One of the Johnnies I most admire is the late, great Jon Hassler '55. He was a true gift to the Saint John's community.
I first met Jon in May 1982. At the time I was a senior at SJU, and I was aware of Jon from his latest best-selling novel The Love Hunter. Jon was our Commencement speaker that year and I was elected by my classmates to deliver the student address. A few days before the graduation ceremony, Jon invited me to his office to get to know one another. He asked me various questions about my family, my upbringing, my studies at Saint John's. He was a great listener; he clearly embraced the Benedictine precept of listening with the ear of your heart. I was struck by his inquisitiveness and his kindness. He was a gentleman; a gentle spirit; a gentle giant.
Incidentally, the graduation present that I received from my parents was a first edition of The Love Hunter with a handwritten note: Congratulations, Rob. ~ Jon Hassler.
Jon’s greatest contribution to alma mater is that he, along with fellow writer-in-residence J.F. Powers, placed Saint John’s on the literary map, regionally, nationally and internationally. The New York Times once described Jon as “A writer good enough to restore your faith in fiction.” But in my estimation, of equal or perhaps greater value was his role and his influence as a teacher of character, values and wisdom.
Fast forward to 1995. I had recently returned to work at Saint John's and Jon Hassler was chosen by his faculty colleagues to deliver the address to freshman at Convocation. The title of his talk was “The Last Generation of Readers.” Jon began his talk by saying: “I’ll start by reading a t-shirt. It’s a t-shirt I picked up in Madison, WI, two weeks ago on my book tour, and I discovered that the t-shirt says exactly what I want to say in this speech and it says it in one concise sentence.” He went on to read the inscription: “I have often wondered how anyone who does not read, by which I mean daily, having some book going all the time, can make it through life.” Sage advice, indeed, for Johnnies beginning their college education.
A few years later, a Saint John’s professor, Nick Hayes ’69, purchased Jon Hassler’s lake cabin in Cold Spring, and a handful of Johnnies began meeting there periodically for happy hour. One afternoon, someone suggested that our group needed a dignified name. Nick, in his infinite wisdom, suggested we call ourselves “The Jon Hassler Society”. In his last few years of life, Jon was our honored guest at a couple of the Society meetings that bore his name. When he passed away in March 2008, his wife Gretchen asked the members of the Jon Hassler Society to be pallbearers at his funeral. It is an honor that I will always cherish.
Another great privilege for me came in 1999 while attending the Walter Reger Award Banquet at Saint John's. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jon for dinner, and not surprisingly, we started exchanging stories. I recounted a story about delivering gifts to families in need. The next day, Jon called me and said "I've been asked by The St. Cloud Visitor to write a Christmas article. Do you mind if I use your story?” I thought to myself: “Do I mind? Are you kidding me?”
And, so, in the spirit of the Christmas season, I leave you with Jon Hassler’s guest column – Christmas, A Season of Sisterly Love – from the December 1999 issue of the St. Cloud Visitor:
Some years ago two friends of mine, Susan and Rob Culligan, lived in Alamosa, CO, one of the most impoverished regions of that state and indeed of the nation. It also happens to be one of the coldest, with winter temperatures dropping well below zero. Rob was employed by San Luis Valley Christian Community Services, a nonprofit agency devoted to helping the 200 Guatemalan families who had settled in the area to work on a nearby mushroom farm.
Shortly before Christmas, Rob and Susan were asked to help deliver toys and clothing to the Guatemalans. With their last gift in hand – a boy’s winter jacket – they approached a house where they knew a 4-year-old boy lived by the named of Alexandro. They were surprised to find a 9-year-old sister as well, and both of them were home alone – no parents, no guardians, no baby-sitter.
Although they did not yet have children of their own, Susan and Rob knew enough about kids to expect the sister to have a jealous tantrum when she saw the gift for her brother. What should they do? Leave and come back after Christmas with two presents?
Because Alexandro obviously needed the jacket, they decided not to delay. When he opened the gift and found the jacket, his sister, far from jealous, was overjoyed, exclaiming in broken English, “Thank you, oh thank you. Now my brother will be warm.”
[Editor’s note: Jon Hassler was but one of the dedicated faculty and staff who daily go beyond the call of duty in sharing their wisdom. Jon also joyfully supported Saint John's through annual gifts to student scholarships. The generosity of faculty, alumni and friends sustains this tradition today. In the spirit of the season, please consider a gift to the Student Fund — your support matters!]