Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Flashback: An Idea is Born: Creation of a New Catholic College.

[Fifty plus years of politics remembered for my kids and grandchildren].

If your major spiritual wants have been answered already by Almighty God, pray that you be spared the job of serving as mediator between an angry Jesuit priest-classicist and the president of a small college. Such grey hair as I have began when I filled that role of referee.

In the latter sixties an idea was born in the fertile mind of a Jesuit classicist at Loyola University and one of the most outstanding experts on ancient and medieval thought and architecture. Dissatisfied as many of us were with the dumbing down of liberal arts curricula, he sought to get funds for a brilliant experiment: the creation of a new Catholic college which would have absolutely no electives. Regular colleges were substituting technical electives in place of devoting four years to the classics in order to placate those to whom higher education was seen as a conduit to jobs with higher pay and prestige. To the Jesuit, times had changed so that graduate study should be undertaken by everyone. First, he reasoned, should come four years of solid academics and liberal arts education. Then, following that, graduate school should be the place where the professions are learned—law, business, whatever you want. The Jesuit, an academic idealist, believed (a) no one should pursue a technical education without a background in the liberal arts and (b) in undergraduate years, there should be absolutely no electives.

His thinking was very much along the order of Mortimer Adler whom I knew late in his life and Robert Hutchins who reformed the University of Chicago…both of whom inventing the Great Books as a course of study. The Jesuit improved their concept noticeably. He designed a curricula that devoted the first year…the freshman year…to the ancients: ancient philosophy of the Greeks, the study of ancient art, ancient literature with the plays of Euripides and others, ancient history, ancient polity and even the ancient religions that had an impact on the formation ultimately of Catholicism and all Christianity. The second year would do the same with the medieval age…philosophy, art, literature, history, variations that change brought to Catholicism. The third year would deal with the renaissance with all its glories. The final year would delve into modern thought with an emphasis on selecting the right standards for art, polity, philosophy et al. culminating with a great understanding of Catholicism stemming from all four years.

After that the students could…nay should…go to graduate school. He recruited another Ph.D as potential college president--who had a great touch with one Harry John, an eccentric mega-multi-millionaire who was heir to the Miller brewing fortune in Milwaukee.

The idea intrigued Lillian and me and we decided to send our kids to the college which was located in St. Louis and named after an idol of ours, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the former Oxford don who as an Anglican clergyman led the famed Oxford Movement to purify the Anglican religion and make it more authentic to the original formation of Christianity. Newman, one of the most prescient intellectuals of the 19th century, underwent a conversion to Catholicism and was ordained a priest-- for which he was persecuted direly in Britain. He lost great stature as the ranking intellectual-clergyman of his time and was in the center of a storm that shook Britain’s identity with Anglicanism.

Newman was in many ways a martyr for his faith. Not that he was led to the lions but he lost everything—reputation, the love of his fellow dons at Oxford, the followers he had in Anglicanism. Moreover as a Catholic, he sought to create a new Catholic university in Dublin based on the same verities that the Jesuit had imparted to our college that was named after him. Unfortunately, the university in Dublin failed due to irreconcilable differences over Newman’s controversial nature. But his fame as an educator, essayist, homilist and intellectual who suffered for the Church was such that in his old age he was elevated by the Pope from priest to Cardinal. For at least two generations he has been considered for sainthood in Rome. That it hasn’t happened is seen to be caused by the archaic ineffectual relations between the Church of Rome and Anglicanism. But John Henry Newman does not depend upon humans to vouchsafe his sanctity; and his canonization will come some day.

The first year I sent our oldest child, Tom, to Newman College. It worked out and the next year we sent his sister, Mary Catherine. Then we sent our third, Michael to the school. Eventually, I was tapped for the board—which I didn’t particularly need given that I was chairman of Project LEAP, the anti-vote fraud unit in Chicago, president of the City Club of Chicago and working a pretty heavy schedule as vice president-government relations for Quaker Oats. But since the funding was precarious due to the idiosyncratic nature of the prime philanthropist…and since I had had some meager experience with him enabling him to fund the “Friends for Life” organization in Chicago…it was recommended that I take the board seat. There were a number of convivial people on the board. One was a distinguished federal judge from Chicago with a gift of words, deft wit and judgment I have always admired.

The academics exercise went well at Newman but friction kept a number of us up at night. There was the beginnings of a heated disagreement between the president of the school and the venerable Jesuit. Both were scholars and intellectuals but it developed that either the president hadn’t told the Jesuit he was in disagreement with the non-elective nature of the school or the Jesuit hadn’t ascertained the president’s true views. In any event, the chairman of the board was an elderly lady of considerable renown in St. Louis, former Congresswoman Leonor K. Sullivan-Archibald (D-Missouri). She had been the widow of Congressman John Sullivan and served as his administrative assistant when he died in office. She succeeded him and was secretary of the House Democratic caucus. An old-line conservative Irish Catholic Democrat, she was beloved—but having retired from the Congress and married an elderly gentleman named Lee Archibald who urged her to take things easy. He had a point as she was not exactly up to the task mentally to negotiate the sparring between the president and the Jesuit.

The board, listening to the incendiary battles between the president and the Jesuit was at some pains to know what to do. On one hand it was clear that the Jesuit had all the academic grounding to make his point; on the other, the president had a close personal tie Harry John who gave us a massive outpouring of funds for the college. A goal was to move the College away from the precarious point where all our funding was to come from primarily one individual—but that was difficult. The archdiocese of St. Louis was not sympathetic to our mission, the archbishop being an ex-Chicagoan progressive, William May. The archdiocese was clearly motivated to close us out. In the midst of all this, former Congresswoman Sullivan-Archibald decided to step down as chairman but would continue on the board. To my further discomfiture, the board unanimously elected me chairman.

The battle lines formed like this: On one side was the Jesuit who had friends in the conservative Catholic community and had a national reputation in academic circles. He was leaking to The Wanderer, a very influential newspaper that was the nation’s oldest national weekly, allegations that not only was the president violating the original stricture of no electives but had hired some faculty who were less than orthodox on Catholic theology. I suspected the allegations were untrue but I wasn’t in the classes to ascertain whether or not they were. On the other hand was the president who claimed he was hearing from parents of students who wanted their kids to be prepared to make a living in the world and a strict diet of Aristotle and Aquinas, undiluted by today’s realities (which were postponed until the fourth year) was impractical. It seemed our financial angel, Harry John, reposed confidence in the president.

It was truly a dilemma. The board clearly could not proceed without the president’s close relationship with Harry John; but the heart and soul of the Newman venture was encapsulated by the Jesuit. My son Tom graduated and then Mary graduated. Both not only got a great deal out of the college but made lifelong friends. My daughter Mary became engaged to Tom Magnor, who was my son’s roommate. My intention was to (a) seek divergent funds to allow us to diversify from Harry John while (b) continuing to welcome Harry John’s funds and (c) seek to resolve the conflict between the president and the Jesuit. But the intransigence of the Catholic archdiocese negated any attempt to woo donors in the area. Our main donor, Harry John, was not affected by the hostile archdiocese since he lived in Milwaukee.

A great number of people who played roles in this melee are now dead which makes the telling of the story easier—but I still refrain from enumerating the names of the two principal protagonists, the Jesuit and the president. The Jesuit is dead; the president is dead; Mrs. Sullivan-Archibald is dead; Archbishop May is dead. A relatively few others are still alive…but only I am sufficiently alive, as it were, to tell the tale.

What do you do when things seem insoluble? Pray. I had decided I was on the side of the elderly Jesuit but I didn’t want the college to be rent apart in division or to lose its funding. Also I couldn’t see that the curriculum was being watered down as he maintained. He kept saying, “no, no, it is. You are not a classicist. You don’t understand!” True but I was not a classicist but I wasn’t born yesterday so as not to understand the bitterness of academic jealousies where I saw them at Harvard, Princeton, the U of I-Chicago, Loyola and DePaul to make a judgment. So I continued to pray. The Jesuit was pulling all the stops to get the president out; the president was pulling all the stops to get the Jesuit out. The college stood in the balance.

Then, rather than an answer there came more complications. A Newman professor called me in Chicago from St. Louis and told me that a young student at the college was being importuned improperly by the president. This was a serious matter. But as I was told by legal counsel…and wise legal counsel…you have to be very sure that the importuning took place. Students have been known to nurse grudges against college administrators and level charges against them that are unfair. Moreover, it was clear that the professor in question who relayed the charge to me was not in sympathy with the president.

The delicate balance was this. You had to follow up whenever a grave charge like this was made—but you had to be sure that the person named in the charge was not assumed to be guilty…or the college would be hit by a damaging suit. I met with the student and ascertained that the charges did not seem frivolous. But who could tell if malice was contained therein?

So a few of us on the board…the college’s general counsel and the federal judge…not the Jesuit because there was great animosity there…asked to meet the president off-campus.

He came in and was jovial. Then we sat down over coffee and I said, “A serious charge has been leveled against you. Before I outline it, we want you to know that we on the board are entirely `tabula rasa’ on the charge. We do not accept it as truth nor do we reject it as false. We want to give you every possible benefit so you will not be railroaded or even intimidated.”

He interrupted me. He said, “okay—I’m out. I’m out. I’m gone. It’s been satisfying work to lead this college but I’m gone!”

I said: Wait, Mr. President! This charge has not convinced any of us of its validity. We are here to hear your side! Moreover, we have worked with you for years! You have not only every right to denounce the charge but to clarify the record!

He continued: “No. I’m out! That’s it! I’m gone!”

His preemptory resignation convinced us that very possibly if this charge couldn’t be proven, there were others—if not on campus but elsewhere which threatened his reputation which he sorely wanted to protect.

So just like that we had an opening in the presidency. Moreover we had people on the board who were not present…including the very influential Mrs. Sullivan-Archibald…who suspected we railroaded him out the door. Then the Jesuit began nodding and saying, “see? I told you he was a bad apple—worse than any of us ever suspected!”

Then the other side: the great donor in Milwaukee, the close friend of the president possibly infuriated and declaring he had written his last check, this before we had any chance to balance his donations with new ones. And then the archdiocese of St. Louis. Hearing the president resigned under unflattering circumstances, would not this reinforce it’s determination to have nothing to do with us?

What happens now? I wondered. I had a son still in the college. The Wanderer was happy the president was gone—but what about our “juice,” Harry John?

I thought: well, maybe my prayers were answered with the debacle involving the president. It looks like he was a bad guy and if so I’m glad I got him out. At least he’s gone which resolves some of the difficulty. The big problem now was to assuage Harry John that his college would continue as he…and all of us…had wished after I fired his close friend.

You continue praying. This time I prayed directly to John Henry Cardinal Newman. I said, I’m sure you’re up there; a saint. You’ve been through devilish controversy like this—all of Oxford’s Anglicans against you; you losing your post as Oxford Don. Will you intercede Up There and resolve this thing?

The answer came in surprising force—far different than I expected.


  1. The most felicitous and descriptive term I've ever seen re: Mr. John.

  2. I hope you finish this story soon.
    You ended it with my tongue hanging out. What happened, please tell us.

    Archbishop May was not William he was John L--John Lawrence May. I think if John L. May had been of the mind of Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, you would have had a friend out on Lindell Blvd.

  3. While I hope that this Newman story has a happy ending, isn't it tragic that so many Catholic schools, particularly colleges and universities, have become Catholic in name only. For too many, the Catholic in name only charade is carried on solely for the purpose of fundraising. Time for me to reread "Elmer Gantry."