Humanitarian of the Year: Sister Karen Willenbring ’89, M.D., of Frenchville, Pa., became a doctor and serves the spiritual and medical needs of the poor of Appalachia.
Distinguished Alumnus: Mark Zesbaugh ’86, CEO of Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, was honored for leadership and service to the community, the university and his field of endeavor.
Professor of the Year: Dr. Bernard Brady, a member of the Theology Department for 15 years, was honored for excellence in teaching.
Monsignor James Lavin Award: Shaun Leslie Olson ’94 received the award for volunteer service to the St. Thomas Alumni Association.
The Tommy Award: Adam Groebner was selected the Tommy Award winner by students, staff and faculty as a senior who exemplifies the ideals of the university.
Humanitarian of the Year
FRENCHVILLE, PENN. – Four years ago, the three-acre plot of land off State Route 879 was home to a mostly unused baseball field.
Today, the field is gone, replaced by a parking lot and a building that sits between second and third bases. Inside that building works a woman who some people call a saint and others consider their hometown version of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, providing free health care to those who don’t have insurance and cannot afford to see a doctor.
The Susquehanna Rural Free Clinic provides more than medical care, however. The first signal of that is a greeting from its visionary, founder, mortgage holder, administrator and physician, who wears a small wooden cross around her neck signifying her association with the Sisters of Anawim.
Patients call Karen Willenbring “Sister Karen,” not “Doctor Karen,” but she is both, and for that they are grateful. They beam when they talk about the difference she has made in the quality of their lives – and not just because she deals with their ailments, or makes sure they are fitted for eyeglasses.
“Sister Karen cares,” said John Baker, a musician whose blood pressure was 260/150 the first time he walked into the clinic and was immediately sent to a hospital emergency room. “People around here work two jobs and still can’t pay their bills. They don’t think about their health, but when it fails and they have nowhere else to go, this clinic becomes a godsend. She’s here for us – to take care of us, to listen and to be a guide through tough times.”
“Sister Karen is wonderful,” said Darla Loyd, a school bus driver who has allergies, asthma and high cholesterol. “If it hadn’t been for her, I would have died. A lot of people like myself wouldn’t have made it without Sister Karen.”
Willenbring smiles sheepishly when told of such praise. She acknowledges it but is uncomfortable with it. The Roseville native and 1989 St. Thomas graduate isn’t running a clinic to get a pat on the back or the Humanitarian Award from her alma mater’s Alumni Association. She’s doing it simply because people need help.
“I’m happy to be able to blend the healing art of medicine with the spiritual dimension of being a sister,” she said. “When people first come in, I see fear, sadness and often helplessness. Because they haven’t had insurance, they have neglected their health and aren’t sure what a ‘free’ health care clinic is all about. After we work with them, I see renewed health – and hope.”
Willenbring’s remarkable journey from the Twin Cities to a hardscrabble coal-mining region of Appalachia began 16 years ago as she finished her undergraduate studies. The St. Agnes High School alumna and St. Thomas biology major had been accepted to medical school at the University of Minnesota but wanted to do volunteer work.
She and a classmate, Julie Schmieg, checked out their options in Campus Ministry and chose Caritas Mission, a service of Young People Who Care Inc., which provides social service programs in a three-county area of northwestern Pennsylvania (see separate story).
Willenbring enjoyed the experience so much she deferred medical school for a second year, then a third, and stayed in Frenchville. She worked with Sister Therese Dush, a Sister of Mercy who established Young People Who Care in 1976 and founded the Sisters of Anawim in 1982.
“In my second year as a volunteer, I felt a calling to do work in the religious community that ran Young People Who Care, but I also felt called to medicine,” Willenbring said. “I couldn’t reconcile the two. I told Sister Therese of my dilemma and she said, ‘Why not do both?’ ”
“It took time for Karen to know she might have that in her – the vision of how to use her gifts and talents,” Dush said. “It was a slow unfolding of her vision. She was so touched by the powerlessness of the poor here that I’m not sure she realized she could do anything as important for the area as this clinic. As soon as she could clarify that vision, it took on a life of its own.”
Willenbring joined the community of four nuns in 1992 – Anawim comes from the Old Testament and means the Remnant, a fragmented people who remained faithful to God during the Exile. She went through two years of formation before taking her first vows in July 1994. She enrolled in medical school at Penn State in Hershey, about 2.5 hours away, spending the week in classes and traveling to Frenchville as many weekends as possible. She graduated from medical school in May 1998 and a week later took her final vows.
As if her studies and formation work weren’t enough to keep her busy during those four years and the three during her residency at St. Vincent Hospital in Erie, Penn., Willenbring had a third project to work on.
“I went to medical school with the intention of starting a free medical clinic,” she said. “I got the idea from working in people’s homes and seeing their unmet needs. Then my residency gave me a flavor of the types of special needs in poor rural communities.”
Initially thinking she would need $50,000 to establish a clinic, she began raising funds. Her first effort was a benefit concert – she also plays the guitar, sings and writes music – that netted $10,000 at her home parish of St. Odilia’s in Shoreview. She scouted clinic locations and looked at buildings she could buy and renovate. Then the Lions Club heard of her interest.
“The Lions wanted the clinic in Frenchville,” she said. “They had a baseball field that wasn’t being used and asked me, ‘If we donate the land, will you build here?’ It was less than a mile from our (Sisters of Anawim) mission house. It was perfect.”
Lions Club members also dug the foundation and laid utility and sewer lines, and ground was broken for the factory-built, 2,400-square-foot structure on Oct. 9, 2001. An open house was held on Dec. 9, and the first patient walked in the door on Jan. 9, 2002.
The clinic was open two days a week in its first year, seeing 204 patients for 504 office visits. Those numbers more than doubled each of the following two years as Willenbring expanded to three days a week – 449 patients and 1,110 visits in 2003 and 441 patients and 1,266 visits in 2004. In its first three years, volunteers worked 5,300 hours valued at $150,000, with another $600,000 in donated care.
he waiting room walls are dotted with four Terry Redlin “country doctor” paintings that her parents, Ernie and Maureen Willenbring of Roseville, gave her as a medical school graduation gift. There are three medical exam rooms and an ophthalmology exam room.
Patients live within an hour’s drive, and their most-common illnesses are diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and thyroid disease. Willenbring frequently makes referrals for lab tests (312 patients last year) at nearby Clearfield Hospital, which provides them at no cost, and for other procedures. Medications are free, thanks to samples donated by area doctors and pharmaceutical companies. Two ophthalmologists from Erie and Altoona do eye exams once a month, and last year 97 patients were fitted for eyeglasses that cost only $36 per pair.
To qualify for free care, patients cannot have an income exceeding 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $18,620 for a single person and $37,700 for a household of four. Last year, the average income of 116 single patients was $10,442; the figure for 59 patients from households of four was $23,648.
The only paid staff members are two part-timers – a medical office specialist and a custodian. Everybody else is a volunteer, including Willenbring.
“I’m astounded by the level of people’s commitment and the variety of people involved in the clinic,” she said. “It’s everybody from medical professionals to trades and labor types who wanted to see the clinic happen. Community members see it as their clinic.”
The 36 Lions Club members would agree. The clinic “has given us something to get behind,” said past president Joe Peiffer. “The spirit that exists in our club, and the amount of enthusiasm everybody has for the clinic, have been terrific. We couldn’t be prouder of the clinic and of Sister Karen.”
Even with volunteer help and donated equipment and medications, the clinic has a $135,000 annual budget to cover a mortgage, utilities, insurance and referrals to specialists. Willenbring raises about $50,000 a year, receives state grants and moonlights most Fridays at an Altoona clinic to make payments on the $136,000 mortgage that she took out. She also has $38,000 in medical school loans.
She finds the financial struggles daunting in one sense, but her philosophy always has been that “if God is with me, I’ll move ahead and the finances will be there. It’s happened that way – never more than enough, but just enough, money to make it.” She also is able to see beyond the ledger when she looks into the eyes of her patients.
“One woman came in, a diabetic without medication for three years,” Willenbring said. “She was 61, not old enough for Medicare, too old to get employment, and her husband had lost his job. She had a severe foot ulcer, and almost lost a foot. When she came in for a follow-up exam, I determined we wouldn’t have to amputate.
“Gratitude like hers gives you the motivation to do whatever you need to do to make this work.”
Willenbring isn’t sitting still, either. She refers patients to Young People Who Care, which will put a new roof on a house or, in the case of a woman whose home burned down, come up with a nearly new mobile home on a donated site. She hopes to add dental and counseling services to allow her to better meet her ultimate goal: “to provide care that addresses the whole person.”
“I want to be able to connect with people on a deeper level, on a spiritual level,” she said. “I have the freedom to interact with them on a spiritual level if that’s where their interest lies. They’ll bring stuff up, and we have the time to talk through things. Patients then feel as though they’re getting more than just medicine being handed out to them.”
As wearing as her days can be, Willenbring draws strength from three sources – her fellow Sisters of Anawim, who embrace the spirit and charism of the Beatitudes; her prayer time in community and in private; and the response of her patients.
“When their lives are changed and become full of joy, it reminds me why I am in this,” she said. “I have come to the realization that I’m doing what I love to do – and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else – in a profession that gives me life and gives others life.”
This year’s award went to Mark Zesbaugh, of Eagan, a 1986 St. Thomas graduate and chief executive officer of Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America.Allianz Life, which provides a range of insurance and related services, is headquartered in Golden Valley and is part of the Allianz Group, the second-largest insurance group and 25th-largest corporation in the world.
Zesbaugh received his St. Thomas degree in business administration and accounting. He was elected to the university’s board of trustees in 2003.
In an interview for St. Thomas’ B. magazine, on the power of relationships, Zesbaugh credits St. Thomas faculty, particularly retired professor Len Minars, for caring enough to take time with him so that he changed his major.
“I had no ambition of being in finance or accounting. Absolutely none. I was going through the process of getting a psychology major, and one of the requirements was that you take a finance and accounting class. Len Minars was my financial accounting teacher. He pulled me aside and said, ‘Mark, have you ever thought about going into finance or accounting?’ I said, ‘Never. Absolutely not.’ And he said, ‘You kind of have a knack for it. Why don’t you think about it?’
“So I took another class and that kind of got the wave going. Before I knew it, I had graduated with a degree in business administration and accounting. Next thing I knew I had a job and I was on my way. I give credit to faculty for really taking the time. Professor Minars pulled me aside, and he took the time to have me rethink about the direction that I thought I might want to go.”
Zesbaugh, 40, became CEO of Allianz Life three years ago after serving several years as senior vice president. Previously he was executive vice president and chief financial officer of LifeUSA Holding Inc., where he played a key role in the merger of LifeUSA and Allianz Life. He had joined LifeUSA in 1990 after a career with Ernst and Young, where he worked with financial services companies.
Allianz Life has been growing quickly in recent years. The number of employees has more than doubled since 1999, to about 2,400 from 1,100, and it is planning an expansion to its corporate campus in Golden Valley.
In addition to several professional associations, Zesbaugh has been active with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Club, Rotary Club and the Boy Scouts.
Established in 1971, the Distinguished Alumnus award is presented for leadership and service to the university, to the community, and in the person’s field of endeavor.
Professor of the Year
Dr. Bernard Brady, of St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, is this year’s Professor of the Year. The 44-year-old award recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and inspiration
Brady has been a member of St. Thomas’ theology faculty for the past 15 years, or one year longer than his career as a youth soccer coach for St. Paul neighborhood and grade school teams.
Brady received his bachelor’s in theology and psychology at Loyola University of Chicago. He went on to earn his master’s in divinity and doctorate in ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He taught theology at Loyola and the College of St. Catherine before coming to St. Thomas in 1989.
He principally teaches three courses: Christian Theological Tradition, Christian Morality and Catholic Social Traditions. Brady also works with students outside the more-typical classroom environment. He was director of the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program from 1999 to 2003, and was coordinator for Service Learning in the Curriculum from 1995 to 1998.
His interest in service learning is connected to his courses in Christian morality and the church’s social traditions. “Every student should do some volunteer work at least one semester,” he feels. “It’s essential. I try to provide opportunities for that in my classes. I like to have them write about their volunteer work and to connect their experiences to ideas we discuss in class. It’s a wonderful experience for most students, and for some, it is life-changing.”
He has written three books. Georgetown University Press published his The Moral Bond of Community: Justice and Discourse in Christian Morality in 1998, and his Christian Love: How Christians Through the Ages Have Understood Love in 2003.
In April, Brazo Press will publish A Spiritual Field Guide: Meditations for the Open Air, a book he co-wrote with St. Thomas journalism professor Dr. Mark Neuzil. “We scoured the Christian tradition for relatively short passages on nature,” he explained. “Most passages can be read in a few minutes. It’s kind of a reader for those who love nature.”
The university, he feels, takes the “whole person” very seriously, and he enjoys seeing how students mature during their years at St. Thomas. “This is a natural process, of course, for students of that age. I hope to think, though, that we play a part in their development. We have much to offer.”
If Brady likes the students, the students like Brady. In recent years they have honored him for being an ally to students of color and for his work in the service-learning and honors programs. The student government in 1995 gave him its Distinguished Educator award.
He has coached soccer for Holy Spirit Catholic School as well as other programs. After 14 years of coaching, he saw his Holy Spirit team win the St. Paul Catholic championship last fall, and then go on to beat the Minneapolis champs.
Monsignor James Lavin Award
Shaun Leslie Olson of Blaine received the award. Established in 1994, it annually honors a volunteer for service to the St. Thomas Alumni Association.
Olson was active on campus as a student, and has continued to be active with the university since her 1994 gradation.
She is married to Rick Olson, has one child, Erin, and is director of patient advocacy at a medical manufacturing company in Arden Hills.
As a student, she was involved with the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program, Campus Ministry, sports, the Tiger Club, Student Development Council and the Student Alumni Council.
In Olson’s sophomore year, her classmate and friend Jennifer Bradow was killed by a drunk driver. Olson has set up a scholarship in her friend’s name for students in financial need and raises money and contributions for it each year. “Jenny was a person who gave to everyone else and who was very important to me and many other people. She left footprints on many hearts that still resonate today,” Olson said. “I hope each person has a Jenny in his or her life and I hope people will be a Jenny to others.”
Since graduating, she has participated in a range of activities offered by the Alumni Association, including the Student Ambassador program, golf tournaments, community cleanup projects, young alumni events, Town and Gown speakers, and religious and holiday programs.
Community Cleanup was one of her favorite projects “because the homeowners were so appreciative of what we were doing and they wanted a few minutes of conversation too. It is always a very meaningful thing to help families, and I enjoy getting students involved in this work.”
St. Thomas connected ideas for her. “At St. Thomas as a student, I loved seeing how everything fit together. My philosophy class complemented my theology class and all the different courses were tied into each other,” Olson said.
“You always pick your causes and the reason I am passionate about St. Thomas today is because of what I felt it gave me. It helped me become who I am.”
Olson also has served on the board of the Alumni Association and on her class reunion committee.
The Tommy Award
Adam Groebner was selected the 2005 Tommy Award winner by a vote of students, staff and faculty. The award has been given annually since 1931 to a senior who exemplifies the ideals of the university.
Groebner, of Bloomington, held a 3.8 grade-point average and majored in international studies and Spanish. His years at St. Thomas blended athletics, student government, study abroad, and community service.
A competitive swimmer, he specialized in distance events, especially the mile, while competing for the Tommies. He was co-captain of the varsity team in his junior and senior years, and during the height of training often would swim five or six miles per day.
Groebner began volunteer tutoring during his freshman year, and as a sophomore he and other swim team members tutored inner-city youngsters at St. Paul’s Maxfield Elementary School. During spring break in March, he traveled to Chicago to work with the disadvantaged as part of St. Thomas’ VISION (Volunteers in Service Internationally or Nationally) program.
Following graduation this spring, Groebner hopes to participate in a two-year University of Notre Dame program that combines teaching in a disadvantaged-area Catholic school while earning a master’s in education.
Groebner has participated in three study-abroad programs. As a sophomore he studied in both Spain and Cuba, and as a junior he studied for a semester at the Catholic University of Valparaiso in Chile.
In his sophomore year he served as a class senator, as a junior he was the elections and credentials chair for the All College Council, and as senior he has been ACC president. “Being president has been tough, fun and fulfilling,” he said. “It is very time-consuming, and something I’ve had to grow into.”
Managing time has been a challenge for Groebner, and dealing with two bouts of mononucleosis, as a sophomore and again as a senior, didn’t help.
Groebner participated in the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program, and while he feels his Spanish classes were the most fun, his courses in international economics were the most thought-provoking, especially after his study-abroad experiences.
He is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson Senior High School in Bloomington, where his father, Kevin, is assistant principal. Adam’s father holds a master’s in education from St. Thomas and his mother, Lynn Anne, is a senior at St. Thomas. She is majoring in computer science.