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You Are Our Brand

I regularly tell students that in many of the circles they will travel after they graduate, and even during their undergraduate years, that when someone learns they are a Johnnie that this knowledge will bring with it assumptions and expectations.

Almost always those expectations will be positive and prove helpful to the Johnnie.  The specifics vary by individual and situation but non-alums or parents have told me on different occasions that Johnnies are smart, hard-working, creative, modest, loyal, thoughtful, ethical, fun, spiritual, kind and just..good..guys, among other things.

I don’t tell young Johnnies this to swell their heads or pump them up, but to remind them of two things:

  1. The many graduates that have gone before them have established a reputation for Saint John’s and Johnnies that they benefit from, and they owe these previous generations a debt of gratitude.
  2. They, the young men in my audience, are, or soon will be, the Johnnies in the world that must live up to that reputation and maintain it as a sacred trust for the generations to come.

I was reminded of this first point when I received an email that was making the rounds on campus recently.
A friend of a Johnnie had written a touching tribute to his Johnnie friend on why he loved and respected him and on how the Johnnie had come to help the writer appreciate what happens at Saint John’s (and Saint Ben’s.)

I have taken the liberty of hiding the writer’s identity and editing his words slightly to preserve his anonymity.  I have also called his friend simply “Johnnie,” as I know that the true Johnnie in question would modestly prefer to remain anonymous.

I also think that the writer could be virtually any Johnnie’s friend and the subject could be any of thousands of Johnnies.

Advice For College Students: Who you are Speaks Louder Than What you Do
by A Friend of a Johnnie

I received the list and it looked impressive.

It contained the topics being offered to student leaders at the upcoming Saint John’s University/College of Saint Benedict Student Leadership Seminar.

The voice at the other end of the phone was confident and articulate, crisp and engaged. It was the President of the Saint John’s University student body.

“We’ve had a speaker who had to cancel last minute (the conference is in one week) and we wondered if you might be able to speak in his place? Here are some of the topics we have so far: Goal setting and project management. Leveraging your leadership. Business leadership. Innovation. Managing a team. Building and marketing a brand. What do you think?”

Wow.

Knowing that this opportunity was in the works for a few days, I had the chance to rough out a speech in my mind. But it was quite different from the topics this bright young man was proposing. Oh, I think I could give a decent twenty to thirty minute talk on most of them, but these were more pragmatic, tactical topics. My sense of what young college leaders needed to hear was a bit more visionary.

So here is what I would like to say:

Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN is barely an hour away from my home in Minneapolis. For years, my family has driven by it (largely unaware of the towering Abbey Church amidst distant forest) en route to a lake resort by Detroit Lakes or (years later) on my way home from college or my wife’s North Dakota family home. That was about as much as I knew of Saint John’s, until I met Johnnie.

Johnnie is my senior by about fifteen years. He is the physician who recruited me to my current clinical position, is one of the closest friends I have ever had, and is one of the wisest people I have ever known. He is a Saint John’s graduate. For seventeen years, I have known Johnnie, had lunch with him, gone out for beers, taught with him, exchanged towel-snapping humor and plumbed topics ranging from faith and politics, history and literature. And over the years, Johnnie has taught me a great deal about Saint John’s. When Johnnie begins reflecting on the university, it’s as if he just left the campus yesterday. The landscape in his language brings Saint John’s to life. From the cavernous Abbey Church and the buzzing Refectory to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and woodworking shop, from the Great Hall and the quadrangle to the Abbey guesthouse and the Stella Maris chapel on the lake. In Johnnie’s telling, these are sites of great fun and a little maturity, raw buffoonery and intense spiritual growth. I’ve heard gut-busting stories where close friends secretly removed the passenger seat from his car as he returned to it on a first date. And I’ve learned from how moved he was seeing a solitary twelve-year-old boy enter the empty Abbey Church at mid-day, pray for ten minutes, sign himself, then go about his day.

But the thing that has always stuck with me about Saint John’s University (and by extension, its sister College of Saint Benedict) is that culture matters. Clearly, different colleges draw different people to themselves, so there is a skewed (if I may say, impressively skewed) population of students who are choosing to go to Saint John’s. Notwithstanding the type of people who have chosen to attend Saint John’s, a college, if it is doing its job, is not simply meant to educate. It is supposed to form. And formation is not a matter of bestowing knowledge, but engendering wisdom. Even more than fostering skills and employability, college should forge character. Beyond offering facts that populate the mind, college should offer lessons that cultivate the soul. Saint John’s did that for Johnnie. Granted, his antennae (more than most of his contemporaries) were out for spiritual mentors, wise professors and enduring friendships. And he found them. My flaw was that I was a bit too stressed and utilitarian about getting into medical school to pay close attention to culture in college. While I had an excellent college experience, I will admit that at times superficialities eclipsed the transcendent. But for Johnnie, something in him incessantly looked for this substance and he found it. He found it at Saint John’s.

Since I met Johnnie, I have been to Saint John’s campus twice, my wife has participated in a spiritual retreat there and we have brought my young daughters to campus. I own a Saint John’s baseball cap and T-shirt and shamelessly plug the College of St. Benedict to my young daughters. And to this day, upon finding out that a person of particularly impressive and intriguing character (bright, witty, religious, deep, grounded) went to Saint John’s (or Saint Ben’s), I simply nod my head and say to myself, “Well, that makes sense.”
When I first encountered Johnnie (and ever since we have been friends), I have been impressed with what he has done, but I am moved by who he is.

The degrees, awards and accolades that will be granted to graduates from Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s will be noteworthy and useful, but they will matter far less than the character into which each graduate has been formed. And the tactics by which you lead (while important) will matter far less than the integrity by which you live.

Who you are speaks louder than what you do.

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Each and every alumnus is our living and breathing brand, each and every day, in each and every interaction and a powerful example of our mission to the world.  Thank you, Johnnie.

By |November 14th, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

A Good Game for UST; A Great Day for SJU

Let’s start with what probably goes without saying.  It would have been nice to win the game.  We take our football seriously, have an unrivaled tradition and a very good team.  Gary Fasching, his coaches and players all worked extremely hard to prepare for a strong University of St. Thomas team.  It would have been very nice to see their efforts rewarded.  As close as the score was and as well as the defense played, I am certain that these facts offer absolutely no consolation.

But the final score should not distract us from acknowledging that this past weekend was great for Saint John’s University and our community.

The game was a celebration of all that is great about D3 athletics: an intense but friendly rivalry, two schools from a conference where the players are truly student-athletes, deeply committed alumni, student and parent fans, a fantastic venue that recognized the importance of the two schools in the economic and cultural life of the Minnesota, and publicity that went national for these very reasons.

The game at Target Field was technically a home game for the Tommies, but you would never have known it by the overwhelmingly red crowd.  The game obliterated the previous D3 attendance record of 17,535 when 37,355 fans filled Target Field.  Of those fans, easily two-thirds were wearing red but some thought it looked more like 75 or 80%.  (You judge–here is a nice panoramic view )  Suffice it to say it was an impressive showing.


Pictured above–the National Anthem and presentation of the American flag was done jointly by the Air Force ROTC program at UST and the Fighting Saints Army ROTC program at CSB, SJU and St. Cloud State.

The game garnered tremendous local coverage in the print media and on the airwaves (here  and here ).  We also managed some highly sought after national attention with a story in the New York Times and a prominent Johnnie fan from Florida who happened to be giving the McCarthy Lecture at SJU a couple days before the game.


But what was most impressive was that at least 25,000 Johnnie fans showed up for the game and each other.
We have a total of about 26,000 alumni (College and School of Theology) across all years.  About 30% of those live outside Minnesota, and I did meet alumni who came back from IL, AZ, CA, GA and MA.  Of course those alumni have spouses, children, siblings and friends, and we also have Bennie fans and Johnnie parents, but the University of St. Thomas has over three times as many undergraduates as Saint John’s (I am assuming that most grad students are not so likely to be football fans) with a proportionate alumni base, with their own spouses, children etc.

So the outpouring of support for Saint John’s and the evident pleasure we took in being together, in community, was truly stunning.

It was a combination of pride, respect and joy that Johnnie fans brought to downtown Minneapolis and Target Field.  From early in the morning, red clad visitors filled venues around the stadium.  Fulton Brewery, a place with some Johnnie connections, was so full they had to close the doors.  Yet we did not have a single incident with the law, according to our VP for Student Development.  A Minneapolis police officer told him that “the Red fans were very well-behaved.”  A group of monks (sadly without Fr. Wilfred) came down to be part of the crowd.  Past parents from California and Illinois, among other places, traveled to watch a game in which their now alumni sons would not be playing—just to be back in the Saint John’s atmosphere.  An SJU staff person working at the game was told by three separate Twins employees that the Saint John’s fans were exceptionally polite and respectful.  Long after the game was over, Johnnies were fist bumping with other random Johnnies they had just met in bars and restaurants throughout downtown.  And the smiles continue into the workweek.

It was simply a great day to be a fan of Saint John’s University.

By |September 27th, 2017|Categories: Alumni, Kudos|0 Comments

Saint John’s: A Thin Place

The sense of place at Saint John’s is what drew many of us here.  I have had dozens of alumni tell me that they got on campus and just knew this was the right place for them to live and study.

We still consider a campus visit an essential part of recruiting Johnnies (and no small number of Bennies).  Alumni and parents come back to campus often simply to re-visit the beauty and experience the reinvigorating ethos of this place.

It is always a pleasure to welcome visitors to campus, especially those who have not visited before.  Invariably they comment on the beauty of the place—both natural and manmade—and how well-maintained the grounds and buildings are.

As someone lucky enough to live and work here, I thought I had a very good sense of Saint John’s and its beauty, but this summer a guest to campus offered an insight that made me look at this place with new eyes.

Dennis Turner, Wikimedia Commons

A non-alum friend of one of the monks was here for an event in June.  He told the monk how much he always enjoyed visiting because he considered Saint John’s to be “a thin place.”  The monk was not immediately familiar with the reference.  His friend said the term came from Celtic spirituality and “described a place where heaven and earth are very close, where the veil between here and above is thin.”  The Celts used it to describe, among other places, the western Scottish isle of Iona, where St. Columba brought Christianity from his native Ireland.

I liked the description and did a little more searching and found the following description of a thin place:

In the Celtic tradition, a “thin pace” is the place where the veil that separates heaven and
earth is nearly transparent. It is a place where we experience a deep sense of God’s presence
in our everyday world. A thin place is where, for a moment, the spiritual world and the natural
world intersect.

I trust for many alumni and friends of Saint John’s, this is one of their thin places.

Courtesy: An Oblate of Saint John’s Abbey, June 2016

By |August 3rd, 2017|Categories: Alumni, History|0 Comments