It had happened 29 years earlier, when, as a shy high school senior, he and his dad took an impromptu self-guided tour around the campus. Saint John’s was the only college he toured, with no admission representative present. No students were lined up to host him for lunch, and no faculty member invited him to sit in on a class. But on that visit, he and his father both noticed that there was something special about Collegeville. The memory today is vivid and profound: people stopped and smiled at him. They held open doors. They asked him if he needed directions on campus. They said hello.
Recently I hosted this same alumnus for lunch in the Refectory at Saint John’s. He had driven to campus early that morning, to spend some personal time at his alma mater, a brief pause in the constant pulse of work and life. Then we were to meet about the plans for his class Reunion.
But that morning during his ambles around Collegeville, something else happened: the same thing occurred that had happened on his first visit. Students could tell from his appearance that he was an outsider and – instead of looking at the ground as they passed him – they smiled. This repeated itself several times as he passed different Johnnies and Bennies. The alumnus was left awestruck. Of course he knew none of them had been instructed to do anything special; it was simply built into their daily lives to show kindness to guests. That made it even sweeter. He almost couldn't believe the same spirit of welcome that drew him to Saint John’s 29 years ago was just as present today.
Our meeting continued as planned. We discussed his Reunion schedule, invitations and the like. We talked about his class's Reunion gift to the Student Fund, which he will help lead. But I think that morning’s experience opened up a new level to our conversation: a hearkening back to what first attracted him to Saint John’s, a reminder of his own experience as a first-generation college student from out of state, and a resurgence of his deep connection to this place. That may be what led him to tell me of his intention to leave a legacy scholarship fund for out-of-state students like himself, in the form of a planned gift through a beneficiary designation of a retirement account. It will be a tangible reminder for future Johnnies that the little things go a long way, and that a warm welcome makes a lasting impression.
This story moved me because I feel exactly the same way about Saint John’s. There is something special in the community here, something that is passed down in our culture. From one generation to the next, students learn how to welcome others, beginning with the simple art of spotting a visitor and smiling. Perhaps they have seen their friends or professors do the same thing. Or perhaps the faculty residents have some subtle way of systematically introducing this concept to first-year students who live on their floors. Either way, my guest was impressed. In fact, he was overjoyed to see that Saint John’s was quite the same place, despite the fact that nearly all the people had changed.
This alumnus clearly loves Saint John’s. He had a wonderful academic and social experience here. He already wants to give back generously of his time and treasure. So I am not sure that day’s visit to campus had any impact on his decision. But I am willing to bet it helped.