This semester is kind of bittersweet for me: a harbinger of spring and warmer weather but also the last hurrah for 92 St. Thomas employees, including faculty, staff and administrators who are participating in the retirement incentive plans and retiring May 31. I’ll miss dozens of these people, but none more than Tom Connery and Lynda McDonnell.
I met Connery a year or two after he joined the St. Thomas Journalism Department in 1982, the result of a search by Father James Whalen for his ultimate successor as department chair. Father Whalen, my old friend, had been particular, persistent and persnickety in finding “just the right fit.”
Just the right fit turned out to be a guy who could be an engaging teacher, a promising scholar and an inspiring leader – all without threatening the Padre, who relished his role as the public face and front man of journalism at St. Thomas.
Connery was working on a profile of Don Shelby for a Twin Cities magazine when we met. I was a Shelby colleague at WCCO-TV and a friend, the godfather to his girls. Connery’s questions were sharp and thoughtful. I recall thinking this guy would make a helluva reporter and, after I read his story, I knew he was a heckuva writer.
By 1989, as I was about to turn 50, television news had changed dramatically; I no longer saw a role for me. I called Connery, recalling how I much I had enjoyed teaching a reporting course at St. Thomas as an adjunct. After a little good luck and a lot of lobbying from Connery, Monsignor Terrence Murphy and Dean John Nemo offered me a limited-term contract.
It was Connery who led me to tenure. He sent me to teaching workshops. He urged me to find publishing outlets. He celebrated my successes in the classroom. And he modeled a love and regard for St. Thomas students, particularly those who showed promise as writers and reporters. He loved this place and it showed in everything he did.
As a dean, Connery was proud of student-faculty research. He loved the idea that energetic professors would take good students along for the ride, sharing the excitement of thoughtful work and new discoveries. I hope he continues to teach once in awhile, especially his beloved Journalism as Literature course.
Lynda McDonnell has a shorter St. Thomas tenure than Connery, but her enthusiasm and energy are a match for his. She has led the ThreeSixty program for more than a decade at St. Thomas, with a goal to find students of color who want to be writers and reporters, to nurture them and to help them into college and, eventually, into newsrooms.
McDonnell came to the program in 2002 from the St. Paul Pioneer Press newsroom, where she was the political editor supervising coverage of the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Jesse Ventura. She was used to action and antics. She got used to fundraising and hand holding, especially of 16-year-old wannabe reporters interviewing a Minneapolis mayor for the first time.
I loved working with her: She saw potential in a shy and sensitive student at summer camp. She spotted the opportunity to create a new program with a public school. She established an online news magazine written by, and for, high school students. She could arrange a fundraising dinner. She could plan a Saturday writing session. She could firmly, but gently, admonish me when I botched an “ask” of former TV weather forecaster Paul Douglas.
“My Lord, Nim,” she said, “you just told him that he may have other causes and uses for his money. Let him make that determination.” She was right. I not only didn’t set the hook, I failed to present the bait.
Connery and McDonnell never failed to show their pride and passion for St. Thomas. Of course, they’re not alone among the retirees. There also are Ken Goodpaster, Carole Jacobs, Marla Friederichs, Linda Halverson, Pete Parilla, Tom Mega, Bill Kirchgessner … and a whole lot more.