One evening in January 1902 on his walk around the College of St. Thomas campus, Father John Dolphin encountered a 16-year-old boy who looked cold, tired, hungry and scared.
The college’s fifth president took the youth to the dining room for a hot meal and began a story whose impact still is felt on the St. Thomas campus – and throughout Catholic higher education in the Midwest – some 105 years later.
The youth, Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy, told Dolphin that the previous day, he and two classmates at St. John’s University skipped Sunday vespers and headed for the woods and a hidden barrel of beer. They were nabbed upon their return to campus and expelled the next day. O’Shaughnessy was going to take the train home to Stillwater but got off in downtown St. Paul and walked several miles to St. Thomas.
One of his drinking buddies had beaten him to St. Thomas, but he had been turned down for admission after saying he thought he had been treated unfairly by St. John’s. Dolphin asked O’Shaughnessy if St. John’s was justified in expelling him.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I knew the rule and the penalty. I broke the rule and got caught. They had to fire me.”
Dolphin appreciated O’Shaughnessy’s honesty and accepted him on the spot. He went on to star on the football team, serve as secretary to the president and graduate in 1907.
The decision may have seemed minor at the time, but it proved to be fortuitously providential. O’Shaughnessy became the largest independent oil operator in the United States, amassed great wealth and gave most of it away – with St. Thomas and Notre Dame as primary beneficiaries.
“St. Thomas was the beginning of dad’s philanthropy with education,” said his son, Larry O’Shaughnessy, who studied for two years at St. Thomas, taught here for three years after graduating from Yale University and served on the Board of Trustees. “It made sense he would turn first to St. Thomas because of all the college had done for him.”
In this centennial year of I.A. O’Shaughnessy’s graduation from St. Thomas, it is appropriate to look back on his remarkable accomplishments – as an entrepreneur, as a philanthropist, as a friend and counselor to four St. Thomas presidents, and as a trustee who believed fervently in the importance of a liberal arts education.
” ‘Unique’ is a strong word. It should be used with the greatest restraint,” James Shannon, president of St. Thomas from 1956 to 1966, wrote in a Minneapolis Tribune commentary after O’Shaughnessy’s death in 1973. “Having said that, I say that Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy was a unique human person. He was brilliant, tough, relaxed, determined, incisive, devout, witty, generous and a thoroughly lovely man.”
The youngest of 13 children
I.A. O’Shaughnessy was born July 31, 1885, the youngest of 13 children of Mary Ann and John O’Shaughnessy, a Stillwater shoemaker. The boy who would become known as I.A., or Nashe to close friends, liked to tell how he was named.
“By the time I arrived,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “mother had run fresh out of all the regular names like John, James and Joseph and, being a good Catholic, went to the calendar of Saints. So I became Ignatius.” He chose his middle name at confirmation. “Aloysius is the patron saint of boys,” he said, “and the sister who taught me at St. Michael’s grade school had that name. I liked her.”
O’Shaughnessy enrolled at St. John’s in 1901. St. John’s played St. Thomas for the first time in football that fall and won 16-0 behind O’Shaughnessy, who rushed for 76 yards and won a pipe from the alumni association for the longest run. “However, in those days,” O’Shaughnessy later recalled, “if a student was caught smoking a pipe, he was immediately sent home.”
O’Shaughnessy may not have smoked that pipe, but he did drink that beer and was expelled all the same. After arriving at St. Thomas, he made his mark on its gridiron as well and was described by the Collegian publication as “a hard, conscientious worker, and well-fitted in every respect to lead the Purple and Gray.” He was captain of the 1905 team.
Dolphin thought so highly of O’Shaughnessy that he was appointed the president’s secretary in 1903. O’Shaughnessy continued in that role, and later as the college’s bookkeeper, under Dolphin’s successor, Father Humphrey Moynihan. One responsibility was to buy uniforms for all students after the U.S. War Department made St. Thomas a military school.
O’Shaughnessy spoke fondly of his collegiate years and his appreciation for Dolphin and Moynihan, and he remembered occasions such as the holiday that was declared when enrollment reached “the magnificent sum of 200.”
It is not clear exactly when O’Shaughnessy graduated. Various publications over the past century have listed 1905, 1906 and 1907 as the date of graduation, and most sources cited 1907, perhaps because he continued his studies while working for Moynihan.
From insurance to oil
In any event, it is known that O’Shaughnessy left campus in 1907 to become secretary of the St. Paul Amateur Athletic Association, the forerunner to the St. Paul Athletic Club. He met Lillian Smith at St. Mark’s Catholic Church, and during their courtship he asked her if he could kiss her. “But we’re not even engaged!” she said, to which he responded, “OK, then, will you marry me?” She did, in 1908, and they had five children.
O’Shaughnessy left St. Paul to join two older brothers in the insurance business in Texas. He later went on his own, establishing insurance companies in Texas and Colorado. When World War I broke out, he leased a factory in Kansas to make tires on a government contract, and in 1917 he turned to the business – oil – that made him his fortune.
He established the Globe Oil & Refining Co. of Oklahoma and found he had the “touch.” He negotiated oil field leases with Indian tribes and the federal government, and pumped, refined and sold oil. With Globe and other companies that he established throughout the Great Plains area, including Lario Oil and Don Oil (named after his two youngest sons), O’Shaughnessy became known as “King of the Wildcatters.”
He was “an aggressive individual who bears the reputation of always operating on a lone hand and under his own steam,” the National Petroleum newsletter wrote in 1944. “I.A. O’Shaughnessy runs I.A. O’Shaughnessy’s business to suit I.A. O’Shaughnessy.” Even so, the newsletter went on to say, employees were loyal to him because he paid them well and encouraged them to establish a union to protect their rights. When he sold a refinery, the union thanked him “for your ceaseless effort for better working conditions for your employees.” It was said that he treasured the letter as much as any honors he received.
The O’Shaughnessy’s started to raise their family in Oklahoma, but Lillian missed St. Paul and once told her husband, “Nashe, I can’t raise a family like this.” He agreed and they moved, first to Minneapolis and then in 1928 to a house at 1705 Summit Ave., which remained his home for the rest of his life. He took trains and drove to his oil fields.
Nobody is quite sure why, but three decades after graduating from St. Thomas, O’Shaughnessy surfaced on campus in 1938 as a trustee. He may have become more interested because his three sons attended St. Thomas Academy when it was on the Summit Avenue campus. He wasted no time in making his mark by reaching an “arrangement” with Archbishop John Murray.
“Mr. O’Shaughnessy would put up a building if Archbishop Murray would do likewise,” Leonard Rogge ’31, who held key administrative positions for four decades, recalled in an oral history. “The building undertaken by Mr. O’Shaughnessy was O’Shaughnessy Hall.”
A Christmas present to students
“Here’s Your Christmas Present,” the Aquin stated in December 1939, referring to the $400,000 athletics building that would open the next month. The Minneapolis Times-Tribune called him an angel and opined, “One pair of wings for Mr. O’Shaughnessy.” Wrote an Aquin reporter: “When you line up a shot on the billiard table in O’Shaughnessy Hall and say to the fellow next to you, ‘Gimme room, chum,’ look twice, because that ‘chum’ may be Ignatius O’Shaughnessy, donor of the building.
“Mr. O’Shaughnessy looks forward to a dip in the pool and a workout on the handball courts. … He has already scheduled a bowling match with Father Moynihan (James, the president) as his partner against Father Flynn (Vincent, who became president in 1944) and Father Foran (James, an administrator).”
O’Shaughnessy told a dedication ceremony audience that he had long believed St. Thomas needed new recreational facilities. He recalled how the social hub of his college years was Mrs. Tilley’s Stand, a farmhouse at Cretin and Grand where students bought candy and pop.
“Recognizing the importance of small private colleges in our American life and recognizing the many needs of these institutions, I have had in mind for some time to do something in that direction,” he said. “It was only natural that I should turn to the institution which gave me so much in my youth. What I have done, I did in appreciation of what I have received, what my sons are receiving now … and what I hope their children will receive.”
Turning to Murray, he said, “Your Excellency, I am giving this building to you without any expectation of reward in this life. It is a gift from my heart. May others follow my example!”
And others did, although it was O’Shaughnessy who primed the pump. Over the next 35 years, his gifts to `St. Thomas totaled $8.5 million ($90 million in today’s dollars), including $100,000 for Albertus Magnus Hall – the 1947 building in the Murray “arrangement.”
O’Shaughnessy’s generosity extended to other colleges, most notably Notre Dame but also St. Catherine, Carleton, Macalester and Hamline. A $4.5 million gift underwrote construction of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, fulfilling Pope Paul VI’s “lifelong dream.” Dozens of other organizations, ranging from orphanages to hospitals to orchestras, received checks from him. Without the O’Shaughnessys, one recipient wrote in 1972, “the St. Paul Opera is a mere whisper.”
Why he gave away money
O’Shaughnessy offered several reasons for giving away his money:
· “A man with money has the responsibility of putting it to good use,” he told the Pioneer Press in 1956. “Money is not the most important thing in life; food, shelter and clothing can be bought with money, but the important things, health and happiness, cannot.”
· He loved to joke about money. When asked what it felt like to give so much money to Notre Dame, where his contributions included $2 million for the O’Shaughnessy Liberal and Fine Arts Hall, he replied, “It gives you an empty feeling – in your pockets.” After seeing “Hello, Dolly!” with Shannon, he said, “You know, that girl has the right idea. Money is like manure. It doesn’t do any good unless you spread it around.” Doing so was a relief because then “you don’t have to worry about spending it. I’ve got good health, two suits of clothes and I eat three meals a day. What more do I need?”
· He knew people were impressed with, if not awed by, his money, and he tried to put them at ease. Several St. Thomas students once encountered him in a St. Paul hotel and, recognizing him from his portrait in the library, talked with him. One student acknowledged O’Shaughnessy’s generosity by saying, “Well – thank you very much for the college, sir!” He just smiled: “Oh, that’s all right,” and waved goodbye.
At least in the case of St. Thomas, the businessman in O’Shaughnessy made sure every donated dollar was spent wisely. He followed every detail of planning and construction and even reviewed expense invoices that Rogge sent him.
Library for truly educated
He was the most involved in the construction of O’Shaughnessy Library. Shannon became president in 1956 and remembered that after his first trustees’ meeting, he walked around campus with O’Shaughnessy, who asked him about the college’s greatest need. “A new library,” he replied, to which O’Shaughnessy agreed and said, “The library is the heart of any campus. You get an architect, and I’ll build the building.”
In his oral history, Rogge said he informed O’Shaughnessy the library could cost $2 million. “Cut it back to $1 million,” O’Shaughnessy replied. Rogge did, but returned time after time to O’Shaughnessy for approval to fund additions that would increase the price tag to $1.6 million. He paid every penny. Shannon had told O’Shaughnessy the building would be less expensive if not designed in Collegiate Gothic architecture, and the donor said: “How much money are you putting into this building?” And so, Rogge added, “we had a Gothic library.”
Costly as it was, O’Shaughnessy wanted to make a statement with elements such as the stained glass medallions of writers, philosophers and church leaders in the library windows.
“He was saying, ‘We need a library that will embody the ideals of scholarship and the church,’ ” said John Lindley, who co-wrote a lengthy profile on O’Shaughnessy for Ramsey County History magazine in 2004. “These things are extras, luxuries even, in the construction of a building, but I.A. was willing to pay because they were important to him. It was more than four walls and a roof.”
The bond of loyalty
At the dedication ceremony for the library in 1959, O’Shaughnessy spoke about St. Thomas with fondness and passion, recalling Dolphin’s “kindness” a half century earlier.
“The bond of loyalty between any alumnus and his alma mater depends primarily on whether the school did for him in his youth what it promised to do,” O’Shaughnessy said. “If in his mature years, he finds by experience and competition that his early instruction was sound and his youthful formation was complete, his appreciation for the school in which he was trained, and shaped, and made aware, will grow with the passing years. …
“On this happy public occasion, I can say with pride that in my youth on this campus, this vision of what was possible, for a man to attain by means of effort and grace, was put before my youthful imagination. And I shall always be grateful for the spiritual formation, intellectual discipline and the manly example that were offered to me and to my generation at St. Thomas as the means available for turning such visions into reality.”
O’Shaughnessy reminisced about his discussions with the Moynihan brothers, who had longed for an “adequate” library and not just shared space in Ireland or Aquinas Halls. “I can still recall the graphic remark of Father James: ‘Once a man has learned to read carefully and with discrimination, all he needs is a bibliography and a quiet place.’ The heart of the campus, the college library, is at long last adequate.”
Even so, O’Shaughnessy warned, the knowledge that students would attain in a library – and at the college, for that matter – would not guarantee they would be truly “educated.”
“Nor will it suffice to answer for you in your later years the basic questions of life,” he said. “Knowledge is necessary for wisdom, but wisdom is necessary if one is to secure himself the rewards of eternal life. This college is committed to the task of teaching you to use the means for attaining this salutary wisdom. I am proud that I have been able in some way to assist you in this search for wisdom.”
Letters and telegrams of congratulation poured into St. Thomas. Nick Coleman, the 1949 Mr. Tommy Award winner who would go on to a distinguished political career, told O’Shaughnessy the library was “unbelievably wonderful…. St. Thomas will (become) the sort of center of learning that I would have had trouble getting into (particularly if I remained insistent on ending sentences with prepositions). But! The better the school, the more for me to brag about in the future.”
Learning how to think
O’Shaughnessy felt just as strongly about the value of a liberal arts education. Years earlier, in laying the cornerstone for a building at Notre Dame, he said such an education enabled people to gather not only facts but to regard them “in a perspective broad enough to develop sound judgment, a sense of value, and above all, a moral sense.” One would learn “how to think…. It is much better for a man to learn how to think than how to do,” and he “is never going to allow anybody to teach him what to think.”
O’Shaughnessy’s next St. Thomas project was to assist Shannon with the separation of the college and the academy. Many opposed the idea, but “again the steady hand and cool head (and deep pockets) of I.A. O’Shaughnessy guided the discussion,” Shannon wrote in his autobiography, Reluctant Dissenter. O’Shaughnessy gave $728,000 to the project and helped Father John Roach, then headmaster, raise the funds for the academy to move to Mendota Heights in 1965.
One more major St. Thomas project remained for O’Shaughnessy: a new classroom building. Monsignor Terrence Murphy identified the need for one when he became president in 1966, and O’Shaughnessy became the largest single donor ($2 million) to what was named O’Shaughnessy Educational Center when it opened in 1971.
“Doing good for others”In the last decade of his life, O’Shaughnessy received many awards. The Chamber of Commerce named him a Great Living St. Paulite in 1966, Pope Paul VI named him a papal count in 1967 (the only one in the United States) and the National Conference of Christians and Jews conferred its National Brotherhood Award in 1971.
Larry O’Shaughnessy said his father, a larger-than-life figure in public, enjoyed the attention. In business and civic life, “he always was the life of the party,” his son said. “But at home, he was quiet, respectful. I guess he thought of home as a refuge, of sort, where he didn’t have to be the center of attention.”
On Thanksgiving eve in 1973, I.A. O’Shaughnessy died in a Florida hospital. He was 88. The wake was held four days later in the foyer of OEC, followed by a funeral Mass in the Cathedral of St. Paul and a memorial Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Father Theodore Hesburgh, then president of Notre Dame, gave the funeral eulogy. He reflected on how St. Thomas Aquinas had said that a good man is one who knows the right things to have faith in, to hope for and to love.
“How did I.A. O’Shaughnessy meet this test?” Hesburgh asked. He talked about O’Shaughenssy’s faith in God, family and friends, his hope “to do good for others” and his love of God.
“All of us can be very proud that he was a dear part of our lives,” Hesburgh said. “While we will all miss him greatly – those twinkling eyes, that spontaneous smile, that great heart – both our lives and our institutions have been enriched by his presence and his great spirit, and we will long be reminded that he passed this way on his path to heaven and eternal life.”