Each spring the University of St. Thomas community gathers to celebrate the extraordinary contributions of a few of our peers. The annual St. Thomas Day event was held March 3, and honored the recipients of the Humanitarian, Distinguished Alumnus, Professor of the Year, Tommie and Monsignor James Lavin awards.
The evening began with a Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, which was celebrated by Archbishop Harry Flynn, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees. It was 89 years ago – on the March 7 St. Thomas Day of 1918 – that the first Mass was celebrated in that chapel. A dinner and awards program followed.
What follows are brief profiles of the 2007 award winners. If you know of alumni who should be recognized for their commitment and involvement with St. Thomas, please take the time to nominate them for next year’s awards. You can find a description of awards and submit a nomination online .
Humanitarian of the Year: Gary Ales ’62, ’64 M.A.
Gary Ales of St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood received the 2007 Humanitarian of the Year Award for a life of service, especially through an organization he founded called the St. Paul Friendship Club.
A St. Paul native and graduate of the old Marshall Junior High and Central High School, Ales earned two degrees from St. Thomas, a bachelor’s in sociology in 1962 and a master’s in secondary education in 1964. He later earned a second master’s, in counseling, from the University of River Falls in 1985.
Ales worked for the St. Paul public schools from 1964 to 2001. He coached eight sports at Johnson and Humboldt schools, was a counselor for 15 years at Humboldt Junior and Senior High Schools, and taught psychology for 22 years at Johnson High School.
“There are good kids everywhere … and if you give them a good mission, a good goal and a good focus, they’ll follow you and you’ll be enriched by them,” Ales said. “We work with great kids, great people, who are what I call emerging leaders. They have a great amount of energy and enthusiasm.”
Ales founded and for four decades advised a St. Paul organization called the Friendship Club. It is a community service club that is open to boys and girls, and men and women, of all ages, races and faiths. It has no dues, officers or meetings, but does have a motto, “We Share – We Care.” Its members serve senior citizens, the environment, those who are mentally and physically challenged, and in general, those who could use a hand.
More than 15,000 students, parents, grandparents and educators have participated in Friendship Club activities, and more than 30,000 individuals have been served. While participants earn no grades or pay for their service, they do earn recognition and learn about the rewards of volunteering. They have picked up litter from parks, planted trees, shoveled snow for senior citizens, tutored youngsters, visited the elderly, painted homes, collected food and clothing, and raised funds for crime victims.
“I always tell kids, aim high, reach high,” Ales said. “Don’t aim for a gutter ball. Don’t go there; aim high. Let’s shoot for the highest thing we can.”
When Ales retired in 2001, the St. Paul Pioneer Press carried a story that included a short, congratulatory letter written by Fong Moua, a Humboldt student and six-year veteran of the Friendship Club.
“Thank you for showing me a new way to think and see, for opening new doors and paths for me to explore,” Moua wrote. “What you have done for me I will never forget. What you have taught me, I will carry it on and teach it to others.”
Established 34 years ago, the Humanitarian of the Year Award is presented by the university’s Alumni Association.
Monsignor James Lavin Award: Donald Peterson ’82 M.A.
Donald Peterson of Mendota Heights received this year’s Lavin award. Established in 1994, the award annually honors a volunteer for service to the St. Thomas Alumni Association.
Peterson, who received a master’s degree in public safety administration and education from St. Thomas in 1982, retired after 33 years in law enforcement. He spent 28 years at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, where he was an instructor, director of training, and agent in charge of special operations, including dignitary protection and crime scenes.
He now is a criminal-justice consultant and since 1986 has taught criminal justice courses as an adjunct member of the Sociology Department. He also is an active member of the Alumni Association.
“Don has taken so many St. Thomas students under his wing and really helped propel them into their law enforcement careers. I went from being his student, to being his co-worker and now I supervise some of his students,” Ann Marie O’Neill said.
“Don’s law enforcement class is legendary,” she continued. “He places a mannequin in the quad as if it’s a dead body and he brings back alumni as some of the shady characters that students get to interview about the crime or murder.”
Peterson replied, “A lot of my teaching has to do with who they are and what’s important to them and what their values are. They need to understand that before they can go on the streets and (be) with other people.”
Peterson served on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors from 1989 to 1995, and also served as the board’s vice president.
In addition, Peterson has been especially involved with homecomings, golf tournaments, St. Thomas Days, the First Friday luncheon series and career-mentoring activities.
“I enjoy being involved with St. Thomas,” he said. “Part of it is giving something back to the university. But I really do enjoy coming to campus; it’s a great atmosphere with great students. A lot of my volunteering is related to helping and mentoring students in my classes. I like to remind them, for example, that you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.”
Professor of the Year: Dr. David Landry
Dr. David Landry, of Roseville, is this year’s Professor of the Year. The 46-year-old award recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and inspiration to students.
An associate professor of theology, Landry has been teaching at St. Thomas for 16 years. He earned an undergraduate degree in religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross and did his graduate work in religion at Vanderbilt University, where he received a master’s in 1989 and a Ph.D. in 1992.
He has taught 19 courses at St. Thomas, including many outside his specialization in biblical studies. Among those are Theologies of Justice and Peace, World Religions, Fundamentalism, and Religion and the Mass Media.
“The function of religion, at its purist, is to bring out the best in people. The call is to make a better world, to produce social justice,” Landry said. “What we are trying to teach is how to think critically, write effectively, speak persuasively, identify and solve problems, how to be creative – skills that are useful in any discipline and in life.”
His interests are wide-ranging. Landry’s Web site, for example, features links to “The Simpsons” television programs and a band called the Jayhawks.
Last summer Landry stepped down after nine seasons as the St. Thomas varsity men’s golf coach. You also can find him helping to run the scoreboard at home football games, and he is a big fan of St. Thomas women’s basketball. Before he and his wife, Shannon, had their daughters Katie, 11, and Meghan, 8, there was more time for attending games.
He served as director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program for a year and recently stepped down after more than three years as director of the Aquinas Scholars Program. Landry, who also taught honors seminars for the program, was selected by students last May as the Aquinas Scholars Professor of the Year.
He has served six years on the university’s Academic Council, a committee he chaired this year.
Dr. Bernard Brady, chair of the university’s Theology Department and the 2005 Professor of the Year, describes Landry as “a fantastic teacher. His lectures are substantive and his assignments demanding. He spends a huge amount of time working with students outside the classroom. On top of that, he is intense and passionate about everything he does.”
His research includes articles published in the top biblical studies journal, 16 conference papers and several popular Web sites, including “The Interactive Bible” and “What’s Wrong With The Da Vinci Code?” And he and colleague Dr. Catherine Cory are the editors of The Christian Theological Tradition.
He has served six years on the university’s Academic Council, a committee he chaired this year.
Landry brought back a longstanding tradition at St. Thomas when he revived a printed version of “The Raker,” a faculty forum for discussion of important issues. Among those was a controversy last year involving the university’s travel policy covering faculty and staff who lead student trips.
“My wife says I have an overdeveloped sense of justice,” Landry said, looking back at the months of discussion on the topic. “If something doesn’t seem fair, I’m compelled to say something.”
Tommie Award: David Wierzbicki
David Wierzbicki was selected the 2007 Tommie 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.
Wierzbicki, of Shawnee, Kan., holds a 3.56 grade-point average and is majoring in financial management and business economics. He was one of 27 nominees and three finalists for the award.
“This means a lot,” Wierzbicki said. “I have a lot of respect for the Tommie Award and I hope to do it justice.
“I’ve really, really enjoyed my time at St. Thomas. It will be hard to leave Ireland Hall. I’ve been so happy there for four years. I have 300 potential friends within a one-minute walk.”
Wierzbicki came to St. Thomas after graduating from high school at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville. While his parents, Dennis and Marie, are now living in Kansas, the family also has lived in Michigan, Ohio, New York, Colorado and Minnesota. David’s older brother, Joe, is in medical school at Kansas University and his younger brother, Mike, is studying business at Creighton University.
Wierzbicki has been in a host of activities and organizations during his St. Thomas years. He is the university relations chair for the Delta Sigma Pi professional business fraternity, vice president of the Economics Association and a member of the Delta Epsilon Sigma National Scholastic Honor Society.
He has served as a Eucharistic minister for Campus Ministry and has been a tutor at neighborhood schools and has been a finance tutor for the Opus College of Business.
He said he particularly enjoyed his work over the years with Residence Life and served as an operations manager, adviser to the Residence Hall Association, resident adviser in Ireland Hall, and the Residence Hall Association’s vice president for environment and service.
He also found time to serve on the Dean of Students Judicial Board, be a tour guide and Tommie ambassador for the Admissions Office, help lead the freshman retreat, serve on the Senior Class Gift Committee and participate in intramural volleyball, basketball and football.
Wierzbicki enjoyed a study-abroad trip he took to Rome over January. “The course was called Pilgrimage to Italy and it was a great experience,” he said. “Our classroom was really walking from one holy and historic site to another.”
Wierzbicki has held an internship at the Minneapolis-based financial planning firm, Foster Klima and Co., and has been active with the Financial Management Association. After graduation he plans to work as a financial analyst for Honeywell’s automated systems and controls division.
Wierzbicki said he appreciates the opportunities he had to learn and mature during his years as a student. “But understanding the importance of friendships is probably the biggest thing I’ve learned here,” he said. “I didn’t even come here with that kind of expectation. I have really come to appreciate my friends and I’ve grown to love St. Thomas. It will be hard to leave when we graduate this spring.”
The Tommie Award is sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs.