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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.

Scenes from a D3 Football Game, SJU vs. Thomas More University

Image gojohnnies.com

The game starts gray and cold. The temperature is in the low 20s, and there is a noticeable breeze. Light snow is falling, but the weather forecast says it shouldn’t last. Alas, the weather forecast is wrong, and the snow picks up. By late in the second quarter, the field is white.  A guy with a shovel on the sideline keeps running out every few plays to clear a two foot wide path so the players can see the goal line.  The teams play on, oblivious, even seeming to enjoy sliding tackles and diving for passes, cushioned by a few inches of powder.

Half-time arrives. Every November, during the football game closest to Veterans Day, we honor the services of men and women in the Armed Forces. We invite an active duty alumnus back to be honored and to represent all the alumni and fans who have served.  This year, the brigadier general waits quietly on the sideline as time winds down.  Once the second quarter ends, many of the Johnnies, rather than heading right for the locker room on a chilly day, take a detour to shake this alum’s hand and thank him for his service.  He is surprised and touched by this gesture.  Later that afternoon, he leaves his alma mater feeling uplifted and hopeful for the future.

Image Jennifer McNelly

The field is now covered in snow, and the athletic director and assistant director have a problem. They have to figure out how to clear the field during halftime.  Shovels are rounded up and handed out to a small crew of student workers.  And then, a bit like the parable of the loaves and fishes, other students, attending as fans, come out of the stands and ask for shovels too.  The group – including many practiced Minnesotans – sets to work, and the field is clear by the time the players return. The athletic staff are tickled pink.  Burgers and brats are rounded up to feed the crew, and the hungry students think they’ve been fed at a Michelin two-star restaurant.

The final gun sounds, and the two teams make their way across the field toward each other. Suddenly two or three Johnnies are on the ground, on their backs. Those in the press box look at each other perplexed.  Then they smile. The players are making snow angels on the field.

Image @ccarrIX via Twitter

The stadium is largely empty as two visiting fans make their way through the home team’s bleachers.  The visiting team came over 1500 miles on a bus, and these visiting parents drove almost that same distance.  Had the game turned out differently, the visitors might have had a chance at making the playoffs, but these parents are not disappointed. They had gotten to see their son play his last college football game in a beautiful setting.  As they moved toward the exit, they said that their son had always wanted to play a game in the snow, but since his college is in Kentucky, that had never happened, until today.  They think it was a sweetly fitting note on which to end his college career. The offensive lineman’s father says, “We will be cheering for the Johnnies in the playoffs. It would be great for our son to be able to say that his last game was played in the snow against the eventual national champions.”

Image gojohnnies.com

One of the Johnnies is interviewed about the game.  After some questions about the playoffs, he is asked what it was like to play in these weather conditions.  He smiles delightedly and says, “It was like being a kid again and playing snow football in your backyard.”

How many D1 football players had as much fun in their games before tens of thousands in the stadium and hundreds of thousands of TV viewers? I’d venture to say not very many.

By |November 13th, 2018|Categories: Alumni, Kudos|2 Comments

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