Michael Hemesath

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Michael Hemesath

About Michael Hemesath

Michael Hemesath is the 13th president of Saint John's University. A 1981 SJU graduate, Hemesath is the first layperson appointed to a full presidential term at SJU. You can find him on Twitter [at] PrezHemesath.

An Academic Life

It began in a different era. It was the early 1960s. Higher education enrollment was growing quickly as the need for post-secondary education became more apparent in an increasingly white collar economy and baby boomers were starting to make their impact on many institution.

Saint John’s at the time was a typical, small, liberal arts college with a significant number of residential students, but its central Minnesota location also meant that many of the Catholic boys were “dayhops,” non-residential students who lived at home in St. Cloud or Avon or Melrose.

One thing Saint John’s did not emphasize was a personalized mentoring education. The economics of that just did not work. While monks were relatively inexpensive compared to lay faculty, the small town and rural Catholic families who sent their boys to be first-generation Johnnies had lots of mouths to feed. Many a young man told Fr. Don LeMay, who was the admissions and financial aid office rolled into one, “I’d love to come to Saint John’s, but my family can’t afford it.” To which he invariably replied, “Come to Saint John’s. We’ll figure it out.” Young monks were part of the solution.

The monastery, in those early Vatican II days still had over 300 monks. Yet even as undergraduate enrollments grew, many monks were not interested or prepared to teach, or were otherwise engaged. So young monks were asked (strongly encouraged?) to step in. Their individual disciplinary interests were not an overriding concern. A monk might love math but be expected to teach physics. Sometimes the stretch was even further–a humanist might be called to become a social scientist. The little matter of degrees was also somewhat flexible–a bachelor’s degree was required, naturally, but maybe that was enough for the moment. There were Catholic boys that needed teaching and their parents cared more about the Catholic part than for some academic niceties. The constraints (tyranny?) of credentials, assessment and accreditation were still mostly in the future.

Fr. Rene McGraw was 27 in the fall of 1962. He had a Saint John’s bachelor’s degree, earned with honors, and a strong interest in both English and philosophy. He had been ordained that summer, and this probably tipped the scale in the Abbot’s mind toward philosophy. Plus the common curriculum at a Catholic university in the early 1960s would have been heavily weighted toward philosophy and theology–a lost golden era for humanist lovers of the liberal arts.

Those first philosophy classes were a challenge. There was no graduate training to rely on, only undergraduate class notes and his own close reading. Furthermore, there was little opportunity to engage Socratically with students. Classroom enrollments were in the high double digits, sometimes topping 100. The largest Fr. Rene recalls was 120. Pedagogy was largely limited to lecturing, and there was little opportunity to ask for written assignments. The grading would have been insurmountable. Tests were short answers and even grading those was no easy task.

But the intellectual engagement was powerful and the interactions with students, as challenging as they were in a class of 80 or 90, were a deep joy. The Abbot decided an investment in graduate school might be worthwhile. So Rene went off to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for a master’s degree, working part-time as a parish priest during these years. Then shortly thereafter, off to the University of Paris for a brief three year Ph.D. in a second language–something most academics “stuck” in Paris surely would have stretched to five or six years.

And then back to the Saint John’s classroom and his students.

There have been sabbaticals, one to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and another to Oxford. There have been other Abbey responsibilities that occasionally required course releases. There was also the lifelong personal commitment to social justice and peace that led, with the help of others, to the development of the Peace Studies Department and major. Rene then taught in both programs, bringing a philosophical rigor to his peace studies course exploring aesthetics and technology.

And throughout, there has been the other side of the commitment to teaching Johnnies: nearly 40 years as a faculty resident to callow freshmen that he helped to nurture, eventually, into men, many of whom were lucky and blessed enough to become lifelong friends.

Between teaching and mentoring young men, Fr. Rene has surely touched as many lives as any individual in Saint John’s long history.

The one constant for Rene is that “teaching philosophy…has never become routine for me. A phrase of Heidegger, an insight from Aristotle, an apothegm from Nietzsche, an ethical demand from Camus or Levinas startles me as much now as it did when I first started teaching in 1962. Teaching philosophy has never ceased to excite me.”

This academic life comes to a bittersweet end for Rene this week, at age 83, after 52 years in the classroom. “I could not think of a better way to spend a life than in the classroom with a text of Heidegger or Levinas in my hand.”

Every faculty member, of course, has his or her own personal and meaningful version of an academic life, but Saint John’s will be a lesser place for no longer having Rene in its classrooms, and thousands of Johnnies and Bennies are the better for having had that gift.

Fr. Rene McGraw is celebrated by students, friends and colleagues as he makes his way back to the Philosophy Department after his last class on Friday 3, 2019, after 52 years in Saint John’s classrooms.

A Commitment to Something Bigger than Yourself

This story is about typical Johnnies.

Chris grew up in Wisconsin in an intact middle-class family.  In high school he was a good student and an avid soccer player.  He has an identical twin, Dave, who he loved and competed with throughout high school. 

They were not planning on going to college together but when their two different first choice colleges dropped out of consideration for various reasons, each happily opted for their number two that now became number one: Saint John’s.

Despite eventually earning a master’s degree in philosophy, academics were not a dominant consideration in Chris’s college choice.  He sheepishly admits that having a gym literally steps from his freshman dorm played an outsized role in choosing Saint John’s.

Dave, too, was much more focused on his love of soccer than on any of the course offerings that might prepare him for his eventual Ph.D.

First year was fine and relatively uneventful.  The twins wanted a little distance from each other, but fate would only allow them to get so far apart: Chris was on 3rd Tommy and Dave on 2nd Tommy.  With both being on the short wing, almost on top of each other, the rooms conveniently allowed for yelled communications out the window and the passing of clothes between floors. 

They both played soccer for Coach Pat Haws.  They made friends on their floors and settled into the academic routine.  They got teased as Cheeseheads by the Minnesotans.  They were happy to be Johnnies.  Typical stuff.

Sophomore year Chris found himself settled but not fulfilled.  Like so many Johnnies, once he had the time management down, he discovered he had time for other activities, some of which were social, naturally, but he was also looking for something with a little more meaning to engage his time.  He heard about the Big Brothers program on campus and decided to sign up.  Johnnies were paired with local boys, mostly in St. Joe, as cars were less common in the 1990s.  Chris got paired up with TJ.

TJ and Chris in 1993

A little younger than most Little Brothers, TJ was five. He lived with his single mom who had unexpectedly found herself pregnant.  His father was not around.  His mother thought that an adult male would be a good influence, and a young, fit Johnnie would be able to keep up with TJ’s energy.  With multiple siblings, Chris was game, even if none were as young as TJ.  They did the usual Big Brother, Little Brother things when a college campus is your playground: hiking, using the gym, going to athletic events, hanging out.

They became close and TJ’s mom expressed her appreciation to Chris for the role he was playing in her son’s life.  But, of course, college life moves on.  Chris became a senior.  Typically, as the Big Brother gets ready to graduate, the Little Brother (and his parents) decide if they want to continue in the program, and, if so, a new Big Brother gets assigned.

Here Chris made a bold decision for a footloose, soon to be 22-year-old college student: he made a lifelong commitment to TJ that changed both their futures.

Though naturally looking beyond Collegeville to his own future, it would have been understandable, easy and perfectly acceptable to allow TJ to get matched up with another random Johnnie.  But Chris not only felt close to TJ, he also saw that this 8-year-old might benefit from some special attention from someone who understood his background and needs. 

Chris recruited a sophomore that he had come to know and respect to be TJ’s new Big Brother.  Smart, fun and thoughtful, Chris knew his friend Matt would help TJ grow to be confident and kind.  Matt joyfully stepped into the role—both providing continuity for the boy but also a continued connection to Chris.  TJ’s mom was delighted as this odd little family grew.

For the next two years, Matt provided the fun, support and male role model for TJ.  Chris stayed in touch with both TJ and his mother but was not able to be physically present, save occasional visits to campus.  As Matt approached graduation, the same transition question arose though now two “surrogate” fathers had a stake in TJ’s future.

The solution was actually easier at this juncture.  The growing family stayed all in the family.

Chris’s twin, Dave, was returning to Saint John’s to work in Campus Ministry and coach Bennie soccer, so the now 11-year-old TJ got a third Big Brother, whom he had already known for years.  Dave spent several years in Campus Ministry and the three committed Johnnies got TJ (and his mom) into his early teenage years before other commitments finally took all three men away from Collegeville as their post-graduate horizons broadened.

Even as distance made TJ’s relationship to his Big Brothers more challenging, the emotional ties were tightened as the three Johnnies had their own deep connections to each other, one of which was love of this growing boy. 

The ties became more like blood relations, as TJ’s mom made these relationships a priority too.  Though on a modest income, she found a way to get herself and her son to England, Washington DC, El Salvador, New York and Spain on separate visits that showed TJ how to be adventurous and brave, and reminded him of how important it was to stay in touch with his Big Brothers, regardless of where they were working or studying.

When it came time for college, TJ’s path was more like that of a second or third generation student than that of the first-generation student he was.  Because he had spent years growing up on the Saint John’s campus, mentored by young men for whom college was an automatic next step and not truly a choice, TJ automatically assumed college was in his future, too. 

TJ’s college graduation w/his 3 Big Brothers in Marshall, MN in 2010

Again, his heroic mother made it financially possible, so TJ got a bachelor’s degree from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and eventually a graduate degree, just like his three Big Brothers. 

None of the adults in his life think this outcome would have been likely without that fortuitous Big Brother connection at age five and the tripartite commitment that followed.

Each of these four men have attended the others’ weddings, including TJ’s, and this uniquely Johnnie family stays in touch now 25 years on, a tribute to the power of committing to something bigger than yourself, a beautiful atypical Johnnies’ story that has touched far more than five lives. 

And it is a story that the three Brothers believe was uniquely inspired by the Benedictine emphasis on community and service.

By |April 22nd, 2019|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

“But it is so beautiful”

T. S. Eliot writes in the first line of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month.”

He was making an emotional argument, rather than a meteorological one. I suspect for most Minnesotans, March is often the cruelest month. Winter has been around for four months and the end is not even necessarily in sight. Temperatures are creeping up but often only enough to make for a grey, soupy, muddy mess. And storms still threaten from the Great Plains. The real possibility of flooding remains ahead. Baseball, golf and picnics seem remote.

I was thinking such thoughts over the past couple weeks when two separate encounters with non-Minnesotans brought me up short and reminded me  not to take the natural world around us for granted.

The morning after a recent snowfall I was walking in Flynntown and met another walker coming out of the Collegeville Institute driveway. He looked a bit perplexed, so I asked if he needed directions. “No, I am just going for a walk.” He paused and added, “This is amazing,” as he looked around. “Is it always like this? I am from Italy, and we don’t have scenery such as this.”

I explained that while we usually had a winter snow cover, the brilliant fresh snow surrounding him and blanketing the trees and buildings had arrived in the last 24 hours. What he was admiring was not typical.

Another day I was driving to campus from our home on Fruit Farm Road. I saw a student making his way toward upper campus, and I offered him a ride. We chatted, and I discovered he was a senior from Texas. The day was bright and quite chilly, like many days in the last couple months, and I said, “This winter must be especially tough for a Texan.”

The Johnnie looked at me, and said with genuine wonder, “But it is so beautiful.”

And so it is.

By |March 15th, 2019|Categories: Campus|1 Comment