For 50 years, Belen educator has given flight to students’ passion to serve | Opinion

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“Before you stand up, you must know the first word that is coming out of your mouth.” This was the first piece of advice that Patrick Collins — Belen Jesuit Preparatory School’s social studies department chair and 11th-grade U.S. government teacher — gave me.

Decades later, I think of his advice whenever I am about to speak in any formal setting.

And I am not alone in remembering him and his guidance, for which, after five decades, he will be honored at Belen on Saturday, and most deservedly so.

“All prayers in the world can be condensed into two words,” he told me. “Thank you.“

“I’ve tried to instill in students a sense of gratitude to say Thank you, when they walk through Arlington National Cemetery, through the halls of Congress, through their cities, to find a niche in their lives to do something that benefits another citizen. That way, we can continue on to the betterment of ourselves and our country.”

Collins’ career has had a lifelong impact on generations of Belen Jesuit students during the course of his 50 years at Miami’s storied all-male prep school, who have applied his lessons to make our community and our country better.

“In my era, we were rambunctious,” said José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Burger King, “but he set a really high bar and drove us to excel — even if you weren’t an excellent student.”

Collins’ passion for teaching beyond the textbook inspired him to succeed.

Former U.S. Congressman Joe Garcia agreed. “Mr. Collins’ addition to Jesuit pedagogy is the insight that being a ‘man for others’ requires you to engage in the broader society without cynicism — without hatred — but always with an openness to engage in critical thought,” Garcia said. “In the ideal republic, he is the ideal citizen.”

Carlos Trujillo, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, said, “The impact Mr. Collins has had as a U.S. government teacher producing government servants, very few teachers across the country have had that kind of impact in their careers.”

“To this day, I still apply the lessons I learned from Coach Collins inside and outside of the classroom,” said Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, who played tennis under Collins’ coaching.

“I first began to understand the importance of a free press and the role of great journalism in our democracy while studying in his government classes. And, during a Close Up Foundation trip to Washington, D.C. that he led, I was directly exposed to the federal government, which inspired me to apply to the White House Fellows Program years later.” Conde subsequently served under then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“He taught me to dream big and then work hard to achieve those ambitions,” explained Mr. Conde.

Eddy Acevedo, chief of staff and senior advisor to the CEO of the Wilson Center, astutely observed, “Anyone who grows up in Miami thinks about getting involved in politics, in government, in public service.”

Former U.S. Congressman Carlos Curbelo was one of those students with an innate desire to serve.

“He provided us with a thorough understanding of what government is and how it works, the way the system is designed to impede the passage of legislation, and what people have to do to overcome those challenges.”

Garcia, who lost to Curbelo, added, “Mr. Collins teaches a realistic understanding of the political process, but he provides the inspiration to make working through that difficult process an act of service for society’s most vulnerable members.”

That sentiment was not lost on Manny Diaz, chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

“Mr. Collins asked us on the first day of class if we knew what our rights were if we found ourselves on a country road in Alabama and a big sheriff arrested us because we looked Hispanic. I wanted to know the answer to his question.”

Collins’ influence led Javi Correoso, Uber’s public affairs senior manager, to pursue his passions.

“He instills in you that the meaning and purpose of public service is not the shining moments like running for office or photo ops, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and helping citizens get a response from their government,” Correoso said.

He also credits Collins for connecting him with former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “It was the middle of football season, and I needed the 10 points extra credit wiggle room in my grade that semester.” He was able to snag those extra credits by volunteering in her campaign office.

“I couldn’t tell you what political party he belongs to,” Ros-Lehtinen said of Collins, “but he belongs to the fellowship of man. We need to clone him. He’s always been a voice of reason and commonsense in my life.”

Collins is clear about what drives him: “I’m influenced by the experience of my great grandfather. He was an Irish immigrant who struggled, through perseverance and grace, he was able to succeed,” he said. “I’m a beneficiary of that generation of Irish Americans who feels it would be selfish to solely benefit from the opportunities in this country. I feel like I owe it to him and to my family that the notion of civic responsibility continues to those I have met through the Cuban immigration experience that is Belen Jesuit.”

Rafael A. Yániz is a Belen alumnus and an attorney and political analyst based in Miami.

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