This time of year I often find myself reflecting on those who have made an impact on my life. Perhaps it is because Christmas and New Year’s seem to bring out the best in people that I immediately think of LeRoy Lilly. LeRoy, with his larger than life personality, has always brought out the best in others and the best in Saint John’s.
In the early 1980s I worked in Admissions at Saint John’s and at the College of Saint Benedict. One evening I accompanied a colleague to a special program at the home of an alumnus in New Hope, MN, and that evening I was blessed to meet LeRoy and his wife, Colleen. They had welcomed into their home a group of prospective Johnnies and their parents, and it was amazing to watch LeRoy as he reached out to his guests. He was more than charming. He was, in fact, genuinely engaging. He told a compelling story, and I was mesmerized. To this day LeRoy still tells a great story, always with a big smile on his face and always laced with his warm sense of humor.
LeRoy arrived in Collegeville in the early 1950s, and like the other military veterans he was ready to take on the world. He also brought with him a record as an accomplished athlete at Duluth Cathedral, and naturally he threw himself into the sports scene at Saint John’s. For starters, he played on John Gagliardi’s first football team at Saint John’s in 1953. Also on that team was Jim Lehman, an extraordinary running back and, like LeRoy, a multi-sport athlete. In the spring they both played baseball, with Lehman in centerfield. As LeRoy tells it, his own position in left field was quite easy. Lehman’s speed meant that LeRoy only had to cover the foul line.
By the time I met LeRoy four of his children had graduated from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, and the youngest was a senior at Saint Ben’s. In the decades since then he has volunteered tirelessly on behalf of the two colleges and made it his mission in life to introduce hundreds of potential students to our schools. At Saint John’s alone there are dozens upon dozens of former soccer and football players who routinely thank him for introducing them to Collegeville.
There’s a lot I admire in LeRoy, but topping the list is his humility, his grace, and his kind and generous spirit. He is always there for Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, and Colleen shares his passion. They never miss a Johnnie football game, and they have to hold the attendance record for alumni events on campus.
Without question LeRoy cemented his legacy at Saint John’s long ago. Included in that legacy is a lifetime commitment to students, classmates and teammates. It also includes an endowed scholarship that bears their late son’s name. It’s all consistent with his intention to put others first, and that certainly includes Saint John’s.
All of this was evident that night when I first met LeRoy at his home in New Hope. Then and ever since his enthusiasm and his faith in Saint John’s has kept me mesmerized. In all of that he’s never lost a beat, and I admire that most of all.
Today LeRoy loves to reminisce about his teammates and classmates and how he went to college with giants like Jim Lehman and Bill Sexton. No doubt those guys are legendary, but so is LeRoy.