Leaving a Mark, Making a Mark*

New York Times columnist David Brooks has long been interested in character and the process by which individuals develop their character.  He wrote a whole book on the topic called The Road to Character.

In a recent column, he explores the topic from a slightly different angle.  He explores the characteristics of institutions that, as he writes, “leave a mark on people.”  What kinds of institutions “become part of a person’s identity and engage the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul”?

Multiple Johnnie alumni sent me a link to this column, all saying that as they read it they had immediately thought of Saint John’s because it is an institution that left a mark on them.  In my job as president, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to meet many hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Johnnies.  What so many of these alumni tell me, either explicitly or through the lives they lead, is that Saint John’s left an indelible a mark on them—one that lasts a lifetime.

As you seniors get ready to finish your undergraduate experience at this rare and exceptional place, my fervent hope for you, and the wish of Johnnie alumni everywhere, is that this place has left a mark on you that will be a powerful part of your character in the years ahead and throughout your life.

Obviously each of you has had your own unique Saint John’s experience, but I would suggest that there are three consistent ways in which Saint John’s University marks its graduates, characteristics by which the world recognizes a Johnnie and maybe even expects from a Johnnie.

  1. Johnnies have each other’s backs.  This is probably the most well-known aspect of the Johnnie character and it is closely connected to the success of the famous Johnnie network.  With a mixture of wonder and respect, alums from other schools often remark on Johnnies’ loyalty to SJU and to each other.  At an admissions event, I asked the mother of a prospective student why her son was interested in Saint John’s.  She told me that she knew many Johnnies through her work and that they were all good guys that looked out for each other.  Her son wanted to be part of a community like that, and she wanted that for her son.
  2. Johnnies stand for something more than themselves.  This is not to suggest that Johnnies are purely selfless, but rather that they combine their own self-interest with a commitment to something more, something bigger.  It can be a commitment to their community, to their families, to their churches or even to their alma mater (as is true of so many alums in this room).  As Brooks describes it, those marked by institutions like SJU have characters in which “selfishness and selflessness marry,” to benefit the Johnnie and his community.
  3. Johnnies live out the Benedictine teaching of respect for all individuals.  The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that we are to treat all as Christ—to respect the dignity and worth of every person.  On campus we famously hold doors for each other as a small, daily reminder of the value of every individual.  In the world beyond Collegeville, Johnnies treat co-workers, acquaintances and strangers with that same respect and courtesy that our shared humanity demands.  This way of being in the world is even more important in a time of political polarization, where we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other and civilly engage on matters of politics and social policy.  Respectful Johnnies may, in some small way, help bridge these divides.

(courtesy of Sean Donohue)

Finally, as you leave Saint John’s as “marked men,” that is not the end of the story.  In fact, it is really only the beginning.  The faculty, staff, monks, fellow alums and your peers who all played a part in this process of making you a Johnnie expect one more thing from you.  We expect you to make your own mark in the world–to bring your Johnnie character to bear in all that you do, personally and professionally.

The world is a better place for having more Johnnies in it, and we look forward to seeing the fruits of the Class of 2017’s dreams, endeavors and successes in the years ahead.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

*A version of this was given at the 2017 Senior Dinner.

Faith and Reason

IMG_7917-sized1For many visitors and certainly for our alumni, Saint John’s has a special sense of place.  It is a rare combination of the natural setting of woods, lakes and prairie and the built spaces of handmade red bricks and brilliant Marcel Breuer architecture all interacting with the of people who live in Collegeville—the timeless stability of the monastic community, our deeply committed faculty and staff, and the youthful energy of each generation of students.  This magical mix makes so many Johnnies call Collegeville “home” long after they have graduated.  It is also a blend that we are careful not to tamper with.

This sense of place was certainly foremost in the mind of architect Gregory Friesen as he was tasked with renovating the iconic Alcuin Library as part of the library and learning commons project at Saint John’s.  While he certainly felt a strong obligation to preserve the spirit and design of Marcel Breuer, he also was aware of the need to have the renovated Alcuin and new Br. Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons fit into the sense of place that is so central to Saint John’s.  To achieve this nuanced charge while also making the academic space thoroughly 21st century, Friesen went back to Breuer’s original conception which was tied directly to Benedictine and Catholic history.  The University’s central space and focal point is Abbey Plaza, where the Abbey and University Church stands on the south side of the mall and Alcuin Library on the north, with open green space in between.  Faith and reason are represented together and in conversation with each other, as has been central to Catholic teaching and preserved by the Benedictines for centuries.  There is no more succinct and beautiful manifestation of the mission of a Catholic, Benedictine university.  And Friesen is making it even better.

IMG_7923-sizedAnyone who has visited Alcuin Library knows it is a beautiful and innovative structure, with the two massive, concrete trees of knowledge gracing and supporting the building on the upper level.  There is certainly natural light in that space, but the need to have load bearing concrete walls required the windows to be relatively small and near the ceiling.  Fifty years of construction innovation gave Friesen options that Breuer did not have, and the outcome will be stunning.  The new design will open up the interior space as most of the books move to compact shelving in the lower levels, but most striking will be the natural light that will illuminate the interior, as concrete walls are replaced with glass.  A big part of the south wall will now be glass and allow visitors and students to look out at the Abbey and University Church across the mall.

As the pictures show, even in the midst of construction, the interior has a very different look and feel that is completely in keeping with Breuer’s vision and that of the monks who bravely commissioned this dream over fifty years ago.

The renovated Alcuin and new Learning Commons (which will offer similar views of the Church), will daily remind every visitor and our students that Saint John’s University is a place where faith and reason not only coexist but actively enhance on another as learning and the search for meaning are inextricably intertwined in a great liberal arts education.


By |July 22nd, 2016|Categories: Alumni, Kudos|0 Comments

At Our Finest

The community that is Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict is excellent in many ways.

We enjoy each other’s company and enthusiastically celebrate life’s joys together.  This can be seen at any Johnnie football game or commencement exercise or reunion.

We thrive at welcoming new members to our community, whether it is a visitor to our campuses who is delighted to find so many generous and helpful people in Collegeville and St. Joseph, or a new student or employee who feels almost immediately that they are part of this Benedictine community.

We are great at reaching across generations as older Johnnies and Bennies provide mentoring and personal relationships that make up the well-known and envied Johnnie and Bennie professional network.

But we are at our finest as a community when we reach out to others in a time of sadness and pain.


David Forster Jr. ’11

On Friday June 24, 2016, David Forster Jr. ’11 collapsed and died as he finished an evening run in Minneapolis.  David was a cross-country runner at Hopkins High School and at Saint John’s.  He was also a marathoner who had completed several races, including Grandma’s only a week earlier in which David had helped his Bennie fiancé complete her first marathon.

David’s death at 27 is a mystery and tragedy; a painful reversal of life’s rhythms as his parents, Sandy and David, were shocked to have to bury their first born.

David’s funeral was held at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis last Thursday.  It was an incredible tribute to David, his family and to the CSB/SJU community.  The Basilica, which holds nearly 2000, was full, with a number of mourners standing in the aisles and the back.

Cross country runners from SJU, across many years, formed an honor guard that stretched the length of the center aisle.  Hundreds of Johnnies and Bennies from David’s parents’ and grandparents’ generation were there, and there were many current and recent students, who never met David but simply wanted to be there to support the many people who loved him.  And of course David and his fiancé’s friends turned out in droves, many flying in from across the country.

A young woman from David’s class said, “I have never felt more proud to be part of this community than I did at David’s funeral.  To see the number of people at the funeral was amazing.”

A monk from Saint John’s who has attended hundreds of funerals over many years noted that, “It was impossible to be at this event and not be proud and impressed by Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s.  I felt so proud of the community.”

None of this is to forget the deep tragedy of David’s death.  May we have few opportunities to show the strength of this community.  But it is deeply consoling to be part of such a community, knowing that they will wrap you in their arms during the inevitable painful events of life.

By |July 6th, 2016|Categories: Alumni|1 Comment