A bittersweet reunion at St. John’s

COLLEGEVILLE, MINN.—The winningest coach in the history of college football got back on track Saturday as St. John’s University defeated Gustavus Adolphus after losing to Concordia-Moorhead last week, before an overflow homecoming crowd that included some 60 members of my 1958 graduating class.

But despite the lovely fall setting at St. John’s pine-fringed playing field, it wasn’t pretty as John Gagliardi’s Johnnies stumbled and fumbled their way to a 10-7 second quarter deficit before rallying for a 31-17 win.

It was the 456th win in the 82-year-old Gagliardi’s 60-year coaching career, 56 of them at St. John’s, where he arrived in 1953, one year before I and my classmates did. His remarkable record includes four national small college championships and 28 MIAC conference titles. And even while losing to Concordia-Moorhead, he passed Grambling’s Eddie Robinson — and the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg — for the most games coached (588).

I dropped in at his office late Sunday night, where he was reviewing films of the Gustavus Adolphus game, and asked him the question he often gets these days, which is when is he going to retire. “Well, I’m 82 and I’m losing some of my energy and enthusiasm,” he said, “so I probably can’t go on for one or two more — decades.”

But the issue of when Gagliardi will retire paled into insignificance when I and my aging classmates, many of us showing signs of the ravages of age, arrived for our 50th class reunion on Friday. We heard the sad news that Brother Dietrich Reinhart, the Benedictine monk who has been president of St. John’s University for the past 12 years, was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer at the Mayo Clinic a day earlier.

Like John McCain, he had a melanoma removed from his neck a decade ago, a sober reminder that cancer can always return, just as it could for McCain, which could make Sarah Palin, the most unqualified person ever selected as a vice presidential candidate,  president if McCain is elected. The grim diagnosis made it clear that St. John’s will soon have to find someone to replace him, a task almost as difficult at replacing Gagliardi.

And as if that wasn’t enough to remind us of the Benedictine motto, which is “Keep death daily before your eyes” (the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a St. John’s alumnus, said that is a good motto for politicians as well), one of our classmates who played quarterback for Gagliardi, Bernie Archbold of Marshall, Minn., suffered a heart attack and died Monday. Archbold and his twin brother, Jim, were both at the reunion, and I visited with them and their wives. In fact, I had lunch with Bernie on Sunday and met one of his 17 grandchildren, a student at St. John’s.

As further evidence of the perils of our advanced age, another classmate collapsed during Saturday’s football game and was hospitalized overnight but doctors found nothing seriously wrong, while another learned Friday that his older sister had lost a long battle with cancer. At the same time, we perused a list of 61 classmates who have died, including a Navy pilot killed in Vietnam whose name is inscribed on a memorial plaque on campus.

Then on Sunday, we read in the newspapers that Minnesota businessman and philanthropist Tom Petters, a major benefactor of St. John’s and its sister school, the College of St. Benedict, and son of a St. John’s alumnus, is the target of a federal investigation into an alleged fraud scheme that may have exceeded $2 billion.

Recalling memories
Despite all the bad news, the class of ’58 did what all people do at class reunions, which is to recall memories of our time as students and catch up on each other’s lives. We also honored two classmates, Russ Reiter and Roger Scherer, with distinguished alumnus awards. Reiter, a former baseball standout at St. John’s, is a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and an internationally recognized expert on the use of melatonin to protect against diseases related to aging, a subject of interest to us all, while Scherer, a former state representative, is a successful Twin Cities business executive.

In talking to people at St. John’s, including members of the Board of Regents, which I once served on, I learned of three likely scenarios for picking Brother Dietrich’s successor.

One is for Abbot John Klassen, a Stearns County farm boy who heads the St. John’s Benedictine Abbey — the largest in the world — and was a novice when I was at St. John’s, to step down and become president. As one monk told me, “It’s easier to find a new abbot than a new college president.” He also reminded me that a senior monk, now deceased, once said, “Why waste a Ph.D. on an abbot?”

Another option would be to name an interim president, perhaps the first lay person to serve as president. While the monks will insist that the new president is a Benedictine, they probably would accept a lay person on an interim basis. The obvious choice would be Bob Gavin, a St. John’s graduate who played for Gagliardi and later served as president of Haverford College and Macalester.

The third option would be to reach into the St. John’s Abbey and elevate one of the younger members, as the Abbey did when Brother Dietrich was named.

As I wrote in 1990 in a book of essays about St. John’s, it is one of the seminal places of American Catholicism. It was here that the seeds of the liturgical reforms that came to fruition at Vatican II were planted by famed St. John’s priest Father Virgil Michel, and here that Hungarian-American architect Marcel Breuer designed the magnificent Abbey Church that is considered one of the world’s outstanding examples of church architecture.

In 1954, the year we came to St. John’s as green freshmen, Time magazine published an article about the hundred-year building plan, starting with the Abbey Church, that St. John’s had commissioned Breuer to design. The abbot at the time told the magazine that a hundred years was no big deal for the Benedictines, who had thrived for more than 1,500 years since their founding by Saint Benedict.

One of the most visible changes at St. John’s, which I regret had not occurred when I was there, is the presence of young women students from St. John’s sister school, the College of St. Benedict. (The sight of attractive young women roaming the residence halls of St. John’s late in the evening made me wish I was still a student.)

St. John’s always with you
You can leave St. John’s, we again discovered, but it never leaves you. As I wrote in 1990, “Like the Church it is a part of, one can never totally escape St. Johns; it is always with you, its presence and influence a cumulative thing like radiation exposure, whose effect only becomes apparent years later. One can measure the influence of St. John’s, but not with any degree of accuracy. Like Heisenberg’s Principle of physics, the act of measurement alters that being measured, and only adds more uncertainty to an already uncertain world.”

Many of us old geezers who returned to St. John’s a half century later were more appreciative than we had been of our teachers, who exhibited an appealing combination of priestly authoritarianism and monastic humility. (While a few were laymen, most were Benedictine monks, who are identified by the initials of their order, O.S.B. Some of these, for their impatience with slow learners like me, deserved to have their initials transposed, we joked.)

Fifty years later, the teaching mission of St. John’s, of which John Gagliardi and Brother Dietrich Reinhart, are outstanding examples, remains as valid as it was when I and my classmates arrived in the fall of 1954. (The monks were as demanding as any NFL owner; when Gagliardi asked then-President Colman Barry if the monks would still love him if he lost, Father Barrry said, “John, we’ll still love you, but we’ll miss you.”)

The St. John’s that I and my classmates knew in the 20th century no longer exists in the 21st century, but it’s good to know that the one that does still provides a world-class education for students who want it, and sends them out into the cold, cruel world with “that good, sacred memory [that] is perhaps the best education,” as Dostoyevsky spoke of in “The Brothers Karamazov.”

“If a man carried many such memories with him into life,” the youngest brother, Alyosha, tells a group of boys at the funeral of their friend, “he is safe to the end of his days.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Conklin Conklin on 10/01/2008 - 12:29 pm.

    Al: Good to see you pop up at MinnPost. I celebrated my 50th in late May at the (now) University of St. Thomas and experienced some of the same “the-birds-come-back-to-look-back” moments that you did at Collegeville. I did note in writing in our reunion book that St. Thomas defeated St. John’s in football every year we were on campus. How could you have left that out?

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