When you think of a fall day at Saint John’s your mind automatically locks in on Johnnie football. The game days are crisp and cool; the cheers in Clemens Stadium are vibrant; and the backdrop of fall colors warms the whole scene. But beyond the colors of campus and the energy of Johnnie football, there is another fall story, that of the Outdoor Johnnies.
A good friend of mine, Dr. Neal Olson ’58, was serving on the alumni board in 2007 when he and I had an epiphany. Why don’t we do something similar to our golf outings, but focus instead on the Johnnies like us who love the outdoors?
So it was that the Oudoor Johnnie adventure began. That fall a group of twenty alumni, family members and friends headed to the Arvon Taylor Ranch just south of Aberdeen, SD, where we gathered for a pheasant hunt. We came from as far away as Virginia, and most of us didn’t know each other. Most of us were apprehensive about hunting with people who knew nothing about each other except that we had a common connection to Saint John’s. But it worked, as one of the co-founders of the hunt, Kevin DeVaan ’78, reflected after the first day of hunting. “I didn’t know most of you when we arrived, and I was skeptical about hunting with strangers. But shortly into the hunt I realized I was with Johnnies, and now we are friends!”
This October (2015) we gathered for the 9th year of the Alumni and Friends Pheasant Hunt. In nine years the numbers have fluctuated from sixteen to forty, and each year sees a return of old friends and the addition of new members to the group. All Johnnie alumni are welcome, and many have brought along guests. This has become more than a hunting trip, however, as nearly all of us will attest. It has evolved into a retreat with friends involved in a sport we all love.
After the end of the first day of the first hunt in 2007, we all assembled for a group dinner. Along with the sharing of Johnnie bread and laughter, we went around the room, introduced ourselves, and told our Johnnie stories. More than once the introductions became emotional as we recounted the stories of how we had all become Johnnies and about the profound impact that has had on our lives. On the way back to the hotel, my dad looked at me and my two brothers (both Johnnies) and said, “I never really knew what it meant for you to graduate from Saint John’s. But now, after meeting all of these folks and hearing their stories, I know what it means to be a Johnnie! You guys are very lucky.”
The years have brought transition, and several members of the group have become much more active at Saint John’s, including membership on the Saint John’s Alumni Board. We’ve also lost a few very dear friends unexpectedly, including Kevin DeVaan and our original rancher host, Arvon Taylor. Each year we toast the memory of these great guys and celebrate the new friends that have joined us for the first first time. We talk about Saint John’s, and many of the guys have begun to consider their own legacy at Saint John’s through generous donations and future estate plans.
We are Outdoor Johnnies. We come from many backgrounds. We have all gone out into the world and have done many amazing things. But, when we gather for this unusual event, we realize that we are not that different. And we cherish the fact that the Benedictines instilled in all of us a deeper sense of purpose. So each spring when I meet with my dear friend Neal Olson to plan for the next hunt, what started as a handshake between strangers has now become an embrace between friends.
[Editor’s note: In the picture are Neal Olson ’58 and Greta.]