Please remember in your prayers Dr. Michael Mikolajczak, professor emeritus in the English Department at the University of St. Thomas, who died this past weekend. He was 64.
Though he looked the part of the stereotypical English professor – he rarely was seen on campus not donning his trademark uniform: a tidy sport coat and a tie – he was anything but. Mikolajczak was one of a kind.
Known, in part, for his unbridled passion for all things Shakespeare, his legendary oratory skills – which one fellow faculty member labeled “operatic” – and a weakness for gimmicky office supplies, Mikolajczak came to St. Thomas in 1989 after serving roughly a decade as a faculty member and assistant dean at Marquette University.
He earned all three of his degrees in English – a B.A. (summa cum laude with a speech double major), M.A. and Ph.D (with distinction) – from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
He retired from St. Thomas in 2013, the same year Father Dennis Dease, then president of St. Thomas, conferred upon him the title professor emeritus for his “extraordinary” scholarship, leadership and service to the university.
Dr. Terry Langan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described Mikolajczak as “an excellent and popular teacher,” who taught 16th and 17th century British literature, Shakespeare, Milton, religion and literature, and rhetoric, and whose penchant for performance in the classroom endeared him to his students. “He was so passionate about the material, about teaching and about his students,” Langan said. “How could you not love that?”
Mikolajczak’s accomplishments during his 24-year tenure at St. Thomas are numerous. The founding director of St. Thomas’ M.A. program in English from 1991-95, his scholarly work reflected his teaching (or vice versa) and was eclectic. He was a member of the Shakespeare Association of America and the Milton Society of America, among other professional affiliations. He also served as editor, associate editor and/or member of the editorial boards for various journals, and was the founding editor of St. Thomas’ own Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture in the Center for Catholic Studies from 1995-98.
From 1998-2006 he was the English Department chair. Langan noted that he came to especially admire Mikolajczak during a difficult time when the English Department chose a controversial text – Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty – as the common text for first-year classes in fall 1999. Mikolajczak, he said, “represented his department, and his university, so well that year,” referring in part to his rebuttal to a Star Tribune commentary that lambasted St. Thomas and its English Department for choosing the book.
In the piece – one among many opinion pieces he wrote for the Star Tribune throughout the years – he said he was fortunate to teach at a Catholic university that operated on “inclusion of all perspectives and all peoples, and inclusion of dissent based on the freedom of a justly formed conscience.” He further defended the department’s position with an eloquence emblematic of his teaching style and reflecting his passionate advocacy for the liberal arts, high academic expectations and his unabated commitment to breaking down the barriers of difficulty that sometimes stood between students and material.
“My department is committed to helping our students make an intelligent passage through Heaven’s Coast – one that is respectful of all legitimate points of view as well as the integrity of the book, one that fosters imaginatively competent reading, and one that encourages sound reflection and good writing. Our students and Heaven’s Coast deserve no less,” he wrote.
A look at Mikolajczak’s record shows that he served on just about every major faculty committee at St. Thomas, including 10-plus years on the Faculty Senate, Academic Council (now called the Tenure and Promotion Committee), Undergraduate Curriculum Committee and the Undergraduate Studies Committee, among several others.
He was regularly tapped for service on important university-wide search committees and other key assignments, no doubt for his mastery of diction. Every summer, for eight years, he put his gift to good use co-hosting the parents of that year’s incoming crop of first-year students over nine days in July. Speaking on the academic expectations St. Thomas holds for their incoming students, he made a compelling case for the benefits of a liberal arts education to perhaps the toughest of audiences – parents who only want to be told that their son or daughter will find a job after graduation. He also talked about the struggles that their students would face along the way, likening them to a quest with the “knights errant” running into beasts and troubles named procrastination, laziness, cockiness and fear. Langan, who co-spoke at the events with Mikolajczak, recalled, “By the time Michael was done, those parents would have followed him anywhere. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many mothers over the years would run into me later in the day and ask, ‘What is the name of the English professor with the really long name? I want to be sure that my son/daughter signs up for his class.’”
Aside from his intelligence in academics, Mikolajczak also was known by his friends and colleagues for his nurturing impulse and many acts of kindness. Dr. Lon Otto, also a professor emeritus of English at St. Thomas, said he is deeply grateful “for the value he placed on my work as a fiction writer and his insistence I give it the time and attention it demanded, even if that was sometimes at the expense of activities that would have made his own work as chair of the department easier.”
The St. Thomas community knew Mikolajczak as a gifted scholar and teacher, but some might be surprised to learn how much Mikolajczak, who never married or had children of his own, loved small children. St. Thomas English professor Dr. Kelli Larson, who considered Mikolajczak a close friend, often experienced firsthand the playful, whimsical side of the erudite professor.
“Michael was my daughter Olivia’s favorite ‘uncle’ growing up because he knew exactly what children wanted – toys their parents refused to buy for them,” she said. “Without Uncle Michael, my daughter never would have experienced the thrill of grinding Play Doh into the carpet or reveled in the cacophony of kazoos, harmonicas and train whistles. Somewhere I have a picture of Michael at Olivia’s fifth birthday party. It rained that day, forcing the party inside. Michael is standing awkwardly holding a piñata and surrounded by a dozen small blindfolded children taking turns whacking him, and sometimes the piñata, with a large stick. They say friends are the family you pick. We were so fortunate when Michael picked us.”
Mikolajczak was the only son of Homer and Phyllis Mikolajczak of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his hometown. He is survived by four sisters.
An on-campus celebration of life will be held Friday, March 4, from 3:30-5 p.m., in McNeely Hall, Room 100.