Fr. Hilary Tribute

Bookmark and Share

August 16, 2019

By Richard Ice, CSB/SJU provost

"Isn't that marvelous!"

A phase you might have heard Fr. Hilary say after he masterfully recited a passage from Chaucer, read part of a letter he found in the National Achieves, shared a note from a former student, or looked upon the new flowers blooming in all their glory.

Fr. Hilary taught English on and off across six decades. He could move students to understand the power of language and the beauty of words as he would read aloud Chaucer and Shakespeare in class, occasionally overcome with emotion himself by his own reading, revealing the wonder of learning.

He demonstrated the importance of life-long learning by developing his first-year seminar course on the Civil War, a topic outside his area of expertise, that he had to research diligently, exemplifying the practice of scholarship to students. He regularly taught first year students, believing in the importance of instilling the value of learning right away.

He was a scholar, receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, editing a history of Saint John’s for the University’s sesquicentennial, authoring a book on the process of working with Marcel Breuer on the construction of the Abbey Church, and directing the Benedictine Institute to strengthen the Benedictine character of Saint John’s. An eclectic collection, illustrating the breath of his intellectual curiosity. 

There were interludes that removed him from the classrooms he loved to serve the University he cherished. He served as chair of the English Department, academic dean, and for nine years as the president of the University. Even as president, he thought of himself first and foremost as a professor, as a member of the faculty. As president, he rarely missed a faculty meeting and would engage in the discussion of academic policy.

His presidency is defined by construction – Stephen B. Humphrey Theater, renovation of Simons (then Engle) Hall, the Art Center and Rogers Gallery. But for Fr. Hilary, the greatest construction during his presidency did not involve bricks and mortar, but relationships and ideas. Building a closer and stronger relationship between Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict enabled the strengthening of both institutions and laid the foundation for future success that will endure for generations. His work with his presidential counterparts, Sister Emmanuel Renner and Sister Colman O’Connell, established the underpinnings for the coordinate relationship that has propelled our institutions to national prominence. This relationship building enabled Fr. Hilary, always the professor, to lead the construction of the Core Curriculum, the first common liberal arts curriculum shared by both CSB and SJU. The curriculum was innovative for the time, beginning with a year-long First Year Symposium and capped with a Senior Seminar on an ethical issue. Components of the curriculum would be copied by colleges across the country. The development and implementation of the Core Curriculum established the values for curricular integration and rigor that remain with us today.

He has the remarkable distinction of serving over six decades as a faculty resident, 55 years in Tommy Hall. Think of it! Fr. Hilary believed in a student-centered University before that term was in vogue. Advising and guiding students across the generations. Welcoming students with his warm personality and his warm bread.

Books were important, but so was the outdoors, making Saint John’s a perfect match for Hilary. A few years ago, on a gorgeous fall day I was walking in the colorful Saint John’s woods on the Hilary Trail, when I met Hilary walking in the opposite direction. We chatted briefly and he commented on the beauty of the day. A few moments after we parted I regretted not taking a selfie with Fr. Hilary on the Hilary trail. Then my regret dissipated when I realized the photo would have been of me grinning and a bemused Hilary thinking this was an odd request.

Fr. Hilary: A Benedictine monk with a book; An unassuming leader with purpose; A conscientious mentor with gentility; An inspiring teacher with compassion; A life with words; A life with meaning.

Isn’t that marvelous!