Several years ago, I attended a dinner celebrating Father John Malone’s 40 years as a priest and his retirement as pastor of Assumption Catholic Church in St. Paul. I was among the “roasters” that evening, and when Father Malone finally reached the podium to defend himself, he did so with good humor and concluded by quoting from a famous William Butler Yeats poem:
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
I have always loved those words, which are the closing two lines of the poem, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” and as I approach my final weeks as president of the University of St. Thomas I cannot find a more appropriate valedictory in thanking this community.
I find it fitting to quote Yeats, considering that he counts among the dozens of Irish poets who have visited our campus over our 128 years. He appeared on a bitterly cold January day in 1904 to give a St. Paul Seminary lecture to what one newsletter called “a large and cultured audience.”
I also borrowed Yeats’ words about friendship when I informed the faculty last May of my plans to retire, and in an effort to add some levity to the situation I quoted a second Yeats observation: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” The line drew welcome laughter, and I said it could be seen as even inspirational. “I know there have been days that were difficult as well as days that were good,” I told the faculty. “It’s the kind of existential resignation captured in the more homespun American proverb, ‘Some days you’re the bug; some days you’re the windshield.’” And there was more laughter!
In all seriousness, my gratitude today knows no bounds, and for good reason. Any success that I have enjoyed during my 22 years as president has been directly the result of generous, unselfish and heroic work by you – our faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and benefactors. Or, as I like to say when I address a gathering, our “friends all.”
You also have been kind beyond description – to me and to St. Thomas. I will forever carry fond memories of those kindnesses, which I know were borne out of a genuine desire to make this a better university and to help us provide the best possible education for our students. The lengths to which you go to provide assistance astound me time and time again, almost to the point that it would be easy to take you for granted. I hope I never have done so.
As you know, I am fond of quoting our mission statement, which so perfectly captures what we attempt to do – to educate students “to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely, and work skillfully to advance the common good.” I take comfort in knowing how those words unite us as we seek to live up to one more Yeats maxim: that “education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire” – and I know they will motivate me in the years ahead.
I will see you around campus!
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