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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|1 Comment

Demographic Reductionism

Brooklyn Museum via wikimedia common's user Cm300883A recent article in the New York Times examines a controversy at a New York art museum.

The article by Maya Salam describes criticism the Brooklyn Museum is receiving for hiring Kristen Windmuller-Lund as the curator of the African art.  Windmuller-Lund appears highly qualified on paper.  The story notes that she “has Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Princeton, and a bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Yale. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y.”  She is also white.

Critics of the decision “on social media and from an anti-gentrification activist group…argue the selection perpetuated ‘ongoing legacies of oppression.’ ”  Another activist group wrote that the museum’s choice was ” ‘tone-deaf’ and said that ‘no matter how one parses it, the appointment is simply not a good look in this day and age.’ ”

The Brooklyn Museum is pushing back against the criticism, releasing a statement praising Windmuller-Luna and including a reaction from Okwui Enwezor, the renowned Nigerian-American curator, scholar and arts leader, who called Dr. Windmuller-Luna,

“…formerly a brilliant student of mine.  The criticism around her appointment can be described as
arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst,” he said. “There is no place in the field
of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which
qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being
white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better.”

The story caught my eye because of its potential implications for higher education.  There are at least two major concerns with a world view that suggests subjects, disciplines or topics should be limited to certain individuals or groups.

1. Educational breadth.  A broad-based liberal arts education is the foundation of most of the finest universities in the United States and is part of every institution that has general education requirements.  The underlying philosophy is that every student benefits from studying things that are outside their experiences in order to stretch and challenge them.  Such study makes students better able to understand the experiences of others and more empathetic.  It might even introduce them to a topic that could become their academic major and even a lifelong passion.  Faculty do not discourage certain students from studying topics based on their background, gender, economics, religion or any other demographic characteristics.  In fact, on the contrary, students are often encouraged to try subjects that are distant from their previous experiences.  This may well be how Windmuller-Lund got interested in African art.

2. Demographic constraints on professors.  Beyond the limitations this narrow world view would impose on students’ educational choices, consider how the logic of the Brooklyn Museum’s critics could play out when taken to its logical extreme.  Only white men teach Shakespeare?  Christians only research Christianity?  Women only teach Middlemarch and Virginia Woolf?  Latin American or Asian or European historians must have appropriate genetic/family roots?  Jews only explore the meaning of the Holocaust?

To reduce individuals to the collection of demographic characteristics they might check off on a census form is deeply reductionist.  It suggests that an individual is simply a collection of traits rather than a person capable of synthesizing their many attributes into a complex irreducible human being.

If a liberal arts education teaches anything, it is that we are all capable of transcending mere genetics and history.  Ideally we can discover and live out a shared humanity in which we have much more in common with each other than the differences that are sometimes given too much weight.

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