Hundreds of University of St. Thomas staff and faculty members came to a farewell celebration Friday afternoon for their retiring president, Father Dennis Dease. They all went home with a souvenir pair of “Groucho” glasses complete with big nose and bushy black eyebrows.
The program featured much laughter, some tears, two sustained standing ovations, kind words, and a chance to see Dease cover his distinguished gray hair with a Harley Davidson “do-rag,” complete with bright orange flames.
Speaking at the event were Father John Malone, vice president for mission, and Archbishop Harry Flynn, chair of the university’s board for the past 18 years.
Flynn, also sporting a Harley cap at the podium, commented on Malone’s string of jokes and stories that peppered the program. “When Father Malone was speaking, I was wishing this was six years ago and I was still in office … so I could can him.”
The archbishop turned serious and described this as a bittersweet time for the university. “We’ve all grown with him,” he said of Dease, who will retire at the end of June after 22 years as the university’s president.
“The hardest job in the world is being president of a Catholic university,” he said. “The president is responsible to so many constituents … students, faculty, the board, alumni and to the local bishop. It is a delicate balance, and Father Dease has done it brilliantly.”
Flynn said there are two types of leaders. One is the “instrumentalist” who is focused primarily on getting the job done. The other is the “expressive leader” who accomplishes tasks through encouragement, through listening, by making sure the morale is high and who leads others to work toward goals. “Those two forms of leaders landed in one person, Father Dease. He has been a patient, patient leader … and how important that is.
“I always describe Father Dease as steel wrapped in velvet. He smiles when he asks you for something.”
There are stories behind the Harley do-rags and the Groucho glasses.
Years ago, Dr. Ron Bennett, former dean of the School of Engineering, gave Dease a piggy-bank for his office desk. It was inscribed, “My Harley Fund,” and Dease often joked that he planned to buy a Harley motorcycle when he retired. At the start of the program, Malone and Dease donned their do-rags and the archbishop put on a more dignified Harley beret.
The origins of the Groucho glasses go back two years, to the fall faculty convocation. At the annual gathering, Dease put on a pair of Groucho glasses while commenting on a widely reported controversy involving British climate-change skeptic Lord Christopher Monkton and St. Thomas engineering professor and climate-change expert Dr. John Abraham. It was in the course of the controversy that Monkton called Dease a “creep of a president.”
As Malone recounted the story Friday afternoon, members of the audience took their Groucho glasses out of hiding and put them on.
“I thought a nice thing about getting old is you couldn’t be shocked anymore,” Dease said when he took the podium. “I was wrong. I never believed I’d be up here with an archbishop in a Harley hat and me in a do-rag.”
Dease’s remarks were short. “I don’t have a speech. I want to say thanks to all faculty and staff for making the St. Thomas culture so really, really special … and it’s hard to look out and say that with everyone wearing Groucho glasses.”
And at that, the audience rose and gave him a long standing ovation.
If you were unable to attend the faculty and staff farewell celebration for St. Thomas President Father Dennis Dease, you can still offer your best wishes to him by signing a memory book that will be given to him when he retires on June 30. Stop by Aquinas Hall Room 102 to sign the book through Friday, May 31. The first 100 signers will receive commemorative Groucho glasses.