A Day With Father Don

At 89 Fr. Don Talafous maintains one of the busiest schedules at Saint John’s University.  Each day hundreds read the daily reflections he prepares.  In the course of his day he churns out a load of correspondence that would weary lesser mortals.  And through a long career as a teacher of theology and now as alumni chaplain, he has cultivated a memory for names and faces that is legendary.

On January 4th Fr. Don will celebrate his 90th birthday.  If he has made some concessions to the years, he has also made adjustments that allow him to keep to a daunting pace.  He now steadies himself with a cane, and he has traded in his car keys for the chance to enlist chauffeurs from among the monks as well as his colleagues in Institutional Advancement.  But for those of us so enlisted, it’s no chore.  It is the chance to see the master in action.

Those of us lucky enough to drive Fr. Don as he makes his rounds consider it a blessing, even if the day begins a little on the early side.  A trip to the Cities can start as early as 5:30 a.m., and invariably the first stop along the way is the Dunn Brothers Coffee Shop in Maple Grove.  As he enters, staff members greet Fr. Don in a scene that is reminiscent of Norm in the television series Cheers.  Light banter follows, and then he orders his usual, a latté with an extra shot of espresso.  Then he pulls from his pocket his favorite biscotti.  So begins his day.

On a recent trip to the Cities our next stop was the doctor’s office, where Fr. Don was scheduled for a normal check-up from one of our many alumni physicians.  Fr. Don entered the examination room armed with a loaf of Johnnie bread.  Joking with the doctor, he apologized that the Abbey was fresh out of chickens, and wondered aloud if the bread would cover the bill.

Next was a stop for visitation at the funeral of the mother of an alumnus.  As he walked into the funeral home Fr. Don greeted a steady stream of alumni, each eager to say hello.  For whatever reason, his mere presence brought comfort to both the grieving family as well as the friends who were there to show support.  It’s a scene that has played out at thousands of funerals, weddings and baptisms, as he shares a loving presence and comforting words.

Our last stop was at the home of a dear friend of Fr. Don’s.  The friend’s medical condition had begun to deteriorate, and it had a serious impact on his daily life.  I sat back as the two old friends traded stories, talked about family, and reminisced about the old days.  Near the end of the conversation they embraced and looked deep into each other’s eyes.  I couldn’t help but feel that these two knew this might be their last meeting together.  For me, privileged to share in it, it was a deeply spiritual moment and one I will never forget.

In a time when life can be fast-paced and sometimes a blur, travels with Fr. Don have helped me to see life in an entirely different light.  I now find myself observing people more, pausing to talk with strangers in a friendly way, and savoring coffee and conversation as I have never done before.  But by the end of that day I spent with Fr. Don, I was exhausted, while he was ready for the seventh-inning stretch.

Last April, at our celebration of Saint John’s Day, we announced the Fr. Don Talafous Endowed Scholarship.  The fund provides scholarships for young men who increase the geographic and cultural diversity of the Saint John's student body. For those of us privileged to know him, that gesture is the chance to say “Thanks a Million” and to honor Fr. Don on his 90th birthday.  Already many alumni have contributed generously to this fund, and they have sent him notes of thanks and congratulations.  If you would like to join them and greet Fr. Don with your own best wishes on his birthday, I guarantee that he will make his way through each and every note.  It’s what we’ve come to expect from one of the busiest — and most caring — people at Saint John’s.