Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Flashback: Newman College Comes to an End: Finale of the Great Experiment.

[More than 50 years of politics, a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

After a number of years in which Newman educated two and one-half of our children (Michael attended the school through half his matriculation), the great experiment came to an end. And in an unusual way. While we feared that the eccentric Milwaukee philanthropist Harry John, sole proprietor of the world’s largest Catholic charity, would be alienated by the departure of the college president, the erratic mega-multi-millionaire was having his own domestic problems. First, a description of him and his lifestyle needs to be told.

Harry G. John, Jr. was born in 1919 in Milwaukee. His mother Elise was one of two daughters of brewery founder Frederick Miller. John graduated from Notre Dame with a B. A. in 1941 and was president of Miller Brewery from 1946 to 1947. He was not the ideal executive…was consumed with missionary Catholic spirit almost to excess… and the family replaced him in the corporation shortly. But he kept control of the family fortune. He married Erica Nowotny in 1956 and the couple had nine children.

He lived a life of good works, funding leprosaria in India and camps in Milwaukee for inner city youth as well as seminaries in the Philippines. All these donations were given anonymously. When Miller Brewing was sold to Philip Morris the value of his stock soared to $97 million. He founded the De Rance foundation making it the largest Catholi charity. De Rance was named after Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rance, a 17th century abbot of the Benedictine monastery at La Trappe, France.

Determining to live as a monk, he became religious ascetic, with a religious brother to prepare the food on his estate. A huge chapel had been constructed there for the celebration of daily Mass. After Mass a kind of communal gathering was held for brunch—and lunch centered on vegetables, no meat. He was an exceedingly reclusive and withdrawn individual. His wife and children were allowed to appear for brunch after Mass only sparingly. The trick for eager recipients was to get invited to brunch.

I remember I made several visits to his estate in behalf of a right-to-life organization I headed for some years—“Friends for Life.” The ritual could easily be turned into a hilarious comic novel by Evelyn Waugh. There was scant possibility of talking to him as he was in the chapel saying his prayers. Letters sent to him went generally unanswered. The one shot you had to communicate with him was at Mass at the point in the Sacrifice of General Intercessions. At that point the priest can choose to invite the worshipers to express aloud their request for God’s help. I remember attending several times and at the Intercessions expressing loud enough that the old man could hear it…as he stood with his head bowed…the need for financial help for this particular charity.

The game was that if you made an impression at General Intercessions with your loudly expressed verbal prayer so that Harry John (if not God Almighty) would hear it, you might be invited by a functionary to attend the brunch in company with others. At the brunch you maneuvered delicately to try to get a seat near the Font of all Generosity. I recall thinking that I had almost nabbed a seat next to His Honor only to have it snatched away with a superb football player’s block by a nun who also gave me the elbow which reeled me off balance. As it turned out, she was Mother Angelica, the soon-to-be-world-famous entrepreneur of the cable network “Eternal Word” which made her a household figure in Catholic circles…she building the network, stemming from initial Harry John grants to one of the most powerful religious stations in the country.

As result of this role playing, the financial needs of “Friends for Life” were communicated to the Oracle. He said little, munched his fruit and vegetables…murmured inaudibilities and smiled. One day in Chicago we received an envelope from which, when ripped open, produced a scrawled check for $130,000. Why $130,000? Who knew? With no letter or other visible communication, the next question was: was this a one-time grant or the beginning of more…or how do we plan? Harry John’s responses at lunch were always enigmatic i.e. “God will tell.” We were always grateful for the money but the uncertainty made life a little tense.

While Newman had a far better advocate than I for funds, the college president, I was elevated to the chairmanship of the Newman Board in the dire expectation that as it must to all men, the college president who had the only touch to Harry John might get hit by a bus and the college put out of business. But I was in no danger of rivaling him for the largesse. The college president was by all odds the most successful player at Harry John’s table ever, probably only topped by Mother Angelica. The president had in rapid succession led John to (a) buy the grounds and buildings of an old chiropractic college in suburban St. Louis, (b) build a chapel there, (c) give lavish seed money to hire a faculty and (d) equip a library. The amazing thing about him was that at table the college president spoke tartly, chidingly—even insolently—to Harry John while everybody winced. The old man seemed to enjoy the cajoling.

Thus when I removed the college president was removed for alleged misbehavior, all of us groaned and decided the money tree had withered. This was to be true—but not right away and had nothing to do with the college president’s removal. We hired another president and continued—all the while being despised by the Catholic archdiocese of St. Louis, the Jesuit St. Louis University and a number of other Catholic institutions. I could never for the life of me understand why—but I put it down to two main reasons. First, we were conservative…not reactionary…totally in conformity with Vatican II and the Pope…but which in the 1970s with church liberals inhaling the bogus fumes from the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” made us suspect. We stressed Aquinas and Augustine and not the newer theologians which disturbed the moderns as old hat. Second, we had the Harry John money tree which, I suspect, caused Archbishop John May to be very envious and decide that we were not to be recognized formally or informally as having any connection to the archdiocese.

Eventually…after the graduation of our daughter Mary…news came that there was—of all unpredicted things—a revolution in Harry John’s family. And it had nothing to do with us or my firing the president. It happened that Erica John, his wife and Donald Gallagher, his top aide—and both De Rance directors—had become alarmed at Harry John’s increasingly extravagant expenditure of De Rance assets. A great deal was given away on the merest speculation. One movie producer came to him…shouting at General Intercessions his wish that God would enable him to film the life of Christ…was invited to brunch and walked away with a huge bundle—from which he filmed the life of Christ as a dedicated Communist revolutionary.

There was the case when John commissioned a treasure hunt for sunken ships plus risky investments in gold futures and junk bonds. Mrs. John and

Gallagher filed a lawsuit in Milwaukee county circuit court to have John removed as a De Rance director. After a five month trial, the judge announced the plaintiffs had proven their allegations. John was permanently removed from the board. He divorced Erica (separation and divorce is acceptable in the Church if there is no remarriage) and moved to California. He returned to the Milwaukee area and took an apartment in Brookfield a few years later.

That was the end of our money tree. With the hot enmity of the archdiocese, we had little or no chance of raising alternate funds. But two of our kids graduated from Newman (we sent our son Michael to Ignatius Institute run by the famous Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio who had the same concept as our elderly Jesuit at Newman, Ignatius being an approximate copy of Newman, part of the University of San Francisco). Harry John, incidentally, was found unconscious on the floor of his apartment. He had suffered a massive stroke. The serious illness had him in a coma but his wife and children were at his side when he died on December 19, 1992.

There is a kind of fatal significance to the rise and fall of Newman College. After he was received into the Catholic Church but was regarded as an apostate of the Anglican church (where he had been the leading intellectual light), John Henry Newman (1802-1890) was asked by the Irish Catholic bishops in 1854 to become rector of a dream university that they created—the Catholic University of Ireland. That university was to be on a much larger scale but identical to the concept our venerable Jesuit priest had envisioned for Newman. For one reason or another…mainly distrust from the Roman curia which felt Newman was a double agent…the Catholic University of Ireland failed and went out of existence.

Thus it is highly ironic that the greatest Catholic intellectual and teacher of the 19th century…whose matchless “Idea of a University” essay paved the way for liberal education…who was suspected by one Pope (Pius IX) but loved by his successor (Leo XIII) who made him Cardinal…was unable either to continue at Oxford or to serve as Rector of his own university…and that fatal conclusion carried through to our own very modest wish to build a college in his name.

But Newman College was well worth the experience.

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