A friend and mentor of mine, Father Jim Turro once observed:
“If you happen to come across a turtle on a table, one thing is certain. Someone had to place the turtle on the table. Since left to itself, a turtle is incapable of such a feat.”
So it is with most of us, we are placed in a particular geography, on a lush terrain, a big city or even an arid desert. So whatever the location, if the conditions are right, we can survive, and even thrive. Such is my case.
Thirty years ago, I sat at my desk, and read an advertisement for a position at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California. It had all the essential ingredients to attract my interests, namely a Catholic, liberal arts undergraduate college, and Christian Brothers who taught in the Great Books tradition.
Before I made the application however, I checked an atlas to discover that Moraga was not in Death Valley, rather the Moraga Valley in the East Bay of San Francisco, and close by Oakland and Berkeley.
Brother Mel Anderson was the person who placed me on the table, front and center — in a welcoming fashion. As college president, he selected me for the Chair of the Communication Department; and after sealing the deal with my archbishop, I moved to Moraga, and began teaching courses in communication, journalism and politics.
How rare for a college president, Mel taught in the Great Books program, and knew his students. They were his friends.
In so many ways, Brother Mel was a headmaster, like the curmudgeonly Algy Harris in R.F. Delderfeld’s “To Serve Them All Our Days,” where the interplay of faculty and students in class, in the College chapel, on the playing fields, and on the fields of foreign wars — so deeply affected their lives, forging a lifetime bond.
Brother Mel was a role model to me. As an administrator he surrounded himself with talented and engaged associates who advanced the mission of the college. His administration was lean, unlike the bloated and costly managers of today.
He was a man who could speak publicly and with great passion about the direction and the goals of a Catholic, liberal arts education. Students always remained paramount and more important to him than a particular subject or the winning and losing of a season of NCAA basketball.
Once a student, so frustrated with the arcane scheduling process, and not finding his own advisor for approval of his courses, asked Brother Mel to sign the required course selection form. When a disbelieving staff member at the Registrar’s Office told the student they would not accept a “forged signature,” Brother Mel appeared at the office window to assure the staff member that the signature was his.
When Brother Mel’s term as president ended, after a long time in office, none of his successors filled the post with quite as much insight into the formal undergraduate curriculum and the everyday life of the campus. Most of all, it was his personal devotion to students, faculty, and staff that I will remember fondly.
My time at Saint Mary’s College is about to come to an end, and I’m receiving my last paycheck on the last day of June. The college that I arrived at years ago is markedly different now, with continuing challenges about the price of tuition, the issues created with the diverse mix of students as well as questions about which curriculum design would best prepared graduates for jobs and professions in these economically risky times.
What we once understood as the winning game plan in our design of a liberal arts college may not have the same appeal it once had. To get somewhere today, we’d have to play as hard as Matthew Dellavedova, that “spark plug” of ours on the Cleveland team, to pivot, adapt just enough, score just enough points to win in this education climate. Frankly, I’m not sure this college is adept enough to make these adjustments, and find enough donors to underwrite our long list of educational goals and building projects.
I’m of the mind that the college is not Catholic enough, and not liberal arts enough, and there are too few Christian Brothers with the vibrancy that had once animated the college community. I don’t think that the past is better than the future, however the present must be rooted in the deeper religious and spiritual roots of the founders of the College, whose “apostolic courage” brought us here in the first place.
Pope Francis’ ideas on discernment and mercy are worth a try. One story comes to mind in this regard that may say something of the kind of college that I hope can somehow survive.
For almost one-year my office, with its window open to the lawn and courtyard nearby Sichel Hall, was dark. I had taken a period off, and after awhile I had come back to the college for January Term. On the first day of this intensive semester, I was exiting the Men’s Room when a student said:
“Hello Father Mike, I see you’re back.” I greeted the young man warmly, and told him that I was teaching in Jan Term and in the Spring Term.
He asked if he could speak to me, and of course, I agreed. And told him: “whenever?”
At that point, he told me his name; let me refer to him as Mark.
Mark replied: “How about my talking with you in your office now, and very briefly?”
“Of course, “ I said.
Then Mark told me: “I want to thank you for all you did for me. I had you for the Comm 2 class, and you gave me some important advice.”
“Really?” I interjected.
“Yes, I was having a problem with substance abuse, drugs and alcohol, and after I had a talk with you about my absences and poor performance in your class, you advised me to see a counselor, and most especially begin talking with my parents.”
“I did this?” I asked.
And yes, I realized that I had done this small favor. It was two-years ago, and I learned from Mark that he took time off from college, talked honestly with his parents, entered a rehab program, and now he’s scheduled to graduate this year.
I really thanked the young man, much like the leper in the gospel who comes back to Christ, after having been healed so profoundly. Rarely do teachers hear how they have affected the lives of their students. But they do.
The very next day, I shared this story with my colleague and friend Ed Tywoniak; and added the one element that says the most about my time at Saint Mary’s College.
See, I had not remembered Mark’s problem until he brought it to my attention. In other words, this is what we do day to day as teachers – yes, these small, almost unnoticed, intimate stories of how we affect the lives of others, and make all the difference.
Like placing a turtle on a table – front and center, person-to-person, some 3,500 students of mine, my unofficial count in these many years.
So it is with most of us, if we are placed in a particular geography or a lush terrain, if the conditions are right, we can survive, even thrive, and celebrate the fun of college life!
“Just when the fun is starting
Comes the time for parting,
But let’s be glad for what we’ve had —
And what’s to come.
There’s so much more embracing
Still to be done, but time is racing.
Oh, well —
We’ll catch up some
Lyrics to “Some Other Time,”
by Betty Comden and Adolf Green for
Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.”