Homecoming Banquet Remarks

5:30 pm- Guild Hall
September 28, 2012

It is a pleasure to be with all of you this evening, and it's indeed a singular honor to attend this year's Homecoming as the new president of Saint John's University.

For alumni, colleges can seem like places of perpetual change.  You find new buildings: where did that Sexton Commons come from and what happened to Flynntown?  Re-purposed buildings: what happened to Mary Café and when did Rat Hall put on airs and become Guild Hall?    New faculty: these new profs are younger than me.  New academic programs: when did they add environmental studies and what exactly are gender studies?    But most obviously and importantly, new students: a generation at a college is only four years long. 

While all of this change is happening, my recent conversations with alumni from across the country and across generations tell me that Saint John's is a place of continuity.    Of course, each of us in this room had his own unique four year Saint John's experience. But everyone in this room also had a timeless Saint John's experience. An experience that makes for a powerful connection across generations.  An experience that creates a deep tie to our alma mater.    Last year, my classmate Fr. Michael Byron addressed alumni  in a homily. He told us that alma mater means much more than just "the school one graduated from." Literally alma mater means "heart mother or soul mother." Fr. Michael said that this meaning "speaks to a sense of stability and security and common memory."  Alma mater in this deeper sense speaks to this place that shaped and formed us.

The timeless part of our Johnnie experience that links all of us across our superficially different four year generations is built on four traditions.   Pillars that remain part of our students' experiences today and will remain at the core of our mission into the future.

  1. The first pillar of the timeless Johnnie experience is, not surprisingly, our Catholic, Benedictine heritage.  From the beginning of this university, the heart and soul of Saint John's was and is the monastic community and the enduring Benedictine values that they instill in our students -- hospitality, justice, respect for others, listening, stewardship and community-especially community.
    There is something distinctive and extraordinary about going to school at a Benedictine monastery.  We all share the experience of having monks in the classroom. Seeing them work in many roles around campus, including, until recently (!) even in the President's office.    From my own experience as a student, the most powerful shared experience was having a monk on each dormitory floor serving as a faculty resident. Fr. Rene McGraw was my FR when I was a first-year student on 3rd Mary. I remember many conversations about the meaning of life, as well as more mundane topics like classes and why we could not meet any Bennies! Many alumni tell me that their experiences were similar, where the monks became friends, role models, mentors, and spiritual advisors. These roles frequently last a lifetime.
  2. The second pillar of our shared experiences is our liberal arts education.  Together with our partner, the College of Saint Benedict, Saint John's has and continues to offer an outstanding relationship-based liberal arts education. An education featuring great teaching faculty, small classes, and individualized attention. An education steeped in a liberal arts tradition that emphasizes critical thinking, integrated learning and wisdom for a lifetime.
  3. The third pillar of the Johnnie experience is our strong extra-curricular tradition of athletics and recreation. I hope you have wandered through the Quad and looked at the historical pictures of Saint John's.  Seeing those photos, I'm struck by the number of pictures featuring students engaged in athletics.  The monks at Saint John's understood early that education did not take place only in the classroom.  Saint John's has long had a commitment to men's leadership and character development.  We continue to be dedicated to the holistic development of men. Generations of young men have built character and learned life lessons on the varsity and intramural playing fields and courts.
  4. The final pillar of our shared Johnnie experience is in some ways a synthesis of the previous three.    It is what I refer to as the transformative power of a Saint John's education. Saint John's was transformative for my life.   Professor Jim Murphy, many of you may remember him as Murph, approached me out of the blue during my sophomore year and asked me if I wanted to do an independent study. Then, he suggested to me that I present my paper at an undergraduate conference at Macalester. Murph gave up a Saturday, drove to St. Paul to sit through a bunch of undergraduate presentations, to give me the experience of presenting my academic work. That experience was transformative. For the first time I began to think about a career in academia. I have heard many of you share similar stories of personal Johnnie experiences, like mine, that were transformative.

These are four fundamental pillars of the shared experience that stretches across generations and bind Johnnies together regardless of age.  As President, I will not only preserve these time-honored traditions, but I will work hard to make them even stronger and better.

These four pillars tend to focus on the experience of students while in Collegeville. But there is a fifth pillar of the Johnnie experience--the exceptional generosity of Johnnies to Johnnies--the gift of time, talent and treasure that we are celebrating here tonight.

I want to acknowledge the Reunion classes and all of our benefactors for your generous support of Saint John's.  We can't thank you enough for your dedication to our Benedictine educational mission. Your commitment and loyalty to Saint John's are admirable.

In these challenging economic times, when some have called into question the value of the residential liberal arts model, the future of Saint John's absolutely depends on your generosity. You can and do make an extraordinary difference in the lives of our students and our academic community and our future.  You epitomize one of the best Saint John's traditions - generosity: Johnnies giving to Johnnies.  In the words that motivated our last capital campaign, from one generation to the next.

I am grateful to the Saint John's community for entrusting me with my new role.  It is a sacred trust that I will safeguard and pursue with energy and enthusiasm.

I am deeply grateful to the Alumni Association and the Alumni Board for their leadership and for their key role supporting our mission and vision by building lifelong relationships between our alumni and Saint John's. 

I look forward to working with many of you to continue to strengthen Saint John's University, our alma mater, in the months and years to come.  Thank you.

Michael Hemesath