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Do Clever and Kind Go Together? *

Welcome to faculty, staff, parents and especially to the 2018 candidates for induction into the  Theta of Minnesota Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and among its most prestigious academic honor societies.  I am delighted to be with you here on this gorgeous spring day in Collegeville to celebrate your academic successes.

I’d like to share with you a quote from the Polish-born American Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel that I think is very appropriate for this academic occasion at our Catholic and Benedictine institutions.

Near the end of his life Heschel said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

Now that I am well into at least early middle age, I have lived long enough to find that I agree with Rabbi Heschel’s observation—to a point.

Ever since I came to Saint John’s in 1977, I have lived almost entirely in the academic world, either as a student, faculty member or administrator.  In this world it is completely natural and appropriate to admire people who are academically successful—intelligent, creative, quick, insightful—“clever people” in Heschel’s phrasing.  I too admired these people and still do, but I also came to realize, even during my undergraduate days, there were other human traits that were at least as admirable as intelligence.

As Heschel describes his changing views, his quote suggests, at least implicitly, a juxtaposition between clever and kind.  Is Heschel possibly suggesting the two can’t go together?  Villains in literature and film are almost always clever, while the good souls are often at least naïve and sometimes even simple.

As we are here today to honor our most academically successful students, I think it is important to recall that one of the incredible strengths of our Catholic and Benedictine academic institutions is that while we absolutely celebrate academic rigor, we also honor and try to live by Benedictine values—with an emphasis on respect for individuals and commitment to community.

In my experience, clever and kind very often do go together.  In my 40 years of association with SJU, I have found the vast majority of the most exceptional individuals I have met at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s are both clever and kind.  Being one in no way diminishes the other.

At CSB and SJU we believe in the importance of both cleverness and kindness, and that is what we are celebrating today as we honor you as the newest members of the only Benedictine PBK Chapter among the 286 institutions that host a chapter.

I encourage you to take all that you have learned and developed at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s with you as you leave our institutions.  I wish you the best as you use your cleverness and kindness for your future success and for the good of the world.

*A version of these remarks was given at the PBK induction ceremony on April 25, 2018.

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

Benedictine Hospitality: “Wanna race?”

Three Johnnies smiling at cameraAs one of the public faces of Saint John’s, I get the opportunity to meet many of the guests who come to our campus. Invariably, first time visitors make two observations about Saint John’s. First, that we have a stunningly beautiful campus and second, that everyone is so friendly. One visitor even asked whether we taught our students to identify guests and then to hold doors open and say hi to them!

The first comment is not so surprising. The monks chose brilliantly when they decided that the woods and prairie around Lake Sagatagan would be home to the Abbey and University. The second compliment is perhaps a little more surprising since many of our campus visitors are from Minnesota, a state that has a well-deserved reputation for nice and polite people.

But after so many of these conversations, I have become convinced that our Benedictine hospitality and sense of community does set us apart, even for Minnesotans. What is particularly striking is that this behavior just becomes second nature for faculty, staff and students. The latter group pick up on the social ethos quickly and make it their own, as the encounter below suggests.

Sarah Gainey, the Environmental Education Coordinator at Saint John’s Outdoor University, recently wrote the following to football Coach Gary Fasching, and I am using it here with her permission:

I work at Saint John’s Outdoor University coordinating outdoor field trips for visiting preK-12th graders from the surrounding area. We normally hold our field trips outdoors in the Abbey Arboretum, but because a lack of snow this week, I was holding indoor field trips for 5th graders in the McNeely Spectrum. I would like to share with you an amazing interaction I witnessed last Thursday between members of your football team and a 5th grade class visiting Saint John’s.

The class arrived early to eat lunch before our field trip. After they ate, they were allowed to run around the track, but were instructed to leave anyone alone who was in there working out, which included 3 members of the football team doing conditioning drills. As a few of the 5th graders crossed the track in front of the football players, one young man said to them, ‘Hi there! Wanna race?’ The wide-eyed look of excitement on the boys’ face was priceless and they responded, ‘We aren’t allowed to.’ I quickly intervened and said, ‘Go ask your teacher if it is okay.’

A few moments later, the entire 5th grade class was lined up and ready to race the 3 football players. After a ‘ready set go’ everyone ran as hard as they could and the football players beat all the 5th graders. It wasn’t how the race ended that was memorable, but instead the way the players treated the students that is going to be remembered by every student, teacher, and Outdoor U staff member that witnessed the interaction.

These were kids from a school in St Cloud with a high poverty rate and who have to deal with a whole host of issues no one that age should have to worry about. My main objective is to instill in these and all the kids who come to Saint John’s for field trips a love of science and the natural world. But often times the field trip ends up being more about life, having a positive exposure to a college campus and college students, and about just being a good human being. Your football players helped me achieve that second objective probably without even thinking about it. They were just being kind and welcoming to a group of kids who will remember that day for a long time.

I didn’t get the players’ names but I did shake their hands and thanked them for what they did. And I wanted to thank you for having those kind people on your team. Those kids might not remember what I tried to teach them about science that day, but they will remember how they were treated by people at Saint John’s.

SJU Football Player

Photo: Richard Larkin McLay ’17

As Sarah notes, this simple, and mostly likely, reflexive kindness on the part of these three Johnnies may well have an impact that  reaches far beyond what the young men might ever imagine.

One of the biggest challenges our country faces in the years ahead it to address the achievement gap between students of color and majority students, a gap that is significantly larger for boys than girls. To take full advantage of the talents of this generation of young people, they will need post-secondary education, and the best way to make that happen is to instill in these children an assumption, at an early age, that college is not only a possible option but that it is an assumed option for most of them.

For relatively underprivileged elementary school children to come to a college campus and discover that people are nice to them, that college students are friendly and approachable, and that you have fun hanging out with them is a tremendous step in the right direction.

I am glad that Sarah did not get the name of the young men involved. Pick your favorite three Johnnies–it was them.

By |January 31st, 2017|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos|1 Comment