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Setting the world on fire

Setting the world on fire

Above, a promotional booklet for the Meenan Corporation shows the Congress Hotel, just one of the iconic Chicago buildings that Cyril F. Meenan's Combusto-Jet was responsible for heating. Below, Meenan is pictured as a Loyola student in 1930 and in a 1973 newspaper clipping. (Images courtesy of Michael Murphy)

How my grandfather’s Ignatian-inspired ignition helped to fan the flames of the sustainability movement

By Michael P. Murphy

When my grandpa, Cyril Francis Meenan, came up to Loyola from Rock Island in 1928, his intention was not to become a pioneer in green technology. He hoped instead to begin a career in law and develop his formidable skills as a musician. Still, one never knows how the road of life will weave and wind, and the story of my grandpa’s experience resonates with many who came of age in difficult times.

‌The list is long in human history of inventions or discoveries that were the result of a “happy accident” or unexpected twist of fate. My grandfather’s Combusto-Jet, which optimized boiler efficiency and reduced air pollution in large-scale heating systems, was one such invention. That his Combusto-Jet would end up heating much of industrial Chicago (and beyond) in the latter half of the 20th century is all that much more of a marvel.

But Cyril’s story is also a tale in an Ignatian key: the journey of a prayerful pilgrim responding to a series of “cannonball moments,” the kind of which engender a breed of grit and innovative spirit needed to become the author of seven patents and a true energy pioneer.

Perfect combustion in combustible times
Fundamentally, the Combusto-Jet was a product born of the Great Depression. Like many students in Chicago then and now, my grandpa worked as he went to school, moonlighting for a heating company and selling boilers on the side. By 1931, times became so difficult that my grandpa was forced to leave Loyola without a degree. This blow was hard to take and not at all part of his plan. But my grandpa, who discerned God’s hand in all things, saw his way forward and did not waver.

If heating was the thing, so be it. Cyril would respond to St. Ignatius’s admonition to “set the world on fire” precisely by—in a manner of speaking—setting the world on fire. He became hooked on combustion and dead-set on evolving his understanding of efficient heating systems. He rode out the Depression by working for others, honing his skills, and cultivating his natural disposition to entrepreneurship, and was ever grateful to be gainfully employed.

By the late 1940s, my grandpa had made a name for himself in the world of industrial heating. He had also fallen in love, started a family with my grandmother, and created his own small heating business, the Meenan Corporation. But he was always “improving product” and searching for the pristine flame. This quest was not without trials of many kinds. The obligations and worries for the owner of a small business, where no job is too small, were legion. He injured his left hand preparing a job at his Clark Street shop and was never able to play his beloved violin again—a devastating wound he bore with quiet dignity.

But one evening, he caught a break. As he was busy running a test for a boiler job, Cyril inadvertently kicked over a shop vacuum and then beheld a glorious sight: the flaming tongues of the perfect burn. This happy accident, fleeting as it was, inspired a new direction in engineering. My grandpa’s questions about facilitating perfect combustion and the path to improved fuel efficiency were asked under a new light. What if I inject a more systematic flow of oxygen into the chamber? What hard materials would be needed to recreate and sustain such conditions?

The “vacuum event” was a game changer, and like the story of so many accidental inventions—from penicillin to potato chips to post-it notes—the event inspired forays of robust experimentation. There were many failures; torching copper and other materials beyond recognition, gassy disasters produced by bad fuel-to-air ratios. But Cyril was onto it. He crafted a device out of refractory cement replete with strategically placed holes that were situated, insulated, and ventilated for optimal burn. Eureka: the Combusto-Jet was born.

What began as a boon to fuel efficiency inspired by the hard lessons of the Depression became uniquely relevant for energy conservation and pollution abatement in the early days of environmental consciousness. The Combusto-Jet not only facilitated radical fuel efficiency, it also reduced pollution dramatically—a feature dear to my grandpa and one he emphasized in his marketing material from day one. This one-two punch became attractive to many Chicago manufacturers, and to others who required large spectrum heating, especially with the rise of emissions regulations in the early 1970s.

At its height of operation, the Meenan Corporation—staffed by uncles and cousins and 20 odd others—had over 1,000 systems in place. The client list included titans of Chicago industry: M&M Mars; Sears, Roebuck, and Co.; Coca-Cola; and Motorola. Other notable clients included The Art Institute of Chicago, Spiegel, and Illinois Bell, as well as out-of-state installations at The US Naval Academy in Annapolis and Domino Sugar in New York. The other large category of clients, not surprisingly, were institutions and communities of a decidedly Catholic orientation—seminaries, hospitals, and parishes—and, of course, Loyola. My grandpa had the Catholic market cornered, and for all the right reasons!

This is to say that Cyril’s faith life is the crucial component of this story. He was a Catholic “in full” in a time when that meant something distinctive. Like many Meenans, he was often a daily communicant; and like many Catholics in his era, he drew his main sense of community in the sacramental, liturgical, and social life of the church. He consecrated his family—including all 14 of us grandchildren—to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Politically speaking, his was a Catholicism that transcended the tenuous boundaries of identity politics, his abiding view being that life is to be cherished in every form and stage because, as he would often say (in ways that strike me now as all too Ignatian), “It’s all God’s gift.”

Catholic identity values such as these were central in his life, and they were not confined to Sundays alone. Moreover, the core Catholic intellectual premise of faith meeting reason became the cornerstone for his business plan. As Cyril wrote, “We employ the best of scientific observation and method.” We utilize resources responsibly; we minimize pollution because it is our responsibility to do so; and we take care of the gift and leave things better for the next generation. We pray because we cannot do it alone and, as he taught me, “we always rely on the mystery of God’s grace.”

For me, these are no mere platitudes; and, by the collision of my own personal cannonballs, I was able to get a sense of this kind of spirituality when I was very young. My grandfather taught me much about prayer; and, by a strange course of events, he also gave me my first spiritual direction by preparing me for my first communion.

Sure, we didn’t call it spiritual direction in the Ignatian mode back then, but things often make more sense with the benefit of hindsight, especially when you’re Irish. In Queen of All Saints Basilica (my family’s parish and, of course, one of my grandpa’s favorite accounts), we would kneel in silence and then “bring our needs to the beads” by praying decades of the Rosary. He would then encourage me to do two things: first, to be ever grateful and to note why, and second, to always ask God what he wants of me. In its focus on the magis, it strikes me as so explicitly Ignatian: What more does God want of me? What more does God want of us?

Ite Inflammate Omnia
In 2012, I was at a professional crossroads. While I was no stranger to Chicago, I was born and raised in California and saw my life unfolding there. But the perfect job opened-up at Loyola which gave my wife, daughters, and I cause for serious discernment about our family’s future. Three main reasons to move emerged as decisive: the excellent work taking place in The Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage (CCIH), the Loyola identity document on transformative education (so singularly brilliant and bold), and the life-giving vision of the Institute for Environmental Sustainability. I’ve been fortunate enough to work at the crossroads of all three of these gems in Loyola’s crown.

When I think of my grandpa, I think that the Spirit is at work here. I think that, in some meaningful way, my work connects to his and that Loyola has a vital part in all of this this. “Maybe you'll go here one day,” he would say. Maybe so.

The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is to respond to the movement of God’s grace within us “so that the light and love of God inflame all possible decisions and resolutions about life situations.” Cyril took this to heart in a humble but radically intentional way. “Look at that clean flame, honey,” he said to my mother, Joan, along for the ride one day with her dad as he checked the mechanics on a job. “That’s the beginning of perfect combustion.”

Ite inflammate omnia is what we tell our students: “Go and set the world on fire.” Carry the fire and nurture the flame. Encounter it and learn from it. Gather its brightness and share its warm light, directing it to the good from which it comes. As my grandpa knew, much depends on it. Man, how he loved a good flame.

About the author
Michael P. Murphy, PhD, is director of the Catholic Studies Interdisciplinary Program and associate director of Loyola’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage.