Please remember in your prayers Richard J. “Ric” Connell, 91, who died Saturday, Feb. 22, after a brief stay in hospice. Connell, of Edina, was a longtime professor of philosophy at St. Thomas.
Connell taught at Marquette University for 11 years before coming to St. Thomas. He joined the St. Thomas Philosophy Department faculty in 1963 and was promoted to full professor in 1969. He chaired the Philosophy Department in the mid-1970s and won the Professor of the Year award in 1990. He retired in 1990 after 27 years on the faculty.
Connell was the author of Matter and Becoming (1966), Substance and Modern Science (1988), The Empirical Intelligence (1988), Nature’s Causes (1995), and From Observables to Unobservables in Science and Philosophy (2000). He also was the author of Logical Analysis, a logic text published in multiple editions.
During WW II, Connell served in the U.S. Army’s Third Ranger Battalion. His long recovery from war wounds, spent in Sicily, led to his conversion to Catholicism.
Dr. Michael Degnan ’77, professor of philosophy, knew Connell from the perspective of a student and as a colleague. He took three courses from Connell as an undergraduate and came back to St. Thomas in 1980 to teach the first class of his own in philosophy.
Degnan said that at the time Connell was the only UST philosopher who had published two books. “He had published his logic book that we all used and he had published Matter and Becoming, which in many ways was what he was talking about in his Introduction to Philosophy course. And the notion of substance and change was important for understanding much of the church doctrine about transubstantiation, for example, and particularly for understanding Aquinas, to know what a substance was, what a central notion was. I was right on the edge of my seat and I took a lot of these things in.”
“I was very much taken by his interest in the natural sciences and how important it was for philosophers to study the natural sciences,” he added.”
“He focused on what he called the empirical intelligence and that the kinds of regularity that the scientists picked out and observed were important for philosophers to know. And Aristotle certainly exhibited that. He himself was a practicing biologist and did work in physics,” Degnan said.
Connell was “clear and very well-organized; he was passionate,” Degnan recalled. “It was rare but sometimes he did talk about his personal life. We learned that he was injured in World War II, and that he converted to Catholicism, so his faith was very strong.”
Dr. Gary Atkinson, a professor of philosophy at St. Thomas since 1980 and a colleague of Connell’s (their offices were across from each other when the Philosophy Department was housed in Aquinas Hall), says Connell “was one of the giants then. He was admired or feared, or both, by just about everybody. … He was, I would say, a solid human being. He was not in any way mean, but I think with his Ranger training – you didn’t push Ric around.”
“I had been teaching for 12 years before I came to St. Thomas in 1980, I had a Ph.D., and I learned more philosophy after coming to St. Thomas than I had learned before I arrived. There was just a depth of philosophical – I’ll call it ‘wisdom’ – and Ric was one of the people who showed me what that was,” Atkinson added. “I admired him tremendously and I read his books and I learned so much from him.”
Connell, who subscribed to Scientific American, was adept at bringing the natural sciences to his philosophy classes. That ability was “striking,” Atkinson said. “I had never seen anybody like that who had, first of all, an excellent philosophical mind but also a command of scientific information and an ability to bring that information and that scientific knowledge to bear on illuminating and justifying and defending philosophical positions.”
Atkinson described Connell as kind and generous, an outstanding person, and a “sterling human being.”
“He was admired and respected by everyone … He wasn’t in any way flashy, but he was really solid. What he wanted to communicate to you was a very solid, well-rounded, well-thought out, well-reasoned position,” Atkinson said.
The Rev. James Stromberg ’50, professor emeritus of philosophy and chair of the Philosophy Department from 1979 to 1984 (Professor of the Year in 1986), commented that as a teacher, Connell was a “very, very good one. He was very dogged in his approach to issues.”
“He wrote a number of books,” Stromberg added, “where the principal point of which was to show that we are not machines.”
“He had a stern reputation in the classroom, although I think the kids saw through that. He was a compassionate guy. A real man of faith,” Stromberg said.
So well-respected was Connell, that “the archbishop of St. Louis sent his seminarians here and insisted that they all take his course,” Stromberg said.
Connell is survived by Helen, his wife of 68 years, seven children, 32 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.
Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, at Holy Family Catholic Church, 5900 W. Lake St., St. Louis Park. Visitation is one hour prior to Mass.