Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

The Boys are Back: Boys State Returns to Saint John’s*

Welcome to Saint John’s University and Abbey.  Though actually I should say, “Welcome back.”  Saint John’s has hosted Boys State numerous times in the past, and we are delighted to be hosting the program again this summer for the first of what we hope will be many years.

There are at least three reasons why Saint John’s is a great location for Boys State.

First, as I noted, we have a long history with Boys State.  Lots of our students and alumni are also former Boys State participants.  I know there is at least one Johnnie alum in the audience as a counselor this week and the Boys State governor from 2012, Zac McFarland, just graduated from Saint John’s last month and is off to law school in the fall.

Second, Saint John’s has a significant tradition of public service, especially in politics, among our alumni.  There are currently several Johnnies serving in the state legislature and many others have done so in the past.  Mark Kennedy ‘79, the current president at the University of North Dakota, was a United States Representative.  Eugene McCarthy ’35 and David Durenberger ’55 were both United States Senators, and McCarthy was a presidential candidate in 1968.  More recently Denis McDonough ’92 was the White House Chief of Staff for President Obama.

Additionally, we have many Johnnies in public service in other countries. For example, January Makamba ’02 was a Member of Parliament in Tanzania for two terms, a Presidential Candidate in the 2016 general elections and currently serves as Minister of Union Affairs and Environment, while Innocent Bash ’02 is a Member of Parliament in Tanzania, and Abdul Kulane ’13 serves as Deputy Chief of Staff for the President of Somalia.

This is a campus that has nurtured a passion for public service among our students for many generations, and I hope it might do the same for you during your week here.

Finally, there is an important part of our history and ethos that is particularly relevant for your participation in Boys State at this time in our political history.  Saint John’s was founded by Benedictine monks in 1857, the year before Minnesota became a state.  (Our sister school, the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, where the women students live, was founded by women from the Benedictine order.)  The Benedictines are a Catholic monastic order of men or women who live in community in a monastery.  We still have a thriving men’s monastery at Saint John’s, and you will see monks around campus during your stay here.  The Benedictine tradition was founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century, over 1500 years ago.  Much of the Benedictine tradition is based on a little book which has come to be called The Rule of St. Benedict.  It was written by Benedict to help his fellow monks live out their monastic vocations well and to strengthen their monastic communities.

Now you might legitimately be asking, “What in the world could a 17-year-old 21st Century Gen Z-er learn from a 6th Century Catholic monk?”  Well, first, any tradition that has survived and thrived in the world for over 1500 years is certainly worthy of some respect.  Second, Benedict was very wise about human beings and how they might best live together in community.  His wisdom might help our communities today.

The very first word in The Rule is, “Listen.”  Benedict urges his brothers to, “Listen with the ear of their heart.”  By this counsel he means to listen generously, to listen to each other as you would like to be listened to, and to consider how you are likely to be heard by your confreres or your intended audience.

This advice is especially timely for us, living as we are in a particularly contentious political time where we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other, especially those with whom we might disagree; where polite and civil disagreement about politics or policy seems challenging at best and impossible at worst.  This can be especially disconcerting for many young people who are just coming of age politically and might be wondering if this tense, angry, and extreme political tone is simply how politics must be practiced.  (As an aside from someone older, it does not have to be this way and has not always been so.)

As you consider what role you might play in civic life in the future and how to best approach this week of learning and engagement with your peers from across the state, I would simply urge you to take Benedict’s advice to heart, this week and beyond.  Listen.  Practice that art and skill.  Listen hard and listen well.  Understand what others are saying to you and why.  You will be a better person for it, a better friend, a better professional and a better leader in your communities.

I should note with hope and optimism that those in this auditorium surely cannot be as pessimistic about politics, policy and civic life as the most extreme political observers currently are, or you would not have decided to devote a week of your summer to Boys State.  Thank you for making that decision and giving us older folks a reason for hope in the future leadership and civic life in our state and nation.

Finally, I would be remiss in my presidential duties if, as I wish you well for your Boys State week, I did not encourage you to envision yourself as a student at Saint John’s University a year from now.  We would love to have each and every one of you become a Johnnie.  If the 300+ of you all decided by the end of your week that you will all come back to be part of the Class of 2022, it would make the job of our admissions staff much easier next year!

Seriously, please put Saint John’s on your list of possible colleges and come back and visit us during the school year when classes are in session and students are on campus.

Best wishes for a great week.

*This welcome was given to the Boys State delegates who were on the SJU campus from June 11th-17th.
Boys State and Girls State are summer leadership and citizenship programs sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary for high school juniors. Boys and Girls are usually nominated by their high school during their junior year. Boys and Girls State programs both began in 1937 and are held in each of the U.S. states, usually on a college campus, within that state.  (From Wikipedia.)

By |June 26th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

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