Tom Susanka: Reminiscences of 35 Years at Thomas Aquinas College

Posted: June 9, 2014

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Note: For 35 years Thomas J. Susanka has served as a member of the College’s administrative faculty, first as the director of admissions and, since 2004, as its director of gift planning. He delivered the following talk at the College’s Alumni Association Dinner on June 7, 2014:

I vividly recall the unexpected and unmerited invitation made to me all those years ago by Ron McArthur through the good offices of Fr. McGovern to return to the College for an interview for a job as director of admissions. After having been a student at Thomas Aquinas College for only just above a year, it seemed to me a blessing out of all proportion. Indeed, I wondered what could be wrong at the College? What were they thinking? How could a guy with any prospects in the world consider accepting a job from a college that could stoop to offering a job to a guy like me?

But upon mature and disinterested consideration of my prospects … well, here we are!

I’ve looked forward to this evening for some time. Not for 35 years, of course. I mean, I’ve looked forward to this evening ever since Henry and Mark invited me a couple of months ago to offer you some reminiscences on the last 35 years of life at the College. I must say I’ve looked forward with a mixture of happy anticipation and disabling dread.

On the one hand, our annual alumni dinner always presents an opportunity to recommence conversations and renew friendships with those fellow alumni I knew from that brief time we were together on the Claretville campus, and to rekindle friendships with alumni and parents I’ve gotten to know because of my years as director of admissions.

But this year must also be the occasion to confess a little breach I may have committed against some of those very precious friendships. Please bear with me while I address myself now to those of you who were admitted during my regime as admissions director.

Recall how you and I enjoyed a very cordial acquaintance during those crucial months while you assembled your application and I urged you to turn down admission and scholarship offers from competing or more prestigious institutions? Once, however, you’d made your decision and had arrived on campus and paid your tuition, I sometimes was perhaps less than sensitive to your needs and misgivings as strangers on a strange campus and in a very strange community. Once you had signed the Registrar’s Book and were committed freshmen, I may have failed as the admissions director friend you’d come to rely on, was perhaps not absolutely the bridge you’d expected between your familiar and secure home life and the new and threatening life of the intellect. In short, having met my student quota for the year, I threw you aside like a husk.

I apologize for that. I want you to know that I have searched my conscience on this matter and have come to an important realization: I have an obligation to make up for that lapse and try again to be the friend you expected me to be. If I failed you as your director of admission, I am resolutely determined henceforth to walk by your side, a devoted counselor and true friend, for the rest of your lives as your very own director of gift planning. As you make important decisions about your estates, you can count on my support, counsel … and company. As for those of you who came into the College under the protective wings of Miss Anne Wynne or Mr. Daly, you’ll have to ask them for compensation for their no-doubt deplorable insensitivities to you.

“Those Halcyon Days of our Youth”

So now I can begin to reminisce…. Ah, here we are.

There are many events in the last 35 years of the College’s colorful history which could worthily re-occupy the imagination. I had to make some decisions before tonight. Your favorite subjects would, of course, have been you, yourselves. So, I asked myself, should this evening be a mere chronology of your life on campus — with the faculty, the books, and the education as background noise? Should the curriculum simply be the lens through which we revisit your TAC life — your friendships, your intellectual awakenings, your vocational discernment, your tangled romances, your disciplinary slip-ups? Possibilities for drama, pathos, and humor do come to mind.

Or, instead, should we reminisce about the College from my perspective, formed as it was by visits to your homes, and developed as it interestingly was in the candid letters written about you by your teachers and confessors, and in those charming essays which so illumined your true inner selves? Again, rich with opportunities for humor and pathos.

Now, most of you would have decided which of these two courses to take based on your habits as alumni of Thomas Aquinas College … you would have dialoged with your peers. You would have revisited St. Thomas’s consideration of prudence. You would have been guided by genuine science and by a concern for the common good.

I took a different route. I consulted my Rolodex.

You know what a Rolex is, but how about a Rolodex? Probably not. Except for you parents of my own age, most of you are too young. A Rolodex is a plastic flip-wheel cylinder with little note cards old-timers use instead of the Cloud to keep ready to hand information for our most important business contacts — addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, birth stones, hat sizes, astrological signs, essential stuff like that. I use it also to keep my list of catchphrases from the great books, phrases like “act and potency,” “ordered to the good,” “QED,” “proportioned to,” “it is fitting that.” If you don’t have a list like this — on a Rolodex or on your smart phone — you’re not taking advantage of a great substitute for tiresome in-depth thinking and clear, coherent writing.

So after plumbing the depths of my memory for words of wisdom appropriate to your director of gift planning that could provide the theme of reminiscences with you alumni and coming up empty, I spun my Rolodex. Up, will-nilly came St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “Not many are wise, not many are powerful, not many are of noble birth.”

And I found myself adding with respect to you, “not many are wealthy.”

This clearly ruled out your special interests. But spinning again through the great books, I kept coming up with “Vanity of vanity, all things are vanity.” This, too, seemed unpropitious and certainly was not the direction and encouragement I’d hoped for.

But those words did remind me of the splendid days at the beginning of my freshman year. A beginning every one of us has made since September 1971. What we discovered in those first words of Solomon’s wisdom, and also in the Meno, and on the ringing plains of windy Troy, in the Sententiae Antiquae, even in laboratory, and, in my view, most especially in Book I, prop 1 where — without compass or protractor — we our very selves constructed our first equilateral triangle and knew that it was real and true … these first drafts from a very deep well of learning and wisdom whetted our youthful thirst for the truth, and they have been nourishing us in our lives every day since then, noticed or unnoticed, making our lives richer and more difficult. And in ways worth reflecting on, they have marked us out from a world the depth of whose own learning and wisdom is still being measured.

Can you remember classes in your freshman year? I couldn’t very well at first, myself. But a few weeks ago, my Mrs. found a cassette tape in the bottom drawer of a corner bureau we rarely poke around in. It was a recording of the last class of my freshman theology tutorial, dating from early June, 1973. Recording a class would not be allowed now — maybe wasn’t allowed then, either. But anyway, the voice and happy laughter of our tutor, Fr. Harry Marchowski, blended with and at need rose above the mostly intelligent discussion of faith and works inspired by the epistle of St. James.

Listening to that classroom conversation was an enthralling reminder of how Fr. M. and no doubt the other Freshman theology tutors ministered light and encouragement to us in our young efforts to puzzle out the meaning of Scripture, in the Gospels with which we had perhaps become too familiar to look more deeply into. In those foreign and tangled stories of the Kings, in those complex and luminous letters of St. Paul, in those poignant anxieties of Qoheleth and Job and Jonah, and in the tragedies of Cain and Saul and Judas. With Fr. Marchowski we began to see the consequences in our lives of the old and the new covenants. It dawned on us that Scripture really is the inerrant word of God, where we meet firsthand in their most compelling and unsettling baldness the genuine mysteries of creation, sin, election, and redemption, and the problems of suffering, punishment, and death in all of which we share. Not of course that we understood those mysteries and solved the problems. We met and puzzled over them and, I now remember, we did penetrate them in some degree. Thanks to Fr. Marchowski and thanks, of course, to the Holy Spirit.

But also, thanks to Euclid. Euclid’s geometry, in my case learned under the mostly tender ministrations of Mrs. Gustin, brought a much-needed clarity and order to our freshman minds. This seems to me the signal virtue in freshman mathematics. Euclid engendered a new confidence in us, really a conviction, that we our very selves can grasp the truth, at least the mathematical kind of truth. And this conviction led us to look for the truth beyond mathematics and helped us bend to the yoke of logic, grammar, and clear speaking as essential tools in our search-and-seize venture. We looked for truth in Scripture, in the hectic lives of the Greeks, in the orderly lives of the bee and the wasp, in the Republic, in which we would live if we could, in the relation of grammar to being. We were sufficiently roused to the chase to have looked for truth even in the tax laws if they’d been on the reading list. Though this would have extended the application of logic into the truly impenetrable.

Fr. Marchowski’s voice brought back something else from those remote though now more vivid images of my freshman year. I believe I experienced then something of a spiritual renaissance or, if that term distresses you young medievalists, a spiritual awakening. God’s word in Scripture sympathetically pored over nearly every day can, of course, have that effect. So can the examples of charity, humility, and gentility we saw in our tutors. As also can the respect and civility enforced on us by classroom etiquette and the give-and-take of tutorial and seminar conversation. And, importantly, so can the presence of the Eucharist, which was never more than a few hundred steps away from every member of the community.

We, all of us, can look back now and appreciate those halcyon days of our youth with a generous gratitude, which was sometimes difficult back then under the labor of unrelenting reading, lab write-ups, math preparations, and Latin vocab lists, and in the moments of frustration with wooly-headed or too strong-minded classmates … and with the 11 p.m. dorm lock-up. Gratitude is a great virtue, and it is especially easy to dispense onto persons and scenes in the past! So let us recall those persons and scenes and be lavish now in our gratitude, both for the happy times given us by so many kindly and capable people, and for the unique opportunity the College presented us to fortify the mental and moral habits which already have made and in the future will continue to make our lives rich — and difficult.

Rich because Catholic liberal education really does work. It has opened treasure rooms of learning, culture, and wisdom whose very existence we otherwise would not have known about and by which our minds and lives are made fuller and more interesting than they otherwise would have been. And it has helped us discover intellectual, moral, and ethical principles by which, always together with God’s graces, we can direct our steps and our families’ steps along safe paths through the valley of the shadow of the culture of death.

By now, we have ample experience of how our time on campus at Calabasas or in Santa Paula has also made our lives in some ways more difficult. I don’t mean something as vulgar and unmentionable as that some of us have had to spend more time and money getting a practical education to supplement our speculative education so that we could earn a living and make regular contributions to our alma mater — though we at the College are truly delighted at this particular manifestation of your piety. No, I meant that on the one hand our Catholic liberal education has given us a greater appreciation for and participation in the beauty, goodness, and intelligible order of creation. But, on the other hand, that very gift makes ugliness, evil, and irrationality all the more painful.

We find ourselves cross-grained with the dominant culture of our times. No one should or for that matter can completely shun that culture. This is the time we were born in, and its culture is ours, its citizens our brothers and sisters. But if there is any undeniable truth to which the modern culture subscribes and which permeates every facet of its life, it is that there is no truth permeating anything at all. Our task is to keep a happy face and a cheerful heart while grating away at that pernicious orthodoxy.

Teenage Soap Opera

Well, so much for the kind of reminiscence that leads to a consideration of depraved culture and pernicious orthodoxy. We’ve got to remain chipper!

So let us now meander briefly along the dusty footpath of cheerful memories, picking up from among them here and there a few of the precious gems and smooth stones strewn, as it might seem, by the whim and sport of an earlier traveler. I know you’ll excuse my high-flown, if strained, imagery. I had the pleasure this year of co-leading sophomore seminar with David Quackenbush. You doubtless recall the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, the Canterbury Tales, the Fairy Queen. These, together with the addition this year of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are, as ever, the cool, limpid springs of poetry from which gush the fluid imagery and metaphor especially notorious among sophomores, among which class I still number myself.

This evening, let us be especially grateful for the blessings our splendid chaplains have brought down on the College over the years. For their priestly ministry among us, these men were and are truly essential in the life and fruits of the College. Imagine what life would have been like without the sacraments brought to us by these holy men. How many alumni first heard their call to the priesthood or religious life or were encouraged in their response to that call by their wise counsel and good example? How many of us owe to the sacramental work of our chaplains the graces we needed to persevere in our studies and to discern who, among a stable of fabulous candidates, was our true future partner in marriage? As I think about it, it would be appropriate here to mention with special gratitude and veneration, that most beloved guardian and chronicler of romantic matches, our own Viltis.

If religion was and still is deeply needed at the College, the College did and still does also deeply need a sense of humor. Humor is, after all, a counterpoise to hubris. And as to the humorous, well, before I grew up and became a member of the College’s elite Development staff, I was embroiled every day in the lives of teenagers. Their fun drama is now available on Facebook every day of the year. But back when I was admissions director — before that young Turk, Jon Daly, shouldered me aside — it was played out largely on the stages of smaller theaters like their own living rooms and in the Admissions office of Thomas Aquinas College. We on the Admissions staff became the sympathetic spectators of teenage soap opera.

This was, to be serious for just a moment, this was really a grace from God because sympathy is a holy oil on the strained muscles and joints of daily life. But frankly, we needed to be sympathetic with or at least fawn over our applicants because the College’s first 25 years and more were filled with torture and insecurity for the Admissions officers. Did we have enough applicants to enroll two tiny sections of freshmen or just one biggish one? Could we find something else for the tutors to do if we fell short of our recruitment goals? Should we accept this or that student because, after all, we had an empty chair at the table, so what was there to lose?

Well, of course we’ve always held ourselves and our applicants up to the highest standards. Applicants have to be qualified if they want to attend Thomas Aquinas College. But one day back then, we did interview an applicant who revealed one qualification which seemed to make her other qualifications irrelevant. We’d asked her to visit campus for an interview with the Admissions Committee so we could look at what seemed to be an interest in the College unlike any we’d seen before. The conversation was going along OK until she mentioned Fr. McGovern’s aura. It was luminous yellow. Others in the room had magenta, jasmine green, sepia — yes, I think Dr. McArthur’s was brown tending toward sepia. The conversation when steadily downhill after she pointed to Mr. Shield’s pink aura.

I’m afraid the Admissions Committee decided her background, including her unique vision, was not simpatico with the more mundane academic expectations of the curriculum. It was my painful duty afterward to let her know the Committee’s decision. She looked at me. “Your aura,” she said, “is black.”

We in the Admissions office used to avidly await the arrival of the mail. Who knew but what an application might come in?! One time, one did come in from Michigan. It was from a high school senior in whose home I’d spent Halloween evening coaxing him and his parents into considering the College. And here was his application! I tore directly into his essays. And there it was, the line every Admissions officer everywhere wants to see: and I showed it off to the dean, Tom Dillon. I quote relatively verbatim from this young man: “As I heard more about the College during his talk with me and my parents, I realized I had to attend. I’ll never forget your director of admissions. If your professors are anything like him, I know I just have to be among them. Mr. Sasnooka” — he wasn’t attentive at every point — “is truly an intellectual giant.” Needless to say, it was a struggle after that to get the Admissions Committee to accept him. In the event, he turned us down. But I’d learned an important lesson about self-complacency.

Not all the fun admissions conversations, though, were with young people. Once a Mormon fellow and his wife visited the College. They stayed the entire week of their honeymoon with us. I guess they were trying to see what it would be like if they enrolled as freshmen. No dorm visitations! They didn’t enroll, though.

And once I spent a morning interviewing a middle-aged man with a scarlet fez. That is, he wore the fez, you understand, not me. He wore a fez, he didn’t wear me. Anyway, he had on a colorful blouse and pantaloons and an ermine-lined satiny cape. He wore slippers with curly toes. He seemed pretty well versed in the mysteries of Persia and amulets and harems and things with which I was not myself very familiar, especially the harems. He was sure he could guide his classmates’ young thoughts along relevant mystical lines. Well, he was very interesting, I can tell you. Enrollment for the upcoming class was not strong, so I cautiously encouraged him. A colorful personality in the class might be good. But I did feel it was my duty to at least mention that conversations generally went better with less mystical insight and with more attention to the ordinary text. This produced a chill in the room. He got somewhat rigid, adjusted his little fez, straightened his back and, gazing out the window with eyes that saw beyond the galaxy, said, “I am Benjamin, Emperor of the Universe.”

And I said, “Gee. Who can write letters of reference for you?” Not my finest moment.

True Miracles

In illo tempore — another phrase from my handy collection. But in the vulgar tongue, in those days, if the College’s freshman classes filled as much by chance, serendipity, and miracle as by strategy and science, this was even truer of the founding of the College, though I defer the telling of that story to the indelible memory of my friend and mentor, Peter DeLuca, who I trust will someday reminisce in detail on the miracle of the founding of the College.

I would, though, like to point out that if it really was miraculous that the College was founded, it is equally miraculous that it did not founder. Because after the founders finished founding the College, they discovered there were bills and salaries to be paid. Student financial aid always exceeded tuition revenues — don’t feel guilty; we know you tried your best to pay your way. Still, in the double-wide trailer at the bottom of the steep hill below St. Joseph Commons which housed all of us administrative types, the atmosphere was often thick with anxiety. Would our vendors and creditors understand the urgent importance of the College’s great books program of Catholic liberal education undertaken in the light of the Faith? Or would they foreclose and see us in bankruptcy court?

I vividly recall a particularly critical moment in the lives of our creditors. Perhaps they would be satisfied with a lien on the office furniture we’d borrowed and rented? We needed, as I recall, an immediate windfall of something like $180,000. Those dollars ratchet up, by the way, to nearly $500,000 these 30 inflationary years later. That was a lot of need for a small college. But the mail was good to us. It brought in a check for $180,000 with a note from Bill Isaacson, a member of the College’s Board of Governors. One of his clients had needed to reduce her taxable income. He’d recommended a donation to Thomas Aquinas College. He had to spell Aquinas for her. We hope Mr. Isaacson’s client lives forever. But if that isn’t possible here on earth, we have arranged an immediate entrance into beatitude for her, no stopping along the way … an arrangement, by the way, which we will consider making for any of you in similar circumstances …

Students and most members of the faculty were, mercifully, oblivious to the ongoing thrill of near extinction during the ’70s, and ’80s. Once, though, the much hoped for sugar daddy moment seemed to have arrived, and news leaked out to the whole community. A potential benefactor actually called us to ask for a visit to the College. He had a very special gift, he said, an endowment that would propel the College to the success it so richly deserved. Research — such as it was before the advent of the Internet — revealed that Mr. H. was indeed perfectly able to build out the entire campus and endow the College in perpetuity. He had drilled for oil in the seas of Indonesia.

The day of his visit arrived. Afternoon classes were pushed back to 1:30 so a splendid sit-down luncheon could be served. Students entertained. Members of the faculty and a few hangers-on like myself then crammed into Dr. McArthur’s spacious corner office of the double-wide, where the presentation to the College was to be made. Mr. H. chatted with us amiably as tension mounted and the temperature in the office rose to 100 degrees. There was a buzz of excited murmuring. How big was the check? Had he brought it with him? How many of the new buildings would he like us to name for his patron saints? Would he be embarrassed if we named our sons after him? It was almost too much to bear.

At last, Mr. H. sent his assistant to the car to bring in the treasure. As we waited, we engaged with him in chit-chat about Elizabethan politics and literature. Or at least we thought it was chit-chat. The assistant shouldered his way back into the office and set up an easel and placed on it something pretty big, draped in royal purple. This was going to be a very big check indeed, it looked like.

With a flourish, Mr. H. whipped off the drape to reveal: the portrait of William Shakespeare in his true guise, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Mr. H. announced his intention to endow the new J.T. Looney Chair of Shakespearean Studies at Thomas Aquinas College. Utter silence broke out in the assembly. We drifted out of sight, one by one, leaving Dr. McArthur to hash out details of the gift. The portrait is actually quite stunning. It still hangs on the wall of the broom closet of St. Joseph Commons.

We have, of course, witnessed true miracles over the years. Among them is the arrival of Bl. Mother Teresa by helicopter onto the athletic field near the sewage-treatment plant. Fr. John Hardon had asked her to give the address to the graduates at Commencement in 1982. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Mother’s visit to the College, important first to the graduates themselves and their families, but also to Thomas Aquinas College, which was thereby discovered by the wide world — and made us feel like we were a real school.

By and by, the nation woke up to Thomas Aquinas College as a real school. News of it percolated into daily life, and the College became an everyday item of discussion in kitchens everywhere. One day, I took a call on our toll-free line from a homeschooling mother excited to have at last confirmed the existence of a Catholic version of the St. John’s College great books program. “I really think my daughter would find Thomas Aquinas College just the ticket, and we finally found you.” “How did that happen,” I asked.

“Well, my friend and I were sitting today in the breakfast nook having coffee and keeping out of the way of Randy the handyman, who was lying on his back half under the kitchen sink. I was telling my friend that I’d just about given up looking for this little Catholic great books school I’d heard about. Told her it was probably for the best since what could a person do with a liberal arts degree nowadays anyway. Mr. Randy came right out from under the sink, and said, ‘Hey, I’m a graduate of that school. We’re everywhere and doing everything. I’ll tell you about it after I get this goose neck back onto your drain.’”

A People

I end at last by turning to your favorite subject, you yourselves. I’m told there are now 2,518 of you. Somewhere near 1,800 of you are married, and it’s been calculated that you’ve accumulated some 6,050 children and grandchildren, 1,675 of whom are related to Bill and Irene Grimm not further away than the 3rd remove. You are indeed a people. A people after our own hearts. And after the hearts of men and women you probably never will know in this life but who prayed for you during your years at the College and who pray for you now. And who faithfully and sacrificially support your alma mater because they know how important your Catholic liberal education is to you and to our world.

One couple I know among those unseen friends of yours told me not long ago that they have made the College the beneficiary of the largest portion of their estate. They do have children and they will have an inheritance from their parents. But these children have not kept the Faith. God willing and through our prayers, they will return some day to the Faith, but Fred and Carol cannot wait for that. Fred told me, “Your alumni do believe and they will evangelize the world. Our legacy to the Church and the world will be your alumni.”

Remember St. Paul’s final encouragement to his favorites, the brethren in the Church of Phillipi: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

You alumni are Fred and Carol’s gift — and Ron McArthur’s and Marc Berquist’s and Jack Neumayr’s and Peter DeLuca’s gift to the Church and the world. Think about that.

God love you.

Tom Susanka - West Coast Alumni Dinner 2014
David Langley (’15 )

“The education here is not a training for a specialized field, it is an education for the greatest, most glorious part of man — his faculty of reason.”

– David Langley (’15)

Steubenville, Ohio

“Few schools anywhere can match Thomas Aquinas College’s extraordinary blend of deep Catholic faith and rich academic formation.”

– The Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop of Philadelphia

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