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Across Generations: Mike and Ramond

Most Johnnies naturally have their closest relationships with classmates and those within a couple years either side of their graduation year.  Yet it is also true that many Johnnies have found that the Saint John’s experience is powerfully transferable across time.  Whether they meet a current student or an older alum, the typical Johnnie finds an almost immediate connection with current students or other alumni because of the shared connection to Collegeville and the educational experience here.  It can be knowledge of the same professors, the shared Benedictine values, a connection to a favorite monk, love of Johnnie athletics, a shared love of the natural beauty of the campus or any one of a dozen other things that make the Johnnie experience unique.

I was reminded of this powerful intergenerational connection between Johnnies as I observed the relationship between an alumnus coming up on his 50th Reunion and a 2017 graduate.  Mike Scherer will celebrate Reunion with his 1967 classmates this June 23-25, and Ramond Mitchell received his Bachelor’s Degree in Theology a few weeks ago.

They met initially when Ramond served as the student representative on the Building and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees.  Mike was Chair of that committee, and he took Ramond under his wing, orienting him regarding B&G Committee issues and serving as a mentor.  Coincidentally, around the time they met, Ramond served as a student host when Mike’s grandson, Sam, visited campus.  (Ramond must have done a good job, as Sam is now a junior at SJU.)

But the relationship grew deeper as these two men came to enjoy time together beyond committee meetings.  Ramond is from the Bahamas and was not always able to travel home on breaks.  Mike and his wife, Sue, invited Ramond to spend time with them at their home in Wayzata.  Coincidentally, Sue had connections to the Bahamas from her time serving as a volunteer nurse, so she and Ramond had a shared love of the islands and their culture.  This year during the annual CSB and SJU alumni visit to the Bahamas, Mike and Sue went along, and Ramond arranged for them to meet and spend time with his mother and sister.

Earlier this spring Mike and Sue ensured that Ramond’s mom was in Collegeville for Mom Prom.  When Commencement Week rolled around, Mike and Sue hosted Ramond’s mom, sister, grandmother and a close family friend for a week—introducing them to the delights of Minnesota, like the Twin Cities and the Mall of America, and providing transportation to Collegeville where they all witnessed Ramond’s graduation together.

Though Mike and Ramond’s friendship may be slightly atypical given their ages and places of origin, it is but one example of the relationships that have grown out of a shared Johnnie experience.  If you have other stories of the power of Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s to build unique friendships, I’d enjoy hearing about them.

Mike Scherer will receive the 2017 Walter Reger Distinguished Alumnus Award at Reunion this summer, June 23-25.

Ramond Mitchell gave the 2017 Saint John’s University Student Commencement address.

By |May 31st, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

The Secret Ingredient: Benedictine Stability

Virtually every Johnnie has had the experience.  At work or at play, you describe something about your time at SJU or something you did with a Bennie friend or how some Johnnie helped you out (or vice versa), and your non-Johnnie listener will say, “What is it with you Johnnies and Bennies?  I went to X (some other good liberal arts school), and I care about my alma mater, but you guys LOVE SJU and stay so tight even after you graduate.  Is there something in the water up there?”

That is a question that I have given a lot of thought to, both before I came back to my alma mater to work and certainly in the last five years as I have become even more deeply engaged with our amazing alumni community.

Every Johnnie has his own story and for each of us there is likely a constellation of factors that bind us to each other and to this place, but the more I have considered this, the more important I think the Benedictine value of stability is to binding so many of us to this place.

Fr. Mark Thamert ’73, SOT ’79, OSB

Among the things that tie alumni to their alma maters are the relationships they have with those they met and knew as students.  Obviously their personal friendships with classmates are most important, but relationships with faculty, staff and work supervisors are central as well.  When alumni return to campus for reunions or other visits, they often seek out the adults who played a formative role in their undergraduate experience, particularly faculty.  As the years pass, however, ties to the campus naturally weaken as faculty and staff move to new jobs or retire or die, and visits become more about nostalgia rather than reconnecting to a living person who both knew and knows the alumni.

At Saint John’s there is an additional special aspect to alumni ties that cannot be overstated: monks.  All students have some interaction with members of the monastic community during their four years, either as a faculty resident, faculty member, work supervisor or in extra-curricular activities like campus ministry.  This means that when returning to campus after graduation, alumni often seek out members of the monastic community to reconnect.  What makes these relationships special and unique is the stability of monastic life.  Monks at Saint John’s (and other Benedictine monasteries) take a vow of stability which commits them to this community and this place for the rest of their lives.  They often work or study in other places, but they always come back to Collegeville.  This is where they will retire, this is where they will die, and this is where they will be buried.

So when alumni come back to Saint John’s, there is almost always someone on campus who knew them—even if only in passing, but often more deeply.  This link can connect a Johnnie to Saint John’s for a longer time than most educational institutions, often a whole lifetime.  In close, lifelong friendships with the monastic community, a Johnnie is known from his youth through middle age and beyond, with all the life changes, disappointments, challenges and joys.  And the alum often knows the monk through his working life, into retirement, through aging and even unto death.

All of this has been on my mind recently as the community at Saint John’s has witnessed the very public dying of a beloved monk and faculty member.  Fr. Mark Thamert, OSB, ’73 and SOT ’79 died of stomach cancer on April 29th and was buried in the Abbey cemetery last Saturday.  He had been sick for three years and decided to stop all treatments earlier this year.

While he was no longer teaching in the classroom, he did not stop living in the community.  He met with colleagues, visited with alumni and friends, and gave public presentations, including a powerful Lunch and Learn for the Benedictine Institute where he offered his insights on dying.

He shared some of his favorite poetry and observed, “All these poems are now different to me.  They mean something different as I approach God, as I approach the threshold.”

He found a similar experience in his relationships:

This last chamber, this last room I’ve entered, was every bit as much a mystery as dying itself.  You have no idea what these last days, these last weeks are going to be – and they’ve been amazing.  My relationships have all changed. Almost all of them have intensified, and have become beautiful beyond all expectation.

And he asked a favor of us as his end neared:

I want you guys to be the send-off party for me.  I can picture it like a football stadium or something running through and handing me off to the Divine.

Fr. Mark’s students, some of whom were at the lunch and many others who came back to visit him in his last months, would never have been able to share in the beauty, grace and courage of his dying without the Benedictine vow of stability that kept him in this place, where his relationships could be sustained and nurtured over decades.

These rare relationships with members of our Benedictine community are among the secret ingredients that make Saint John’s such a special place.

I encourage alumni to take advantage of this stability.  If you know a monk in the health center or living in the monastery, do not hesitate to drop in to visit.  They may or may not remember you, but you were a part of their lives and they are a part of yours.

By |May 12th, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

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.