Leslie Hidley of Ojai, Calif., is a writer, and a funny one at that. She finds humor where one might least expect it, in subjects ranging from the sublime to the mundane. “I write about my family, friends — and raccoons in the backyard,” she says.
The YouTube video below shows her reading one of her essays — a harrowing tale of getting her finger stuck in the gas tank of an SUV, then praying to avoid immolation as firefighters saw through the tank to cut her loose. Frightening, yes, but the way she tells it in stoic deadpan, uproariously funny.
When Mrs. Hidley arrived at the College in 1982, she was a 36-year-old mother of four and, as she describes it, “a pagan,” with no religious convictions whatsoever. And yet, after reading about Thomas Aquinas College in a local newspaper, she considered herself a natural fit for its unique academic program. “I always liked the idea of a classical education,” she says, “because you learn things that are worth knowing, instead of whatever everybody thinks this year.”
She also saw the faith life of the College as an asset, not a liability. Having dabbled in modern philosophy, she had become disenchanted with the reigning relativism of the day. One such philosopher had instructed her “not to have beliefs,” she recalls, which she “pretty quickly realized is nonsense because everybody believes something” — even modern philosophers.
At the College, she soon discovered that it is reverence for truth, not denying its existence, that produces true freedom. In the Socratic conversations around classroom tables, “you could ask anything you wanted,” she says. “Even as a pagan, I didn’t have to confine my questions in any way. I found it really liberating.”
Alas, Mrs. Hidley’s time as a student at the College was short-lived. After one year, her daughter, Kate (Svoboda- Spanbock ’87), enrolled. “I thought it wasn’t sporting for Kate to have to go to school with her mother,” Mrs. Hidley laughs, so with a heavy heart, she withdrew from the program. She hoped to return later, but her three other children — Jack (’90), Theo (’92), and Josh (’94) — would soon follow Kate’s lead and also come to the College. Soon thereafter Mrs. Hidley’s focus would shift, first to a new family business, and then to being the doting grandmother of nine girls and one boy.
But the effects of her one year at the College have endured. Her time on campus, she says, played a significant role in her conversion to Catholicism some two decades later. “Mine was not an intellectual conversion,” she observes. “I was converted by Christ’s love, manifest in Catholics” — including the love she experienced from her tutors and fellow students.
One such manifestation came by way of the College’s founding president, Dr. Ronald P. McArthur. As Mrs. Hidley recalls it, she went to St. Joseph Commons early one morning to practice her Euclidean propositions. She was sitting alone at a table when the six-foot, six-inch tall Dr. McArthur strode over and joined her with his breakfast tray.
“I had never even met him, but I didn’t like Ron McArthur,” she admits regretfully. Being someone who is slight in stature, she thought him “too tall.” He also reminded her of “every base commander I had ever met,” conjuring up negative memories from her childhood as a military daughter. So at first she tried to ignore him, and continued studying as though he were not there. But after 20 minutes, her curiosity got the better of her. “I said something charming like, ‘Yeeeeeeessssssss?”’ she recalls, “and he said, ‘I just wanted to tell you how loved you are here.’”
Dr. McArthur’s comment “stunned me,” Mrs. Hidley remembers, “not just because he said it, but because it was the truth.… That just knocked me for a loop. Still does.” Many more such knocks would ultimately land her in the Church.
Though her days as a Thomas Aquinas College student and parent are now behind her, Mrs. Hidley’s relationship with the College continues. She is a member of the Legacy Society , having made a generous contribution for a charitable gift annuity .
Naturally, she finds much humor amid talk of estate planning and her eventual death. “I didn’t want the kids to be ticked when I die because I’m going to leave the College some money, so I thought I better give some of it now!” she jokes. “Of course, I have an ulterior motive, too. My sister, Cathryn (Krause), is the beneficiary after me, with the instructions to take the proceeds and buy Christmas presents for my grandchildren. So they’ll get Christmas presents from me even after I’m dead!”
Tom Susanka , the College’s director of gift planning, was director of admissions back when Mrs. Hidley first came to the College nearly 30 years ago, and has enjoyed witnessing her journey from applicant, to student, to parent, to benefactor. “Leslie’s enthusiasm for the College has never waned,” he says. “We are grateful for her generosity, and even more for her wit, her kindness, and her friendship.”
Posted: November 16, 2011