministry program will be named after Fr. Ronald and an endowment has been created to support the program. BC also dedicated the 2023 edition of the “Sabre,” BC’s yearbook, to Fr. Ronald. And the school also celebrated “Fr. Ronald Night” at BC’s basketball game against New Hampstead on Feb. 3. Fr. Ronald was honored at halftime and presented with a BC letterman jacket. The Cadets trailed, 30-18, at halftime, but stormed back to win the game and secure the No. 1 seed in the region tournament. It was a fitting result given Fr. Ronald’s passion for basketball, especially University of Kentucky hoops.
Fr. Ronald was born in Covington, Ky., on Jan. 27, 1943, to Frank and Ruth Gatman, who also had two other sons, Richard and Robert, and a daughter, Arlene. Fr. Ronald attended Holmes High School and graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree in education. He enlisted in the United States Navy and served just over three and a half years on active duty.
Afterward, he attended the University of Geneva in Switzerland to refresh his skills in French. In the fall of 1972, he began to seriously inquire about entering the seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest. His spiritual director at the time suggested he would do best as a priest in a religious order and recommended the Order of Saint Benedict. Fr. Ronald heeded that advice and set off for Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., in March 1973. He entered the novitiate there in July 1973. Fr. Ronald took his first vows in July 1974. On May 19, 1979, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Bishop William G. Connare, Bishop of Greensburg, Pa.
Shortly thereafter, Fr. Ronald was assigned to serve at Benedictine Military School and Priory in Savannah, Ga. He has been at BC since July 1979, having taught for 29 years, including the subjects of theology (he said his “great love is scripture”) and French. Fr. Ronald also coached the BC tennis team from 1986-2000. In 1985, he served as the Administrator of St. Anne’s Church in Richmond Hill, Ga. After retiring from teaching, Fr. Ronald led the campus ministry program at BC until the last few years, and he remains a part of BC’s campus ministry program.
CONSTANCY AMID CHANGE
Fr. Ronald has witnessed extraordinary growth at 6502 Seawright Drive, home of the Benedictine Cadets.
“When I came here there were no computers,” he said. “On the last day of school, exams were over and the teachers used to stand out in the front of the school with the report cards for their students and they handed them to them, personally. There was nothing going on, electronically. When I came, Eisenhower and Waters, where McDonald’s is, that whole stretch was nothing but a farm … when I came, I had five classes a day and we had about 485 students. If you had a class that was under 30 students, you felt blessed because you’d have 35 students, 37 students, 39 students, and they were crammed into the room. And then we went into a different system.
“When I came here there was no media center,” Fr. Ronald continued. “That building did not exist. The faculty changed a lot. We had very fine teachers. A good number of years ago, when I first came, the military department was a choice after the 10th grade. A lot of students did not stay in the military program. For a number of years, it had been mandatory, four years mandatory. By the time I got here it was only the first two years. There were a lot of (students) who did not remain in the military program. But after I came here, a great deal of it had to do with the leadership of LTC (John) Manson Owens (III ’61), who built up the program. That was big change here. And, recently, one of the big changes is the building of our STEM Wing, which is beautiful. That was kicked off by Mr. Ed Brown III ’66. As far as the physical plant goes, the business office was the library. As far as the community, when I came down there were 13 or 14 monks here. There are six now. At one time we went down to three monks, Fr. Frank (Ziemkiewicz), Br. Timothy (Brown), and myself. We went a few years with just three of us. A lot of changes. A lot of sports have been added. One of the big things that we began doing was the annual food gathering for the (America’s) Second Harvest (of Coastal Georgia). I think that’s one of the greatest things we did.”
At the archabbey, Fr. Ronald anticipates that he will remain active.
“Benedictine monks don’t retire,” he said. “I tell people, I will have a job. Believe me. The abbot will tell me, you will do this. Depending upon your capabilities, every monk gets an assignment. You’re going to teach chemistry at the college (Saint Vincent College). You’re going to be in charge of the new monks who come in. I will have – and I want to – a job that I’m capable of doing. I’ll, hopefully, be going out to places to help with Mass. The Benedictines are built around common prayer. We have common prayer morning, noon, and night. There will be, I suspect, some retreats that I can help with. It will not be going up there and sitting. That’s not what retirement is. They’ll give you what you’re capable of doing.”
No matter what the future holds, Fr. Ronald said he will forever cherish the memories that he made at Ol’ BC.
“The people here at this school, there are some gifted people here with some real talent,” he said. “And that’s wonderful. The heart of Benedictine is the religious aspect, the Roman Catholic and Benedictine outlook on life, the world view, that attempts to develop the entire person and help them grown. Sometimes it looks like somebody is not growing. The reason is because the whole thing is coming along all at once. It’s not just one little sprout. You’re developing the physical, the intellectual, the spiritual, and it’s coming along but it’s slower because you’re doing the complete thing. That’s what Benedictines try to do. They try to educate and develop the whole person. That’s what we’ve tried to do here and, certainly, the spiritual dimensions are essential for us.”