Saturday’s St. Thomas Day will launch a week of special events

The University of St. Thomas community will gather Saturday, March 5, to celebrate its annual St. Thomas Day and to honor recipients of its Humanitarian, Distinguished Alumnus, Professor of the Year, Tommy and Monsignor James Lavin awards.

St. Thomas Day events begin with a 5:30 p.m. Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Harry Flynn, chair of the university’s board of trustees. It was 87 years ago – on the March 7 St. Thomas Day of 1918 – that the first Mass was celebrated in that chapel.

A 7 p.m. dinner and awards program will follow in Murray-Herrick Campus Center. More than 500 members of the St. Thomas are expected to attend.

St. Thomas Day is the first of a weeklong series of events for the university’s annual Heritage Week. More information about the week is available on the Web.

The five St. Thomas Day awards will be presented to:

• Distinguished Alumnus – This year’s award is being given to Mark Zesbaugh, of Eagan, a 1986 St. Thomas graduate and chief executive officer of Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America.

Allianz Life, which provides a range of insurance and related services, is headquartered in Golden Valley and is part of the Allianz Group, the second-largest insurance group and 25th-largest corporation in the world.

Zesbaugh received his St. Thomas degree in business administration and accounting. He was elected to the university’s board of trustees in 2003.

Zesbaugh, 40, became CEO of Allianz Life three years ago after serving several years as senior vice president. Previously he was executive vice president and chief financial officer of LifeUSA Holding Inc., where he played a key role in the merger of LifeUSA and Allianz Life. He had joined LifeUSA in 1990 after a career with Ernst and Young, where he worked with financial services companies.

Allianze Life has been growing quickly in recent years. The number of employees has more than doubled since 1999, to about 2,400 from 1,100, and it is planning an expansion to its corporate campus in Golden Valley.

In addition to several professional associations, Zesbaugh has been active with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Club, Rotary Club and the Boy Scouts.

Established in 1971, the Distinguished Alumnus award is presented for leadership and service to the university, to the community, and in the person’s field of endeavor.

Humanitarian of the Year – Sister Karen Willenbring of Frenchville, Pa., will receive the 2005 Humanitarian of the Year Award for her work serving the spiritual and medical needs of the poor of Appalachia.

A 1989 graduate of St. Thomas, Willenbring grew up in St. Paul, where her family was involved with church activities that involved helping the needy.

Although she had been accepted to medical school after her St. Thomas graduation, Willenbring decided to first spend some time as a volunteer at a mission operated by a small group of nuns known as the Community of Anawin, a name that comes from a Hebrew word that refers to God’s love for the poor.

The Frenchville-based community runs a retreat center, a youth center that trains young people for service to the poor, a shelter for women and children, a clothing store and service that provides food, furniture and clothing to destitute families.

After three years of service, Willenbring found she had a calling to be both a nun and a doctor. She studied medicine at Pennsylvania State University and graduated in 1998, a week before she took her final vows as a nun.

She went on to open the Susquehanna Rural Free Medical Clinic, which serves poor families from throughout the area. Although she had help to build the clinic – the local Lion’s Club donated the land – she had to take out a $150,000 mortgage. To pay off the mortgage, she works one day a week at a doctor’s office in nearby Altoona.

“I just saw a new patient last week who was 55 years old and had not seen a physician in 30 years,” she said. “He was having some chest pain and other medical problems, and we have been able to schedule him with a cardiologist and start him on some much-needed medications. We see quite a few patients with this type of history – a complete lack of any medical care due to inability to afford health insurance or to afford even just an office visit.”

Established 34 years ago, the Humanitarian of the Year Award is presented by the university’s Alumni Association.

• Professor of the Year – Dr. Bernard Brady, of St. Paul ’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, is this year’s Professor of the Year. The 44-year-old award recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and inspiration to students.

Brady has been a member of St. Thomas’ theology faculty for the past 15 years, or one year longer than his career as a youth soccer coach for St. Paul neighborhood and grade school teams.

A native of Cleveland, Brady received his bachelor’s in theology and psychology at Loyola University of Chicago. He went on to earn his master’s in divinity, and doctorate in ethics, at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He taught theology at Loyola and the College of St. Catherine before coming to St. Thomas in 1989.

He principally teaches three courses: Christian Theological Tradition, Christian Morality and Catholic Social Traditions. Brady also works with students outside the more-typical classroom environment. He was director of the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program from 1999 to 2003, and was coordinator for Service Learning in the Curriculum from 1995 to 1998.

His interest in service learning is connected to his courses in Christian morality and the church’s social traditions. “Every student should do some volunteer work at least one semester,” he feels. "It’s essential. I try to provide opportunities for that in my classes."

“I like to have them write about their volunteer work and to connect their experiences to ideas we discuss in class,” he added. “It’s a wonderful experience for most students, and for some, it is life-changing.”

It also is easy to connect the dots between the courses he teaches and three books he has written. Georgetown University Press published his The Moral Bond of Community: Justice and Discourse in Christian Morality in 1998, and his Christian Love: How Christians Through the Ages Have Understood Love in 2003.

In April, Brazo Press will publish A Spiritual Field Guide: Meditations for the Open Air, a book he co-wrote with St. Thomas journalism professor Dr. Mark Neuzil. It’s a book that is meant to be stuffed into a backpack, maybe carried along on a canoe trip, or read while sitting on the porch.

“We scoured the Christian tradition for relatively short passages on nature,” he explained. “Most passages can be read in a few minutes. It’s kind of a reader for those who love nature.”

“I really like the students here at St. Thomas,” the Professor of the Year said. “I find them to have an openness and willingness to learn, and I find them to have a generosity of spirit.”

The university, he feels, takes the “whole person” very seriously, and he enjoys seeing how students mature during their years at St. Thomas. “This is a natural process, of course, for students of that age. I hope to think, though, that we play a part in their development. We have much to offer.”

If Brady likes the students, the students like Brady. In recent years they have honored him for being an ally to students of color and for his work in the service-learning and honors programs. The student government in 1995 gave him its Distinguished Educator award.

Brady has been active with committee and professional organizations on and off campus. He is former chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee, and has been a board member and president of the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland. He also has served on the city’s Ethical Practices Board and on the board of the Charities Review Council of Minnesota.

He has coached soccer for Holy Spirit Catholic Grade School as well as St. Paul neighborhood and club programs. After 14 years of coaching, he saw his Holy Spirit team win the St. Paul Catholic championship last fall, and then go on to beat the Minneapolis champs.

• Monsignor James Lavin Award – Shaun Olson, of Blaine, will receive this year’s Lavin award. Established in 1994, the award annually honors a volunteer for service to the St. Thomas Alumni Association.

Olson was active on campus as a student, and has continued to be active with the university following her 1994 gradation.

As a student, she was involved with the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program, Campus Ministry, sports, the Tiger Club, Student Development Council and the Student Alumni Council.

Since graduating, she has participated in a range of activities offered by the Alumni Association, including the Student Ambassador program, golf tournaments, community cleanup projects, young alumni events, Town and Gown speakers, and religious and holiday programs.

Olson also has served on the board of the Alumni Association and on her class reunion committee.

The Tommy Award – Adam Groebner was selected the 2005 Tommy Award winner by a vote of students, staff and faculty. The award has been given annually since 1931 to a senior who exemplifies the ideals of the university.

Groebner, of Bloomington, holds a 3.8 grade-point average and is majoring in international studies and Spanish. His years at St. Thomas have blended athletics, student government, study abroad, and community service.

A competitive swimmer since the seventh grade, he specialized in distance events, especially the mile, while competing for the Tommies. He was co-captain of the varsity team in his junior and senior years, and during the height of training often would swim five or six miles per day.

Groebner began volunteer tutoring during his freshman year, and as a sophomore he and other swim team members tutored inner-city youngsters at St. Paul’s Maxfield Elementary School. During spring break later this month, he plans to travel to Chicago to work with the disadvantaged as part of St. Thomas’ VISION (Volunteers in Service Internationally or Nationally) program.

Following graduation this spring, Groebner hopes to participate in a two-year University of Notre Dame program that combines teaching in a disadvantaged-area Catholic school while earning a master’s in education.

Groebner has participated in three study-abroad programs. As a sophomore he studied in both Spain and Cuba, and as a junior he studied for a semester at the Catholic University of Valparaiso in Chile.

In his sophomore year he served as a class senator, as a junior he was the elections and credentials chair for the All College Council, and as senior he has been the ACC’s president. “Being president has been tough, fun and fulfilling,” he said. “It is very time-consuming, and something I’ve had to grow into.”

Managing time has been a challenge for Groebner, and dealing with two bouts of mononucleosis, as a sophomore and again as a senior, didn’t help.

Groebner participated in the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program, and while he feels his Spanish classes were the most fun, his courses in international economics were the most thought-provoking, especially after his study-abroad experiences.

He is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson Senior High School in Bloomington, where his father, Kevin, is assistant principal. Adam’s father holds a master’s in education from St. Thomas and his mother, Lynn Anne, is a senior at St. Thomas. She is majoring in computer science.

The Tommy Award is sponsored by The Aquin student newspaper and the Alumni Association.