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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

PORTSMOUTH | Rev. Dom Leo van Winkle, Headmaster

Rev. Dom Leo van Winkle, who became Headmaster
of Portsmouth Abbey (then Priory) School in 1957,
the fall of my senior year.
A Portsmouth lunch in Vero Beach last week made me think about the headmaster who took over at Portsmouth in 1957, the beginning of my senior year.

He came in to his Physics 2 class–I think there were four of us in a single row–in the first week and announced that he had been made headmaster and was quite clear about not being happy about it.

He replaced Dom Aelred ("Barney") Wall, who was worn out by his years as headmaster and was given leave to pursue a more contemplative life at a Benedictine monastery in the desert in California.

Rev. Dom Thomas Leo van Winkle, or "Father Leo" as I knew him, was the son of Professor Cortlandt van Winkle, a Princeton graduate (AB, MA, Ph.D.) who with his wife converted to Roman Catholicism during the interwar years when Ronald Knox and others were showing the way. Knox, of course, was Anglican Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford (where I was in 1962-64) during the Great War, and gave up the Chaplaincy when he converted to Catholicism in 1917.

Born in New Haven, Thomas van Winkle–as he was called until he became a monk–attended Portsmouth (Class of 1939) and received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering at Yale. He then went to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M. He told his students in his Physics 2 class that in the early tests of the atomic bomb the scientists were not sure how destructive the chain reaction they were setting up would be, and that some feared it would be even more destructive than in the first tests and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the war, Thomas joined the Brookhaven National Lab to focus on disposal of radioactive waste, continuing the development of an air-scrubber at the University of Pennsylvania. The system he worked on was used to control pollution on the subsequently developed nuclear submarines. So a cousin of mine who commanded a nuclear submarine was a beneficiary of his work.

In 1949, now by legend suffering from angst at the destructiveness of the bomb he had helped unleash on the world, Thomas entered the Portsmouth Monastery, then a Priory, taking the name Leo. Seven years later he was ordained a priest. The students at Portsmouth were in awe of the stresses that Father Leo must have been subjected to in putting together the bomb and then seeing what it did in Japan.

The Portsmouth Abbey Cemetery
where Fr. Leo is buried.
Fr. Leo believed the nuclear arms race was ''the great moral dilemma of the closing years of the 20th century.''

In 1973, after 16 years presiding over a major expansion of Portsmouth Abbey, Dom Leo van Winkle returned to Yale as visiting lecturer in engineering and applied sciences. His successor as Headmaster was Dom Gregory Floyd '57, who served for 10 years.

In 1975, Fr. Leo joined the faculty at Catholic University in Washington, teaching chemical engineering and chairing the department in 1981. He returned to Portsmouth Abbey in 1983 and was reappointed headmaster in 1986. He died two years later of cancer of the lymphatic system, at Jane Brown Hospital in Providence, at 65 years old. He is buried in the Portsmouth Abbey Cemetery, No. PO030 in the online listing of grave sites in Portsmouth, R.I.

Gravestone of Fr. Leo's niece, who died at
15. His brother Cortlandt van Winkle 
is buried with her.
Fr. Leo was survived by two siblings - a brother, Cortlandt van Winkle of Salem, Ore., and a sister, Mother Teresa, Prioress of the Carmel of Mary Immaculate in Flemington, N.J.

Cortlandt, a Pacific Theater veteran of World War II, died in 2010 and was buried in the Holyrood Cemetery in Seattle, Wash. with his daughter Carolyn, who died at 15, predeceasing him by 36 years. There seems to be only one tombstone for both father and daughter.

Fr. Leo's obituary by Glenn Fowler was published in The New York Times on May 3, 1988. A thoughtful article about Fr. Leo was published in the Portsmouth Bulletin in 2012 by Fr. Damian Kearney '45, who prepared for the priesthood at the same time as Fr. Leo and taught me English. Fr. Damian's brother (to close the loop) was at the Portsmouth luncheon on Monday.