Michael Hemesath

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Michael Hemesath

About Michael Hemesath

Michael Hemesath is the 13th president of Saint John's University. A 1981 SJU graduate, Hemesath is the first layperson appointed to a full presidential term at SJU. You can find him on Twitter [at] PrezHemesath.

A Most Benedictine Coach

Listen…with the ear of your heart.  Prologue–The Rule of Saint Benedict.

John Gagliardi was born into an Italian-American family in 1926.  I never heard John talk about the role religion played in his upbringing, but it seems highly likely that a Catholic family in that era would have been regular church goers, prayed before meals, encouraged children to pray at bedtime, maybe said an occasional rosary together as a family, and for the adults to have had their own personal prayer life.  What was certain was that John did not have any exposure to the Benedictines.

When he was recruited from Carroll College in 1953, John did not know much about Saint John’s University, to say nothing of the Benedictine tradition that is the foundation of Saint John’s Abbey and University.  John, however, was deeply Benedictine even if he didn’t know it at the time, and, through grace or luck or both, he found himself at the perfect place to live out a 60-year Benedictine coaching vocation.

Much has been written about John’s coaching gifts and philosophy, but I have always thought that John’s success on the gridiron and far beyond was succinctly captured by the first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict: Listen.

John was famous for being able to adjust a game plan in real time, particularly during halftime, to account for new information, changing conditions and the opposition’s own plans.  A player of John’s recounted how this happened.  “John relied on his players on the field to tell him what was happening on the ground and what they were experiencing in the game.  He would then take that information and use it to adjust what we were doing.  At halftime we would revise our game plan in order to use what his players were telling him.”  John was willing to listen and learn about football from his 20 year-old players.

John, of course, is most famous for his football success, but in a different era in college athletics, coaches often were called upon to coach multiple sports, often regardless of their knowledge of said sport.  In his time at Saint John’s, John coached track and field, a sport with its sprinters, shot putters and discus throwers that is at least tangentially related to football.

But John was also the Saint John’s hockey coach for five years, 1954-59.  The sport has hitting, like football, but the similarity ends there.  John knew nothing about hockey when he started.  In fact, at a time when practice was typically outdoors, John was known to call off practice when he got too cold standing on the edge of the rink, not a policy that a true hockey aficionado would countenance.

Yet among the 16 hockey coaches at Saint John’s who coached more than one season, John Gagliardi has the highest winning percentage, a fact he wryly loved to share with his young hockey coaching colleagues, including Olympian John Harrington who is number two on that list.

How did a guy who literally knew nothing about hockey—I’m not sure he could even skate—lead his teams to this success?  My hypothesis is that he simply listened.  He learned about hockey from his players.  He listened to what they suggested and shared about their individual abilities and each other’s talents, and then John built a team and let them play.

My favorite story of John’s listening comes from one of John’s early All-Americans.  This young man came to visit campus with his parents.  As they were touring with John, the young man noted, with some surprise and mild consternation, that John was talking almost exclusively to his mother, who thought that football was a “dumb” game.  As he eavesdropped on the conversation, he heard John say to his mother, “After your son graduates from Saint John’s, do you think he will go on to get an MD or a Ph.D.?”

On the way home, Mom made it clear that Saint John’s was the perfect place for this young man.  He went on the get a Ph.D.

Listen to understand.  Listen to learn.  Listen with empathy.  Listen with the ear of your heart.

Life lessons from Saint Benedict and John Gagliardi.

Rest in Peace, John Gagliardi, a Benedictine coach if ever there was one.

Posted on October 15, 2018, John Gagliardi Day in Minnesota.

By |October 15th, 2018|Categories: Alumni, History, Kudos|0 Comments

The Accidental Mentor*

I first heard about Nancy a couple years ago at a Saint John’s senior dinner.  At the dinner, seniors that are so moved, get up and share the things that they are most thankful for about their SJU experience.  The lists usually include what you might expect: friendships, the monks, social times, great academic experiences, study abroad and relationships with faculty.

But on this particular evening, a senior included an unusual appreciation: “I am thankful to have met Nancy, the custodian on my freshman floor.”  Shortly after this dinner, I heard about a custodian in a frosh dorm who had purchased a dozen haircuts from the old Razor Hair Styling shop in Mary Hall and asked that they be given to random students, ideally freshmen, who seemed to need a little emotional pick-me-up gift–not necessarily because they were looking shaggy.

I realized this was the same woman the senior had praised.

I decided I needed to meet this woman.  It turned out Nancy was nearing the end of her time at Saint John’s, with a long-planned retirement coming this past spring, but we had coffee this summer, and I got to hear her story.

She told me that a number of years ago as she was preparing for her annual performance review she decided to add a new goal: to get to know the students on her floors better.  Nancy did just that during her remaining years at Saint John’s.

There was a young man from Bosnia whom she befriended who shared a Bosnian family wedding video with her.  Another young man visited her family farm where Nancy’s husband taught him to drive a skid loader.  The couple subsequently got to know this student’s hockey teammates and took a group of them out for dinner.  There were multiple students whom she helped with textbook costs, and she even chipped in on an airfare to a New York job interview.  Some of her Johnnies told their young brothers to look Nancy up when they matriculated, and she has attended several Johnnie-Bennie weddings of students she got to know.

Nancy had a policy that if you needed her to unlock your door after you wandered down to the shower without your key, you had to commit to saying “Hi” to her whenever you saw her.  Nancy was eating at a restaurant in St. Cloud with her family when an unfamiliar young man came up the table and greeted Nancy.  She did not immediately recognize him, as he was now 7 or 8 years older than when she knew him at SJU, but he told her she had let him into his room back in the day, and he was fulfilling his part of the bargain.

Most improbably, she developed a relationship with a Chinese student who was often awake in the lounge when she arrived early in the morning.  He told her of his loneliness and complicated relationships with his parent.  He surprised her by making Chinese tea for her one day.  She gently admonished him when he started skipping classes.  He took Nancy and her husband out for Chinese food.  In the end, this young man decided he needed to return home, but Nancy insisted that he text her when he got to Beijing to assure her he was safe.

In some ways Nancy is clearly exceptional—caring deeply for the young men on her floors and making the effort to reach out to dozens of them during her time at Saint John’s. But in other ways, Nancy is just like everyone in this room.  Each of us is capable of being a mentor to the students in our care, students who are all in need of human connections as they make their way through these important formative years at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.

Nancy did not use the term mentor, and I suspect she would not characterize what she did as mentoring, but I would beg to differ.  A mentor is one who cares about an individual student in the present and is concerned about that student’s future.  Research has shown that this simple human interaction is exceedingly important for the well-being of students on campus and for their thriving in the future.

I would hope that each of us recognizes our ability to be a mentor, but I worry that this is not always the case.

After a presentation on mentoring at the Liberal Arts Illuminated conference this summer I overheard a young staff person say, “I had not thought of myself as capable of being a mentor to students.”  In another context, when discussing our increasingly diverse student body, I have heard faculty wondering about the challenges of teaching and guiding these new students on our campuses.  One senior faculty member noted, “My experiences are so different than those of this generation’s students.”  Students themselves sometimes believe they must find an adult whose experiences have paralleled their own in order to connect.

We can sometimes think of mentoring too narrowly, focusing on the guru model which has students at the feet of an academic master.  While I certainly do not want to diminish our students’ academic needs, young people’s needs are typically broader and require only empathy and wisdom from a caring adult.

Fr. Don Talafous, Mary Hall, ca. 2001

Though they may sometimes be hesitant to reach out, all students want a connection to another person and to a community.  Faculty and staff at CSB and SJU have done this for years, and even with an increasingly geographically, racially, religiously and culturally diverse student body, we can all continue to provide that invaluable human connection, as Nancy did for so many students.

Clearly our 21st century student body is different, and they bring new and unique life experiences to campus, but that is true of every generation.  Yet for many of us in this room, we found mentoring, guidance and connection from what we surely thought at the time were unlikely sources.

S. Margretta Nathe, 1976

If the Benedictine monks and sisters, who publicly made a more counter cultural life choice than any faculty or staff member today can boast of, could serve as powerful and long lasting mentors for earlier generations of students, everyone of us is capable of connecting just as deeply with today’s students.

 

As you meet our students in your classes or offices or elsewhere on campus, just ask yourselves, “What would Nancy do?”  You might be surprised at the relationships you will develop.

Best wishes for the beginning of the school year.

*Presented at the CSB/SJU All-Community Forum on August 21, 2018.

By |August 30th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Football: Concussions and Character

Football players are back on campus at Saint John’s, thus signaling the official end of summer.  The imminent start to the football season has also raised perennial questions about football player safety, particularly around the issue of concussions.

Image of brain in human headThere was a little controversy recently at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days when University of North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said “he doesn’t believe it’s been proven that football causes the degenerative brain disease CTE and [he] offered a passionate defense of [the] sport.”

In this controversy, I found the medical issues, while important, less interesting than the defense of football Fedora gave.  He argued that to significantly change the nature of the game or to give up on the game altogether would lead to “the decline of our country.”

Fedora elaborated, saying:

A few years back, I had an opportunity to ask a three-star general, I had a question for him. I said, “What is it that makes our country, our military, superior to every other military in the world?” He was like, “That’s easy. We’re the only football-playing nation in the world.” He said, “Most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their life at some level, and the lessons that they learned from that game is what makes this [nation] great.”

Denise McAllister, commenting on the controversy agreed, writing:

Fedora has a point. Throughout human history, contact sports have been a means to strengthen men to protect their homes, clans, tribes, and countries. Through rough play and facing the power of other men on the field, men were trained to be warriors — a clear advantage for any community that wants to develop strong defenses.

Young men were knocked around in game-playing to toughen them up for life as well as war. There wasn’t much concern about their welfare because the scrapes, bruises, and broken bones were deemed a necessity. Of course, past generations didn’t have the benefit of science to show the long-term effects of these activities, but I would wager that even if they did, those generations wouldn’t change their behavior. Contact sports had an important place in society.
….
Moms and dads in the suburbs who are pushing to end football at all levels or keeping their kids from playing any risky sport don’t experience the daily struggles and physical threats faced by past generations. They enjoy the luxury of flaccidity. They don’t value football and its risks because they have experienced no need of the particular lessons taught by football. They’re so removed from hardship that they don’t even see the value of climbing trees.

Regardless of whether one finds these national defense arguments persuasive, I would argue that Fedora and McAllister make a valid point about tradeoffs that is important to remember.  Life is filled with risks.  Once one makes the decision to get out of bed in the morning, virtually every decision afterward has risks.  Playing football is such a decision.

As a Division III institution, Saint John’s University’s football program does not have the public relations or economic impact most Division I programs do, but our players face the same risks of injury that other college players do.  Every player, possibly with input from parents or physicians, must decide whether the potential risks of short or long term injury—the costs—are more than offset by their love of the game and all it gives them—the benefits.

I certainly know Johnnie football players who have expressed concern about letting their sons play the game they themselves did.  By implication, these same Johnnies might have made a different decision for themselves if they had had current medical information available when they played the game years or decades ago.

But I know a lot more Johnnie football players who not only do not regret college athletic choices but would not change them for the world, and they delight in their young sons’ and current Johnnie players’ love of the game.

Gagliardi on the sidelines

This thought experiment is made more interesting at Saint John’s because of John Gagliardi’s forward looking practice methods that minimized the risk of injury in practice decades before that became fashionable.  Johnnie football alums with full information about CTE risks might rightly calculate the risk of injury to their younger selves or their sons or current Johnnies as relatively low because of John’s choices then – and growing influence now – but game day contact and injuries remain a risk under any practice regime.

These Johnnies, who would relive their football days in a heartbeat, argue that beyond their simple love of the game, football and John and Gary (Fasching) taught them life lessons that continue to pay off for years and decades after they hang up their helmets: teamwork, graceful losing, magnanimous winning, courage, perseverance, etc. etc.  In short, football helped form their character.

Life lessons can be learned in many ways, but I think it is safe to say they can rarely be learned cost free.  Football has provided many generations of American boys and men pleasure and learning.  While there can be little doubt that playing football carries with it risks, especially of head injuries, that are real and far better understood than ever, those risks have to be set off against the real benefits football provides those who play.

Parents must make thoughtful and informed decisions for their sons, and young men must make such decisions for themselves, but each decision is personal and the answer is not obvious.

Concussions and character are inextricably intertwined in this most American of sports.

Football sidelineApproximately 175 young men reported for football practice in Collegeville last week.

SJU opens against UW-Stout on September 1.

Go Johnnies.

By |August 17th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments