Born in Detroit, Mich., John Schaeffer moved with his family as a young boy to the West Coast during the Depression. The family eventually settled in San Francisco, where John attended St. Ignatius Prep School and received a scholarship to St. Mary’s College.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, John Schaeffer, like so many men of “the greatest generation,” was eager to join America’s battle in the Pacific. A student at the time at St. Mary’s College, Mr. Schaeffer responded immediately to the call of the U.S. Marine recruiting officers from Stanford University who visited the college in search of officer trainees. He and some of his classmates were quickly sent off with other recruits from around the country to the College of the Pacific in nearby Stockton, where they pursued a combination of college studies and officer training, and eventually graduated.
After the grueling weeks of boot camp at Paris Island, S.C., Mr. Schaeffer went on to Quantico in Northern Virginia. “I was in a group that was ready to be commissioned. We were on bivouac for two or three days. One of the officers came to me with the sad but not unexpected news that I needed to return home immediately because my dad was near death; he was not going to make it. ‘We have a plane ready for you,’ he said; ‘you can go home to your family, and when you return, rejoin your men.’” Devastated by his father’s impending death, he took some consolation in this assurance.
A week later, he returned to Quantico, even more determined to complete his training, only to learn that new policies had been implemented during his brief absence. He would not be able to deploy with his men; instead, he must remain behind for further training.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” Mr. Schaeffer once recalled. “But as it turned out,” he continues, “I was the lucky one.” Within days of his return to Quantico, Mr. Schaeffer’s fellow officers were deployed to Iwo Jima. Even now it is hard for him to think of all those who never returned. Of those who did, many were never the same. The hand of Providence, it seemed, had spared him.
Mr. Schaeffer went on to New River, a Marine Corp intelligence officer training school at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He spent the rest of the War in the Pacific, intercepting and cracking the coded messages of the Japanese.
When the War came to an end, Mr. Schaeffer returned to his home in San Francisco, attending night school at the University of San Francisco’s School of Law while working days for the Clerk of the Circuit Court in San Francisco. He and a fourth-generation San Franciscan, Jane Dempsey, became re-acquainted, and were married in 1952. After a brief stint in the legal department of the telephone company, Mr. Schaeffer joined the law firm of Cooper, White and Cooper, eventually becoming a senior partner.
It was at St. Mary’s College that Mr. Schaeffer’s love of the great books was awakened. The college had recently implemented an “Integrated Program,” based on the great books program that was pioneered at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and St. John’s College. He enjoyed its small classes — 15 students, or so — the conversations, and the visit, one day, of Mortimer Adler, the famous proponent of the great books movement. “He came into our classroom, sat down, and began to converse with us about our readings just as our professors did.”
With the war on, though, his study of the great books was cut short. On weekend furloughs, he and other former St. Mary’s students would sometimes meet with one of their professors for informal study sessions, but before long, even these became impossible. Not until years later would Mr. Schaeffer again encounter the great books.
It was his wife, Jane, who first met the founders of Thomas Aquinas College and learned from them firsthand of their plans for a truly Catholic college devoted to the study of the great books. A graduate of Dominican College in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco, Mrs. Schaeffer was serving on the Scholarship Committee at her alma mater and becoming increasingly concerned about the way the school’s Catholic character was being diluted. With five daughters to put through college, she and her husband wondered where they could send them to receive a genuinely Catholic education.
One afternoon in 1968, Mrs. Schaeffer went in search of the offices of the small Catholic college she and her husband had read about in National Review. It was due to open in a year or two within Dominican College, and the Schaeffers hoped it would be the answer to their prayers. She learned firsthand about the proposed school from founding President Ronald P. McArthur, who asked if she thought her husband might be willing to help them with the project. Having been convinced of the genuinely Catholic and academic nature of the proposed college, her response was immediate: “Of course he will!”
Mr. Schaeffer and Dr. McArthur met within the week, and Mr. Schaeffer soon became the first member of the Board of Governors who was not also a founding tutor of Thomas Aquinas College. He immediately devoted himself to helping establish the College, and persuaded approximately 350 of his friends and colleagues to attend the College’s inaugural dinner at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in the spring of 1970, at which Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen delivered the Keynote Address.
“John and Jane Schaeffer were among those very few who first helped us,” recalls Dr. McArthur. “They were, for months, the main financial support of our earliest efforts: were it not for them, the College would never have come to be. And it was all done with lively affection and touching charity.”
Adds Peter DeLuca, founding tutor, “John is one of the most hospitable men I have ever met. Many times he and Jane welcomed us into their home when we were weary travelers, hosted events on behalf of the College, and gave encouragement to us in our efforts.”
Their daughter, Martha Long (’76) , explains, “As children, when my sisters or I would thank our father for something — dinner at a restaurant, an outing to the circus (which he loved almost more than we), a family vacation — his unvarying response would be, not ‘You’re welcome,’ but rather, ‘Thank God we have been so blessed.’ That’s a distinction that made a deep impression on all of us, and one that accounts for his great generosity to many good causes — especially Thomas Aquinas College. It was a blessing for him to give what he had received to an institution so singular in its commitment to Christ and the Church.”
Ultimately, all five of the Schaeffer girls attended and graduated from the College. Grateful for all that the College has done for them and deflecting praise for his generosity, Mr. Schaeffer once said, with a big smile, “It was the best investment I ever made!”
Mr. Schaeffer served on the Board of Governors from 1971 until his resignation in 1996, when he was elected to emeritus status. Said President Dillon, “During my tenure as President, I have benefitted greatly from John’s advice and counsel. His tremendous generosity, his selflessness, and his authentic commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church have been an inspiration.”
Mr. Schaeffer, a daily communicant, was active in his parish for more than four decades. He served on the Board of the Metropolitan Stevedore Company based in Long Beach, Calif., for nearly 40 years, retiring in 2003. He was also a member of the Board of the Hannah Boys’ Center, a home for troubled youths in the Napa Valley of California, serving as president of its Board of Trustees in the 1980s. With a love of popular songs and musicals, he sang for years with the Loring Club, a men’s choral group in San Francisco.
Mr. Schaeffer passed away on July 21, 2005. “John Schaeffer was an absolute mainstay of the College during its early years,” says Mr. DeLuca. “He gave unstintingly of his time, energy and treasure to help it come into existence and to help it survive. All who love Thomas Aquinas College owe John Schaeffer a great debt of gratitude.”
The first member of the College’s Board of Governors, John E. Schaeffer (center), is shown here being honored in 2000 with founding tutor John W. Neumayr (right) and then-President Thomas E. Dillon (left).
“In our classroom discussions, we are not only given free rein to speak, but free rein to think. No question is off the table. Anything that can bring a more full understanding of the truth is welcomed and encouraged.”
– Christopher Sebastian (’13)
“Thomas Aquinas is already the preeminent Catholic college in the country.”
– John Cardinal O’Connor (†)
Archbishop of New York