Gerald Rauenhorst, one of the most influential trustees and generous benefactors in the history of the University of St. Thomas, passed away peacefully on Thursday, April 24.
Rauenhorst, 86, had a nearly 70-year association with St. Thomas dating to 1945, when he enrolled as a freshman. He founded a construction company that became The Opus Group, which has been involved in the design or construction of 22 buildings at St. Thomas, and he served on the Board of Trustees from 1966 to 2012, when he became a trustee emeritus.
“Gerry played a significant role in the development of St. Thomas as a comprehensive university,” President Julie Sullivan said. “He was a visionary and trusted adviser, and he displayed wisdom, common sense and a charming sense of humor in everything he did.
“He loved St. Thomas and he always had our best interests at heart. I feel very blessed and grateful to have had the chance to spend time with Gerry this year. One did not need to know him long to realize what a truly extraordinary man he was.”
Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas from 1991 to 2013, counted Rauenhorst among his closest friends. They met in 1970, when Dease taught Rauenhorst’s son, Mark, at St. Thomas Academy.
“For all his greatness – and he was truly a great man – he never came across as anything more than a common man and your next-door neighbor,” Dease said. “He was a caring person, and his family and his faith were his two great loves.”
A Mass of Christian Burial will be at 10 a.m. May 6 at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina, with visitation at the church from 4 to 7:30 p.m. May 5 and an hour before the funeral. Memorials are preferred to the Opus College of Business at St. Thomas, the College of Engineering Opus Scholars program at Marquette University or the Mayo Clinic Center on Aging.
Survivors include seven children, Judith Doerr, Mark, Neil, Joseph, Michael, Susan Turner and Amy Goldman, a St. Thomas trustee; 21 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Grew up in west-central Minnesota
Rauenhorst was born Dec. 8, 1927, the seventh of eight children of Henry and Margaret Rauenhorst. They farmed rented land near Bird Island in west-central Minnesota and later moved to other tenant farms west of Olivia, struggling through the Great Depression but always making ends meet.
“In those days, money was short, but I never thought of us as poor,” Rauenhorst recalled in the 2003 book A Better Way: Faith, Family, and the First Fifty Years of the Opus Group of Companies. He made and saved money for college by selling sweet corn, raising turkeys and mink, and helping to build a 1,000-seat park for Olivia’s semi-pro baseball team.
“We had just a wonderful life,” Rauenhorst said in A Better Way. “We were poor in material things – we didn’t even have an indoor biffy until I was 15 – but we were rich in the things that count. We were taught all the right things. To work hard and to not cheat and to always tell the truth. To treat people with respect, to pay your bills, and to go to church every Sunday. Those were the lessons we learned – the habits we acquired.”
Rauenhorst needed only three years to graduate from St. Thomas, in 1948, with a bachelor’s degree in economics, and then received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Marquette in 1951. He married Henrietta Schmoll, his College of St. Catherine sweetheart, in 1950 and they had eight children. She died in 2010.
After working first as an engineer and then as a job estimator, Rauenhorst started a construction company in his Richfield home. With $354 in his pocket and a $2,500 loan from an older brother, he won a contract in 1953 at the age of 25 to build a new church for Zion Lutheran in his hometown of Olivia.
Rauenhorst Construction grew quickly and flourished over the years as he bought large tracts of suburban land to develop, and he pioneered the “design-build” concept of providing architectural and construction services instead of subcontracting them. He renamed the company as Opus in 1982, and for years it has donated up to 10 percent of its pre-tax profits to community organizations. He retired as Opus chairman in 2010.
A special relationship with St. Thomas
Rauenhorst’s first construction project at St. Thomas was Dowling Residence Hall, which opened in 1959, followed by Murray Hall in 1960. His company designed and constructed 20 more St. Thomas buildings over the next four decades, including all four buildings on the Minneapolis campus and, most recently, the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex and Anderson Student Center in St. Paul.
Monsignor Terrence Murphy became president of St. Thomas in 1966. His appointment was announced at an alumni event, and afterwards Rauenhorst shook Murphy’s hand and said, “Congratulations. You have a big job ahead of you.” Murphy replied, “I know it, and I’d like you to help. Will you become a trustee of St. Thomas?”
Rauenhorst accepted on the spot, and Murphy later recalled the occasion. “That was the first decision I made as president and certainly one of the best decisions that I made,” he said. “Mr. Rauenhorst has been a tower of strength ever since.”
Rauenhorst worked with Murphy on plans to start an MBA program in 1974. As the program grew and St. Thomas found itself short of classrooms on the St. Paul campus, Rauenhorst provided free space in 1987 in downtown Minneapolis in the vacant Powers department store building, which he had purchased with the intention of redeveloping the site. More than 1,000 students enrolled within two years and St. Thomas realized it needed a real downtown campus – not just a storefront operation.
He helped Murphy find the location at 1000 La Salle Avenue and the first building – now named Terrence Murphy Hall – opened in 1992. Three buildings were added over the next 13 years – Opus Hall in 1999, the School of Law in 2003 and Schulze Hall in 2005 – all designed and constructed by Opus in the same Collegiate Gothic architecture and with the same Mankato-Kasota Stone that characterizes the St. Paul campus.
“Gerry was especially proud of our Minneapolis campus,” Sullivan said. “It was his vision to develop the campus, and he was thrilled to see the way it grew and flourished as the home for many of our graduate and professional programs.”
Rauenhorst was involved in more than bricks-and-mortar decisions. He encouraged the admission of women as undergraduate students in 1977 and the establishment of graduate software and engineering programs in the mid-1980s. In 2001, he realized his long-time dream when St. Thomas reopened its law school, which had closed during the Depression.
Dease often sought Rauenhorst’s advice on issues large and small after becoming president in 1991.
“Gerry was brilliant and was a man of great vision,” Dease said. “He could see down the road farther than most of us and envision what could be. We got together often, but once a year we would take a long walk and simply talk about the future of St. Thomas. Those were rich times. He had so many wonderful ideas that became reality.”
Rauenhorst was generous in quietly and often anonymously providing financial support for numerous programs, and he endowed several chairs in the College of Business, including the Opus Chair in Family Enterprise and the Opus Distinguished Chair for the dean. He also endowed a St. Paul Seminary chair in homiletics in honor of then-Archbishop Harry Flynn.
One of five foundations established by Rauenhorst collaborates with a Catholic university every year to award the $1 million Opus Prize to an “unsung hero” for his or her humanitarian work. St. Thomas was the partner in 2009 and brought to Minnesota three prize finalists from Morocco, Colombia and Brazil for an event that filled Orchestra Hall.
Over the years, Rauenhorst always said no whenever St. Thomas inquired about naming a building or a program after him. He once explained his position by quoting from the Book of Micah: “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
“That’s the reason,” he said. “I don’t want my name on things. I just want to walk humbly with my God.”
He was more open when it came to using the Opus name at St. Thomas. Opus Hall on the Minneapolis campus was named after the company, and in 2006 he agreed to the Opus College of Business designation. He joked, in referring to Opus’ visibility at St. Thomas, “You can’t hide an elephant in the tent forever.” But in the end, he said he went along with the suggestion “for only one reason: to help St. Thomas.”
“It’s more a tribute to our people at Opus,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune at the time. “I didn’t do this myself. Thousands of people have been involved . . . from the bricklayer to Father Dennis Dease, the president. They all have built it.”
Received many honors
Rauenhorst received many awards and honors over the years from business, religious and educational organizations.
St. Thomas conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1971, the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1978 and the St. Thomas Aquinas Medallion in 2009; the latter recognizes leaders who embody the ideals of the university’s patron saint. The Shenehon Center for Real Estate at St. Thomas inducted him into the Minnesota Real Estate Hall of Fame in 2010.
His other alma mater – Marquette – named him Alumnus of the Year in 1969 and later conferred an honorary degree. He served on the Marquette board for 30 years, and Opus constructed several buildings on its campus in Milwaukee.
Pope Paul VI named him a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 1965, and John Paul II named him a Knight of St. Gregory in 1983.
Business honors included the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame, Corporate Report Minnesota Executive of the Year, National Association of Industrial and Office Parks Developer of the Year, and lifetime achievement awards from the Design Build Institute of America, the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, and Ernst and Young.
He and Henrietta shared several honors. They received the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, the National Catholic Education Association’s highest honor, in October 2005. The following month, the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals named them Outstanding Individual Philanthropists of the Year.