You want to go where everybody knows your name.
– Theme Song from Cheers
Alumni relations and development are all about forming and maintaining lasting relationships. Yet, ironically, the Advancement profession is characterized by frequent turnover. Nationally, the average tenure of a development officer is three years. Yikes! Sounds like a turnstile industry. Fortunately, that’s not case at Saint John’s, where we are blessed with longevity and continuity.
The tradition of stability in the Saint John’s alumni office can be traced to the 1950s with the appointment of our first Alumni Secretary, Fr. Walter Reger. He was so widely known and beloved that he earned the moniker “Mr. Saint John’s.” Simply put, he was a pillar. Fr. Walter was followed by long-time alumni director Thom Woodward ‘70, who worked alongside such fixtures as Fr. Don LeMay ‘49, Lee Hanley ‘58 and John Crosby.
The record-breaker for endurance, of course, is our current Alumni Chaplain, Fr. Don Talafous ‘48. At age 90, Fr. Don is still going strong. He jokes that he’s been around Saint John’s since General Custer passed through. The other day one of my classmates, Dave Bromelkamp ’82, told me: “I love attending Saint John’s Fellows receptions, if for no other reason than I get to see Fr. Don.”
But there are plenty of others in the Institutional Advancement office who have dedicated their lives and careers to Saint John’s. The IA staff member with the longest continuous tenure is Cathy Wieme, our Director of Advancement Services, who began working at Saint John’s in 1983. She is followed closely by the dynamic duo of Marie Eli and Julie Scegura, who started in 1984. Then there are a trio of retreads – John Young ’83, Tom Stock and yours truly – who have worked at Saint John’s for about 25 years each, with a hiatus along the way. And the list goes on. Leila Utsch and Jennifer Cahoy, 21 years; John Taylor ‘58, 19 years; Ruth Athmann and JoAnn Matheny, 16 years; Kerry Werlinger, 14 years; Nancy Johnson and Jim Dwyer ‘75, 13 years; Denise Holstad, 11 years; Sara Mruz, Erin Lonergan, and Pete Amann ‘90, Troy Fritz '88 and Brad Neary '81, 10 years. We are also joined by two long-time members of the monastic community, Fr. Bob Koopmann ’68, and Fr. Eric Hollas SOT ‘75. Why even some of our so called newcomers – Jennifer Emery, Adam Herbst ‘99, Grace Ellens, Jim Triggs, Brendon Duffy SOT ‘02, Megan Evens CSB ‘05, Raj Chaphalkar ‘08, Lori Gnahn, Michael Cummings ‘89, Mary Wolff CSB ‘99 – have been around for more than five years. Hardly what you would call rookies, and well beyond the national average.
Last week a benefactor, Ollie Hagen, informed me that he is placing Saint John’s in his will. Ollie isn’t a Johnnie, but he said that he respects and admires Saint John’s because “The people I have met are dedicated to educating young people.” He adds: “It’s such a delight to call Saint John’s and be greeted by a familiar voice. It’s as though I’m a member of the Saint John’s community… the Saint John’s family.”
I end with another wonderful story that underscores the importance and value of continuity of relationship. It comes from an alumnus from the Class of 2002.
In the 1930s, my grandfather – Michael Purdy – attended Saint John’s for one year – his freshman year. He had to leave school because his father died, and, as the oldest son, my grandfather had to go to work to provide for his mother and siblings. More than fifty years later, my grandfather, brother, mother and myself (I was six years old) visited SJU over homecoming weekend because my brother was thinking of enrolling in the university. As we were touring the university, my grandfather was recognized by a priest who taught him in the 1930s. My grandfather and the priest spent the rest of the day reminiscing. As we drove away from the university, my grandfather began to cry because it was such a joyful experience for him, but also a sad experience because he wasn't able to complete his education at SJU or anywhere else. When we asked him why he was crying, he said, "Only at Saint John's can you be remembered, let alone treated like family, fifty years later." Witnessing that experience has always stuck with me and I think this story, at least for me, best articulates what is ineffable about the sense of community and family that SJU has established.