RUNNING TOWARDS HEAVEN, AWAY FROM HELL

Anthony Esolen (Saint Joseph/Flickr)
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Running Towards Something Good

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Prof. Anthony Esolen announced this morning that he is leaving Providence College to teach at Thomas More College in New Hampshire.  You may recall that the noted author and translator of Dante had been going through hell at, um, P.C. after he criticized the way “diversity” was treated on campus. Well, they finally ran him off — but as he tells it, he is not so much running away from something bad but running towards something very good. Excerpts:

Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion. If it isn’t quite yet like meeting Saint Francis on the road, it is like meeting a bluff and jovial fellow who has just come from a conversation with that great little man of God.

I’ve had such an encounter, at Thomas More College, in New Hampshire.

He then writes about a visit to the orthodox Catholic college’s campus, and seeing what college life — and his life as a college professor — could be like. More:

When we came back from the altar at Communion, a young bearded fellow stood up to the side, with another lad and four lasses, directing them in a sung prayer to Saint Michael, singing the verse at first in unison, then in harmony, then in harmony while two of the sopranos sang a descant. It was elegant and beautiful and devout, without the least trace of the “show”; all subordinated to the Mass and to prayer. I was later told that the director is a freshman, that he himself composed the music, and that one of the first things he did at Thomas More College was to establish that small chorus.

Now, I have been teaching college students for more than thirty years, and have never been near to such an act of devotion. But then—in ordinary times, people who have the talent compose music, plenty of them, and people, both men and women, sing. “Singing is what the lover does,” said Saint Augustine, so you shouldn’t expect much singing from young people who have been scalded and scorched by the Lonely Revolution; but from blessedly bright and cheerful boys and girls who have retained their innocence, you would be foolish not to expect singing. And not to expect other ordinary things, too.

I sat at table for lunch, with three or four students, among whom was the young lady I have known since she was a little girl with curly hair. One of them smiled as she put before me a copy of Dante—would I sign it for her? We all talked and laughed for about an hour. A young man whose people come from South America talked with me about Portuguese, and the conversation then ranged all over the place, as happens when somebody with real intellectual objects of devotion, and their little brothers called hobbies, meets somebody else of the same sort. Good Lord! I enjoyed that conversation as well as the best of such that I’ve ever had with college professors. Among them you must often hedge and keep your thoughts to yourself, lest you be accused of breaking The Unwritten Law and having your head nailed to the floor.

He goes on to write about what it was like to teach classes with students who actually loved the material — Virgil, in this case — and who wanted to learn it. Life is short; why waste it teaching sullen, haughty children in the company of professors who would see you hang for having violated some politically correct orthodoxy? And so, Prof. Esolen made his decision to shake the dust off his feet and head for New Hampshire. He writes:

I have countless memories of fine students at Providence College, some of whom are now my close friends; and to my colleagues in Western Civilization—of whom many have retired and some have passed away—I owe a debt I can never repay, for their friendship and support and instruction. But I am too old to want to spend the evening of my career trying to shore up a crumbling wall, when those who are in authority at the college are unwilling to listen to our pleas, or even to meet with us so that we can make the pleas in person, but instead pass out lemonade to the professors with the sledge hammers.

No, I’d prefer to be in on building something exciting for the Church and for sheer ordinary humanity: The Center for Cultural Renewal, at Thomas More College. More on that to come.

This is great news on a number of levels, but if you read Tony’s terrific recent book, Out Of The Ashes — and you really should if you haven’t — you will understand what a spectacular event it is that he is going to have the opportunity to realize his vision. To me, this is the Benedict Option in action: when faithful Christians stop trying to shore up the dead and dying order, and instead focus on building new forms of community within which the life of faith and virtue might survive the coming Dark Age.

Congratulations too to the leadership of Thomas More College for having the vision to hire Prof. Esolen.

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 comments

  1. Bernie says:

    Great! Thomas More College is one of the approximately 30 truly faithful and orthodox Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. recommended by the Cardinal Newman Society. I view each of them as the epitome of what’s best with a Ben Op model.

  2. G Harvey says:

    Yes, Mr. Dreher, what Dr. Anthony Esolen is doing is the Benedict Option is action.

    And here is what I must stress because many readers may pass right by it: Esolen is leaving a ‘church related’ college. Some, I would assert firmly most, churches are long dead in every way. They need to be left behind. The same with church run schools and other institutions.

    Every Jesuit college in America, for example, serves the belly of Modernism at least as awfully as does Providence College – and most Jesuit colleges clearly are worse than Providence College.

    People need to stop sending money to such wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  3. Larry in NC says:

    What a great development! I am happy for Dr. Esolen.
    There are still places of beauty and hope in the world.

  4. Khater M says:

    I’m a senior at a Catholic private school in Virginia. I think Dr. Esolen is absolutely right. There’s no reason to stay and keep teaching at an institution where a large number of students and faculty members are so hostile to you. He got all that grief just for expressing his opinion. During my college search last year, I visited many colleges, and most of them are addicted to the fad of “diversity.” I don’t have any issue with natural diversity, but ethnic diversity in itself doesn’t mean anything. Diversity of THOUGHT is what matters. If I could be in a room with 100 people of the same race (who all had radically different views and opinions) or 100 people who came from many different racial backgrounds but thought the same way, I’d go with the former every time. The modern Left on most college campusus does not tolerate diversity of thought. I looked at Thomas Moore and Thomas Aquinas College, but as a Reformed Protestant, I don’t think I’d be comfortable at schools that are so Catholic. That being said, I certainly respect these places. We need more colleges that provide a serious classical education and promote freedom of thought. I’ll be headed to St. John’s College in Annapolis this fall. It’s one of the few places left in America where one can still get a pretty strong classical education. The other thing I love about St. John’s is that it’s not really political at all. You won’t see rallies for “social justice” or “diversity” there. Best of luck to Dr. Esolen at Thomas Moore!

  5. Andrew Benson says:

    I had the very good fortune to visit St. Thomas More last Friday with my daughter in conjunction with the Catholic Literary Conference. It is a remarkable institution. They are indeed lucky to have Professor Esolen, and he is fortunate to be able to go there. A wonderful match.

  6. Susan Citizen says:

    This news makes me very happy for Professor Esolen and for those who will profit from his wisdom. I take comfort in the great promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

  7. mrscracker says:

    Two of my children attended Catholic colleges like this. Both met their spouse indirectly through contacts made at school & they made life long friends there.
    They complained a little about some of the kids at college who wore their faith like a very uncomfortable suit of clothes. And each school had some eccentricities, but overall it was a wonderful life changing experience for them.

  8. heteropatriarch says:

    From the Crisis article:

    “Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means. Why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be like sitting on a Rembrandt while holding forth about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?”

    But Hillary Clinton’s pants are totally more interesting and intersectional than western, racist, and patriarchal notions of “beauty.” Rembrandt: a dead white cis-male who probably (1) owned slaves and (2) was a closeted neurodivergent. Love wins!

    Kidding aside, I’ve been reading Esolen for years and I’m delighted for him and his prospective students.

  9. “… this is the Benedict Option in action: when faithful Christians stop trying to shore up the dead and dying order.”

    A program that ought to be a “slam dunk” in contrast to the worldly establishment’s many false incitements.

  10. Thomas Hobbes says:

    That’s great for Prof. Esolen, probably not great for Providence College, but perhaps something good will come of it.

    He just couldn’t resist putting in the snark for modern church music could he?

  11. Dominic says:

    This is beautifully written, and Prof. Esolen’s joy and relief are palpable. A caveat though: These are the words of a man in the throes of a starry-eyed honeymoon period. Reality will set in before too long, a different reality than the one he left, but also with its own crosses and contradictions and absurdities.

    I speak from my own experience as a professor who left a quite secular environment a number of years ago for a much less secular one. I am joyful and relieved in my new place, but Original Sin and the human condition are present here too, at full ferocious strength.

  12. The Other Side says:

    When I first started reading Esolen I thought he could come off as kind of bitter and annoying at times even if I mostly agreed with him. He seems different in person. I HIGHLY recommend you look up and watch a lecture or two of his on youtube. It’s almost impossible to not get completely caught up in the love of his subjects with him as he talks. If you ever hated Shakespeare in school then listen to Esolen talk about him. Or Dante. Or being Catholic. You can’t help but get a glimpse of the kind of beauty he sees in these things. It makes reading his books better.

  13. Erin says:

    Wow! Thank you so much for recommending Out of the Ashes… I got it on Kindle after reading your blog today, and it’s wonderful! Makes me want to look at cathedrals and read classic lit and poetry.

  14. Jeremy Hickerson says:

    good post, Rod.

  15. Grant says:

    I love Esolen and his writings. However, it’s hard to share in the excitement for a prayer to “Saint Michael”. 500 years later and the Reformation is just as needed as ever! Ad Fontes! Somebody nail 95 Theses to the door of Thomas More!

    [NFR: Do you know what the prayer to St. Michael is? It says: “Saint Michael Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.” All it is is a petition to the Archangel to help us in spiritual warfare “by the power of God.” What’s wrong with that? — RD]

  16. I am very happy for Prof. Esolen. I hope that all will go very well for him and for the students who are lucky enough to take his classes!

    It has been a couple of decades since I attended Thomas More College as a freshman. I did not end up choosing to stay and got my degree elsewhere, but I imagine the drawbacks that led to my decision are not so greatly in force twenty years later. At the time, the school was extremely small (fewer than 50 students) and very remote and isolated. We had to carpool to Sunday Mass as there was no Sunday Mass on campus at the time, for instance. (Other issues may or may not still exist so it would be unfair to bring them up at this point.)

    Both Thomas More College and the university I did graduate from (Franciscan University of Steubenville) are today in the $30,000 price tag range. Both schools can promote that as a “bargain” which, if you compare them to other private colleges and universities, is somewhat true. I always remind my fellow Catholics who live like I do (single income,struggling middle class, homeschooling for many years, etc.) that they should clearly and carefully weigh the benefits of the “small Catholic college/university” education with the costs. For students who have a family business to step into, or a skill or trade they have already learned, or who plan to go immediately to grad school and can afford to do so, getting a liberal arts degree from a small Catholic school may be a blessing and benefit. For students who will struggle to come up with enough money to return each semester and may have to take semesters or even years off to work, who need to work part-time while in school, who can’t afford an extra thousand dollars or so for books and materials each semester, who have no choice but to work in a secular career field as immediately after graduation as soon as possible, and who will be unable to make more than the minimum student loan payment for the full ten years of the student loan repayment period if they do not get a good, decently-paying job fairly soon after graduation, the cost of attending a small Catholic college or university may be too great (especially if you major in philosophy, literature, history or political science, or something of the kind).

    And this is one of those perpetual Benedict Option issues: how do we make it possible for kids who can’t afford 30K a year, or who can’t afford to graduate with somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000 in student loans, to study Western Civilization and the liberal arts? Right now there is such a divide between those who optimistically say that the liberal arts are worth any hardship and deprivation (but who forget that their own kids can graduate debt-free thanks to the college fund Grandma started when the kids were born) and those who shrug and say that their own kids will be better off getting nursing or accounting degrees at the local state university (but who are assuming that somewhere along the 12 years of elementary and high school the kids read at least some Shakespeare or something, when that may not be true, or so minimally true as to be irrelevant to the children’s education and formation thus far).

    How do we find balance?

  17. Just in case that wasn’t clear, a degree from Thomas more or FUS will cost you thirty thousand dollars EACH YEAR, or $120,000 for a bachelor’s degree assuming you can finish in four years. When I reread my comment it seemed like I was complaining about 30K for the full for years, which would indeed be a quite extraordinary bargain, but which does not exist at any small Catholic school I’m aware of.

  18. White says:

    I hope your devoted readers may consider making even a humble donation to Thomas More College of Liberal Arts for this; certainly, Esolen is a fellow who knows how to put the “move” in “movement”…. and I hope he makes the shift easily.

    And his remark about the “Center for Cultural Renewal” is very encouraging, too.
    I have wondered where indeed the purposeful Remnant should coalesce in intellectual and moral and aesthetic fellowship, to try to go about restoring the classical Christian habitat, or, if you will, the “Catholic-Town”. Merrimack and nearby Nashua N.H. seem like good places to begin, because of Thomas More College, the general beauty and livability of the area, historic downtowns, etc. There’s even a chapter of the G.K. Chesterton Society there! Does anyone care to talk up the idea? Since it’s New Hampshire, we could call it the “Free *Soul* Project”(!)

    Truly, some resource like a discussion forum would be helpful for those considering getting themselves to a place worth fortifying– a practical Ben Op site where folks could chime in about the virtues and potential of a town they live in or know about that could use the reinforcements.

    Cheers!

  19. CAPT S says:

    In the span of 6 weeks I’ve read The Benedict Option, Out of the Ashes, Strangers in a Strange Land. The books complement each other wonderfully. Unfortunately I read electronic versions so will be getting hardbacks for ready access on the bookshelf. My sense is that these books will be driving Christian conversation for some time to come.

    Kudos to Esolen on his move, and thanks for highlighting it.

    Not to oversimplify, but the BenOp strikes me as the biblical version of “going Galt.” Why Christians continue to kick against the goads is beyond me. The “salt & light” mandate exists alongside our Lord’s commandment to recognize when to “shake the dust” from our sandals.

  20. Tim F. says:

    If Benedict option style communities take off, that area probably is ideal. It is the perfect area for those who wish to withdraw but still be in the middle of everything. It provides a small town environment, but commuting distance to Boston and surrounding towns. A least a couple of very high tech firms in the immediate neighborhood. It is also very close to St Anselm, a Benedictine College.

    That particular area (Manchester-Nashua) is also one of the most secular areas of the country, though more of a libertarianish secularism than a left wing hostile secularism. My personal impression is that sort of environment can actually lead to a very dynamic Christian culture.

  21. Heidi says:

    “Among them you must often hedge and keep your thoughts to yourself, lest you be accused of breaking The Unwritten Law and having your head nailed to the floor.”
    Yes. Don’t we *all* feel this way, now?

  22. Heidi says:

    Erin Manning, I completely understand what you are saying! It’s incredibly frustrating. My oldest went to a small Catholic college after homeschooling their way through high school and my second is about to go to a different small Catholic college after doing the same, but we live in an extraordinary area. We have so many college options right here which enables us to keep our young adults in the home for as long as possible, that I can’t believe our luck. (And regular mass attendance is a family rule. Mass for Food. JK. Sort of. :)) HOWEVER. And this is a big one…the first of those small Catholic colleges (which offer big scholarships and make going there affordable if you live at home) turned out to be NOT SO CATHOLIC AFTER ALL. Particularly when Kid Numero Uno said something to the registrar about being a Catholic school and Madame Registrar snorted and said, “this is not a Catholic school.” Excuse me? Brothers teaching classes and swirling around campus in robes? A grotto dedicated to a saint? Required religion classes each semester? An ACTUAL church on campus…with mass several times a day? Including the 7pm jammie mass (don’t get me started..) Not CATHOLIC?? Well, yes. Not. At least it is only on the surface. Ish. Kid Numero Uno transferred to a less expensive alternative because, “I can get the same crap for less money.” Huge sigh. We’re going to see how Catholic College Number Two does for Kid Numero Duo. I’ll report back.

  23. Will Harrington says:

    Erin Manning wrote
    “And this is one of those perpetual Benedict Option issues: how do we make it possible for kids who can’t afford 30K a year, or who can’t afford to graduate with somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000 in student loans, to study Western Civilization and the liberal arts? Right now there is such a divide between those who optimistically say that the liberal arts are worth any hardship and deprivation (but who forget that their own kids can graduate debt-free thanks to the college fund Grandma started when the kids were born) and those who shrug and say that their own kids will be better off getting nursing or accounting degrees at the local state university (but who are assuming that somewhere along the 12 years of elementary and high school the kids read at least some Shakespeare or something, when that may not be true, or so minimally true as to be irrelevant to the children’s education and formation thus far).

    How do we find balance?”

    I am probably going to sound snarky here, but what are you parents doing that your kids are not exposed to a decent education outside of school? Haven’t you sat down and read or watched Shakespeare with them? If you don’t engage in educating yourself, then there is no way, no matter what school you send them to, that education is going to matter to them (ok, there are always a few exceptions). You know what, the truth is that degrees and certifications cost money, but education is free! Just ask Louis Lamour, or go to your local public (and free) library. They will even bring in books that they don’t have on their shelves just so you can read them, for free! Humanities education, the degree isn’t worth the vellum its printed on, but the actual education is priceless, because…FREE!!! Just do it!
    If you can’t afford a degree or a certification, remember there is nobility and value in work, even if you have to start at the bottom. You can’t do the Ben Op, or even be a Christian really, if your going to put the wage you make first. Of course, if you were wanting a humanities degree, you weren’t worrying about money to begin with.
    I keep looking for a way to end this, but I could go on and on. Lets try this, issues of education are not a real barrier to the Ben Op unless there is something that you are valuing more than Christ, like status or a certain income. It can be done, especially if we start building our networks. Then two, why are you worrying about balance? If the Christian life is a continuum with not following Christ on one end and following Christ whole heartedly on the other, then run away from balance and toward Christ as fast as you can.

  24. James Kabala says:

    Mary Russell: Providence College has no football team and had to cut three men’s teams (baseball, tennis, and golf) because of Title IX. (It seems like yesterday but was actually almost twenty years ago by now.) I concede that Dr. Esolen rambled a bit in that section and maybe needed a fact-checker at some points, but your statement is not completely accurate either.

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Why I Left Providence College

    wallpaper-raphael-the-school-of-athens

    Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion. If it isn’t quite yet like meeting Saint Francis on the road, it is like meeting a bluff and jovial fellow who has just come from a conversation with that great little man of God.

    I’ve had such an encounter, at Thomas More College, in New Hampshire.

    Where shall I begin? I was at the noon Mass in the college chapel. You must know that everybody except for the couple of students who happen to be helping out in the cafeteria that day can attend Mass, because there are no classes scheduled for that period. Call it a Sabbath rest, right in the middle of work, so that the work will savor of the Sabbath, when the usual practice in our lives is to begrudge God a little bit of our precious time and turn the Sabbath into a vigil for Monday. Cheerful faces, and plenty of them—and I waved to the daughter of dear friends of ours, who was sitting on the other side of the chapel. It’s always moving for me to see professors and students together at Mass, but here they really were together in a way that I’ve never otherwise seen; not separated by five rows of empty pews, but next to one another, male and female, tall and small, of all ages.

    When we came back from the altar at Communion, a young bearded fellow stood up to the side, with another lad and four lasses, directing them in a sung prayer to Saint Michael, singing the verse at first in unison, then in harmony, then in harmony while two of the sopranos sang a descant. It was elegant and beautiful and devout, without the least trace of the “show”; all subordinated to the Mass and to prayer. I was later told that the director is a freshman, that he himself composed the music, and that one of the first things he did at Thomas More College was to establish that small chorus.

    Now, I have been teaching college students for more than thirty years, and have never been near to such an act of devotion. But then—in ordinary times, people who have the talent compose music, plenty of them, and people, both men and women, sing. “Singing is what the lover does,” said Saint Augustine, so you shouldn’t expect much singing from young people who have been scalded and scorched by the Lonely Revolution; but from blessedly bright and cheerful boys and girls who have retained their innocence, you would be foolish not to expect singing. And not to expect other ordinary things, too.

    I sat at table for lunch, with three or four students, among whom was the young lady I have known since she was a little girl with curly hair. One of them smiled as she put before me a copy of Dante—would I sign it for her? We all talked and laughed for about an hour. A young man whose people come from South America talked with me about Portuguese, and the conversation then ranged all over the place, as happens when somebody with real intellectual objects of devotion, and their little brothers called hobbies, meets somebody else of the same sort. Good Lord! I enjoyed that conversation as well as the best of such that I’ve ever had with college professors. Among them you must often hedge and keep your thoughts to yourself, lest you be accused of breaking The Unwritten Law and having your head nailed to the floor.

    Then came the joy of teaching. I’m a born teacher. I don’t mean to say that I am great at it—I’m quite aware of my flaws, which I’d rather not enumerate. I mean that even when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means. Why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be like sitting on a Rembrandt while holding forth about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? And what finally is the tremendous utility of giving yourself over to the study of those may-flies, those shadows passing on the wall of the cave?

    You will say that anyone can experience that joy, anywhere. True in a way; you can experience it in a dank cave, but I wouldn’t recommend the attempt. But when people are not in college to have their souls be born in wonder, and when professors themselves scoff at truth and beauty, believing the former to apply only to what can be quantified, and the latter to be a pleasant fiction at best, what assistance can you expect from the surroundings? And we are not gods.

    I sat for an hour with happy and talkative students, combing through the allusions and the strange repetitions of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”—not the most auspicious text for cheerful and enthusiastic conversation, and yet that is what we enjoyed. Nobody had a cell phone in his lap. Nobody gave me the sense that reading Eliot took time away from the really important things in life, whatever they are. I sat for another hour with a different group of happy students (including a lad and lass who will be married in a couple of weeks; they have been an “item” since they were sophomores, God bless them), reading a passage from the ninth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in Latin, and feeling out its intricate contours by recalling other passages in the text, or other instances of the use of this or that important word. Class was supposed to last for an hour also, but there was no clock in that comfortable room in the library, and I did not know what time it was. When I finally asked, the students laughed and said that it was already past six o’clock, well into the supper hour.

    They were not eager to leave, because they were having too much fun. They were having too much fun—repeat this sentence three times carefully—reading Virgil in the Latin, with a gray-haired fellow they had never met before. I drove home almost in tears.

    I have countless memories of fine students at Providence College, some of whom are now my close friends; and to my colleagues in Western Civilization—of whom many have retired and some have passed away—I owe a debt I can never repay, for their friendship and support and instruction. But I am too old to want to spend the evening of my career trying to shore up a crumbling wall, when those who are in authority at the college are unwilling to listen to our pleas, or even to meet with us so that we can make the pleas in person, but instead pass out lemonade to the professors with the sledge hammers.

    No, I’d prefer to be in on building something exciting for the Church and for sheer ordinary humanity: The Center for Cultural Renewal, at Thomas More College. More on that to come.

    Meanwhile, my family and I wish to extend our warmest thanks to President William Fahey and the good men and women of Thomas More. A window shuts, and a door opens—or rather the very roof is blown off, and I see again, in their silent and ordinary beauty, the stars.

    Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens.”

    Anthony Esolen

    By 

    Professor Esolen taught Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College for two decades. He will begin teaching at Thomas More College in the fall of 2017. Prof. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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