SARATOGA SPRINGS — In 1923, 16-year-old Leo Joseph Quinn was preparing for the next chapter of his life. Quinn was set to graduate as the class valedictorian at St. Peter’s Academy (now Saratoga Central Catholic School) and was set to give a speech at the commencement ceremony.
But he never received that opportunity. Just days before the commencement, the 16-year-old drowned in Saratoga Lake.
100 years later, Quinn’s speech has finally been read, by his great-nephew of the same name.
A 1986 graduate of Saratoga Catholic, Quinn was able to relay the speech to graduates at Saratoga Catholic’s 2023 commencement ceremony on June 23.
Quinn said he did not know much about his great-uncle growing up but became interested in the family history after finding old family possessions.
“I found a couple of my grandfather’s, Uncle Leo’s brother, found a couple of his journals from 1919 and 1920,” said Quinn. “I found out that my cousin Tracy had ‘21 and ‘22, so that sort of started my interest in that family’s history.”
Then, several years later, Quinn received more from his uncle’s things, which included a journal from his great-uncle Leo.
“It included a very old notebook with a sticker on the front that said, ‘Leo Quinn Physics,’” Quinn said. “I opened that up, and there were a bunch of old papers from his school and that one sheet of paper.”
On the back of the sheet, “Is this Leo’s speech?”, was written in pencil, Quinn said.
“I don’t know who wrote that or when it was written, but going through it, it certainly seemed like a valedictorian address,” said Quinn.
Quinn then found a pair of newspaper articles in The Saratogian, one covering his great-uncle’s death and one covering the 1923 commencement. He said all he knows of his great-uncle comes from “those two newspaper articles.”
“That’s all I know,” said Quinn. “My grandfather was the oldest of five kids. Leo was the youngest, and my grandfather was the oldest. Both their parents were dead. They had died in 1922 and 1923. My grandfather was in charge of things. When his brother died, I can only imagine the effect it has on him.”
A Saratogian article from June 21, 1923 states, “Although (Quinn) was but sixteen years old, he was president and valedictorian of this year’s class of St. Peter’s High school and was to have been graduated with his class at St. Peter’s Catholic church next Sunday morning.”
The article states that Quinn was an altar boy at St. Peter’s Church and was planning to attend Holy Cross University to study for the priesthood.
He was posthumously awarded with the St. Peter’s Alumni prize and the Scholarship Medal at St. Peter’s commencement ceremony, which occurred just four days after his death, according to an article in The Saratogian on June 25, 1923 covering the graduation.
Quinn said he initially pitched the idea to the school in January and followed up with Saratoga Catholic principal Christopher Signor in May.
“The principal loved the idea, thought the students would be moved by it,” said Quinn.
Quinn noted the “sad irony” of the speech, which partially discusses the prospect of being young with a full life ahead.
“Well, I just see the sad irony in it all, talking about a high school graduate not having really lived yet, and all this life to live,” said Quinn.
“The high school graduate is comparatively young in years. He has all his life before him,” part of the speech reads. “He has been getting ready for life during all the years of his past existence, but as yet, he has not really lived.”
Quinn said it was “great” to be able to read the speech, saying he knew “nothing about what happened after the graduation.”
“Did they find the speech? Did they think about delivering it?” Quinn said. “I knew nothing about that. I feel like I closed a long, open loop for Uncle Leo.”
“It is a fine thing to be alive, it is a fine thing to know you are alive, but it is a much finer thing to be able to contain the subtle essence of your aliveness, and put it to the highest possible use,” another part of the speech reads. “We intend to make the most of living in a religious and intellectual sense, with the aid of Him.”
At the commencement, Quinn noted the speech ends with a colon, saying to those in attendance, “I think he probably wasn’t quite finished with it yet.” However, he said this serves as a strong metaphor for current graduates.
“My cousin Tracy Quinn, here today, pointed out that the colon is a great metaphor for where you are right now,” Quinn said at the commencement. “Unfinished, could go anywhere, could do anything. And you have the opportunity that he did not. The opportunity to be men and women worthwhile. And I hope you use it well.”