After growing up near the St. John’s campus as a “townie” in St. Joe, I needed a fresh start after high school. I enrolled at St. Thomas to begin my undergraduate education and had a fine freshman year, learning American history from Dr. Tom Mega and psychology from Dr. Jean Giebenhein.
When friends ask why I transferred to St. John’s three days before the beginning of my sophomore year, I usually offer some excuse about paying my way through school by working at Dayton’s in St. Cloud.
The truth is, I went back, back, back to the woods for one simple reason — the cheer. You know the one, “We Are … St. John’s … We Are … St. John’s.” It is a simple, yet indisputable chant. I could not resist its power.
Despite the hypnotic grip this proud anthem of identity had on me, I did manage to graduate on time. And much to the surprise of my St. Thomas friends, I did not graduate in “Cow Tipping,” “A Sal’s Regular at 18” or the often-crowded program of “How to Marry a Bennie.”
After graduation I was promoted at Dayton’s and transferred to St. Paul before being laid off during 1992 cutbacks. To my bewilderment, after an entire spring of fly fishing with two similarly unemployed Johnnie alums (insert your own wisecrack about the employability of SJU grads here), my wife of six months thought it might be a good idea for me to go back to work.
I had a curious desire to go back to school, yet I did not want to pay for the additional education. After a thorough job search, directed at the hands of St. Thomas professor Father John Malone (who somehow thought he could “cure me” of being a Johnnie), I accepted a job at the St. Thomas Business Affairs office in Minneapolis. Of course, when I was asked on my application about whether or not I had ever committed a serious crime, I had to lie and say I graduated from Notre Dame. Admitting attendance at my true alma mater would certainly have doomed my employment status.
The following summer I began taking classes in the St. Thomas Master of Arts in English program while grappling with some of life’s larger questions. For instance, who should I cheer for at the annual Johnnie vs. Tommie football game? Or, which school’s obscene rivalry T-shirts do I find most entertaining? And what are the benefits of urban vs. pastoral living?
It felt good to be back amongst academia’s critical thinkers.
Being back on the St. Thomas campus reminded me of that awful day all freshmen dread — the day St. John’s came to the city (fall 1985) and left with a last second, 16-15 victory. My Tommie classmates and I were heartbroken. Even an evening of quarter taps at The Club did not ease our pain. The following year, as a Johnnie, I thought I would finally celebrate victory. After all, Father John Gagliardi was now on my side. How could this Father John and his sea of red, 185 players strong, possibly let me down? Ah, the bitter taste of that crushing 56-21 loss to my former classmates in purple still lingers.
I was 0-2 and speechless as the visiting St. Thomas crowd worked themselves into a frenzy by cheering “We’ve got women, yes we do. We’ve got women, how ‘bout you?” As a student at an all-male school, what kind of comeback could I possibly offer to a cheer like that?
It was not until my senior year that St. John’s finally beat St. Thomas, 16-13 — something the Johnnies have accomplished 36 times since a 16-0 victory in the very first Johnnie vs. Tommie grudge match in 1901. It was only three points, but I finally had a comeback to the once-silencing UST cheer — “Oh yeah? Well, look at the scoreboard!”
In the spring of 1997, I completed the MA in English program, but continued to struggle with my academic identity. Even my mother, who like most maternal figures has an uncanny ability to sense their children’s anxiety and exploit it for cheap laughs, sensed my confusion. At a small graduation gathering of family and friends, my proud mother gave me a custom-made alumni T-shirt. On neutral white, in black lettering across my heart, the T-shirt read “St. John’s – St. Thomas Alumni.” She could barely control her mischievous grin. Now I was certain to be beat up on both campuses.
In the moments after I received my gift, I decided that I would embrace my diversity. After all, I am part Johnnie and part Tommie. In a bold stroke of empowerment, I chose to rewrite my personal Johnnie-Tommie score book and turn all defeats into victories. I am now 15-0 and counting.
P.S. I have often heard it said that the sins of the father will be passed down to his children. I have since discovered the truth in this adage. It seems that even my nearly three -year-old daughter has become a victim of my crisis. After taking her to a number of St. John’s/St. Ben’s vs. St. Thomas sporting events, my beloved offspring has professed an equal allegiance to both St. John’s/St. Ben’s and the color purple. In an effort I can only now fully appreciate, she brought in her white, long-sleeved St. John’s T-shirt to school for “tie-dye” day and promptly stained it purple. Her mother and I are not allowed to remove the shirt. I’m afraid the therapy will last a lifetime.