I often hear people refer to the value of being part of the “St. Thomas network” and I emphasize it when recruiting students to attend UST. With more than 55,000 alumni in the Twin Cities area, being a Tommie carries with it many connections.
This is not merely a business network. It is comprised of powerful social bonds of friends and individuals who care deeply for their fellow Tommies.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, I immediately thought of my former basketball teammate at St. Thomas, Karnell James ’97. Karnell grew up in New Orleans and attended St. Augustine High School. Coming to St. Thomas presented a major transition for a young man who had never seen snow!
Karnell was successful immediately, and we played together in the 1994 NCAA Division III Final Four, and on the only 20-0 team in MIAC history in 1995. Karnell ended his career as an All-American, two-time MIAC MVP, and was inducted into our Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004. He still holds a school record for scoring 47 points in one game.
When I connected with him at his home in Houston, where he works for Aim Investments, I learned that his parents had lost their home and were living with him. His brother Gerald, sister-in-law, and their two kids were living with him. Karnell also found two cousins at the Astrodome who moved in with him, too.
Karnell helped his family, of course, just as most people help others. In general, tragedies such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and terrorism make all of us feel more than a little helpless. The wonderful paradox of these tragedies is that they often bring about the best in humanity. After tragedies our instinct is to find ways to regain perceptions of control. One way we accomplish this is by helping others.
Steve Fritz, UST men’s basketball coach, and I talked about mentioning Karnell’s family’s plight to a few former teammates. I e-mailed about a dozen to see if they could help. What followed exemplified the strength of the St. Thomas network.
By the end of the day, I had received responses from several former teammates. Many also had forwarded the e-mail to other Tommies, so that I was hearing from dozens more. Those who donated included 20 of Karnell’s teammates, three of his former coaches, seven players who graduated long before Karnell arrived, five members of the current team, five alums of the women’s basketball program, and 10 relatives of alums. In all, 50 individuals or families mailed me checks totaling $7,500!
Here are some concrete examples of the UST network. I contacted Jon Strausburg ’91, who works at Microsoft Corp. and knows Karnell well. Jon passed along my e-mail to Damon Fitzgerald ’90, another Microsoft employee. Damon passed the message along to several basketball alumni from the 1980s and several donated. Jon’s wife, Laura Witte ’97, a former UST All-American, passed the message along to four of her former teammates who knew Karnell.
I e-mailed Tommy Fritz ’98, who is now the junior varsity coach at St. Thomas and played with Karnell. Tommy contacted teammate Thor Snilsberg ’98, and Thor proceeded to e-mail his parents and both sets of grandparents, all of whom donated.
Story after story like these emerged. What struck me is that while many of these individuals didn’t know Karnell, knowing that he is part of the St. Thomas community was enough.
As Damon Fitzgerald put it best in his e-mail to guys who played a decade before Karnell, “I saw Karnell play a time or two but never got to know him. He’s a Tommies hoop alum, though, and that makes him family.”
Karnell and his family were doing exactly what those of us who know Karnell would expect: bonding together and making the best of an overwhelming situation. They focused on regaining control and taking care of one another, even after having had to subsequently evacuate Houston due to Hurricane Rita.
When Karnell returned to New Orleans for the first time, he reported, “As I entered the city, you just had the feeling that something really bad happened here. My parents’ neighborhood was a ghost town. The only truck that passed while I was moving furniture out to the yard was a military Humvee with four soldiers with M-16 assault rifles visible. My St. Thomas and St. Augustine letter jackets were destroyed along with the other clothes in the home. The water had reached the chandeliers and destroyed family photos on the wall. The scene was unreal. Homes have either their doors wide open or windows busted out in an attempt to let damp walls dry.”
Upon receiving the contributions, Karnell wrote me this note: “When I shared your letter and fellow alums’ contributions with my family, they were speechless. It actually brought my mother to tears.
“You have to understand that this is a humbling experience for New Orleanians, especially my parents who are more comfortable playing the role of hosts as opposed to guests. The donations have helped us tremendously. It allowed for the purchase of beds, air mattresses and clothes. I never quite grasped the phrase ‘starting over’ until now. Before Katrina, I was the only person living in a three-bedroom home and wasn’t equipped to take in six adults and two kids. A trip to the grocery store that would usually last me one week is now depleted in one serving.
“The benefits offered to evacuees expire in December. Shortly, they will be responsible for their living expenses as well as mortgage payments in New Orleans, even though their homes are not livable. The help received will aid with these expenses and essential furniture needed to begin a new life.
“I was certainly thankful and touched that so many thought enough about me and my family to lend a hand. That response was consistent with everything that St. Thomas is about. When I received my first St. Thomas basketball practice jersey, it was a picture of our school mascot with the words ‘A Class Act’ at the bottom of each jersey. Early on, I realized there was a standard of excellence at UST that transcended sports.”
Indeed, there is something special about St. Thomas, a place that brings people together for four years, facilitates the formation of friendships, and establishes a network of connections that last a lifetime.
Note: December update: Karnell James’ father is back at his job for the phone company but now in Slidell, La. His brother – an audiologist who started his own business, then had to close it when called up by the Army Reserve for a year, then re-opened it on his return, and then lost it in the flood – has a job in Houston.
Dr. John Tauer ’95 teaches in the Psychology Department and is assistant men’s basketball coach. If you would like to donate to the James Family Fund, contact email@example.com.