“Most adults spend the majority of their waking hours working, so to live a meaningful life, it helps to have meaningful work,” said Professor Christopher Michaelson, the David A. and Barbara Koch Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility in the Opus College of Business.
For Michaelson, 9/11 played a pivotal role in the course of his career. A business consultant living with his wife and baby in New York City at the time, he remembers being in Washington, D.C., when the terror attacks happened and trying to reach his family to make sure they were OK. Thankfully, they were.
“A lot of people – including myself – thought, ‘We’re the lucky ones; we survived,’” he said. “We thought about how we could honor the memory of those who died.” He asked himself, “How can we live more meaningfully because we have a more conscious appreciation of our good fortune and our obligation to use that fortune well?”
While still doing some consulting work, Michaelson ventured into academia, teaching business ethics and social responsibility classes. Among his research specialties is “meaningful work.”
“My meaningful work is more of a combination of the two rather than doing either one or the other,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to do both for much of my career.
“I believe that if people thought more carefully about and more intentionally sought out meaningful work, the world would be a better place,” Michaelson said. “Work that is considered meaningful is typically meaningful to the worker. Sometimes, what makes that work meaningful is that it promotes the common good.”
In the classroom, he purposefully primes his business students to consider how they may find work that is self-enriching and makes a positive difference. When they graduate, St. Thomas students join a network of Tommies who have gone on to build communities and establish relationships to solve some of today’s most pressing problems.
Among those graduates are retired doctor Wayne Thalhuber, M.D., who has spent years working in hospice care; teacher Courtney Hauboldt, who changed her career to work with children with autism spectrum disorder; and lawyer Amanda Mortwedt Oh, who is examining human rights abuses in North Korea.
Here are their stories.
Dr. Wayne Thalhuber ’60: Helping patients through the dying process
On a warm day last September, retired doctor Wayne Thalhuber stood in front of a group of cadets, former classmates and visitors at Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights as he received a distinguished alumni award. In his speech, he talked about his time at the all-boys military school along with wisdom gained throughout his years working in the medical field, specifically in hospice care.
“I found that if you really want to live, you talk to a dying patient,” he said. “Because their focus is on today and the importance of their relationships.”
In 2017, Thalhuber received the University of St. Thomas Humanitarian Award for his more than 40 years providing physical and spiritual support for hospice patients. Since he graduated in 1960 with a degree in biology, Thalhuber’s achievements have been impressive, including serving as hospice medical director first at Midway Hospital and then later at HealthEast Hospice. However, it’s the four decades he spent as medical director at St. Paul’s Our Lady of Peace Hospice (formerly known as Our Lady of Good Counsel) that he considers the most fulfilling aspect of his medical career. In fact, he loved it so much he stayed there eight years after retiring from his private practice.
“When I walked into Our Lady for the first time, it just seemed like they needed help,” Thalhuber recalled. “They needed a doctor around who they could call and who could work through the cases. It just seemed like the right thing to do. And then the right thing to do just kept being the right thing to do. I liked it and it was the best part of my medical practice. I felt like I was getting better as a person. When you serve, you get back in spades.”
Instead of the funeral-home atmosphere he was expecting when he first walked into Our Lady, Thalhuber was pleasantly surprised to find a peaceful, loving and accepting place with one purpose: help patients through the dying process.
When Thalhuber started going to Our Lady, the idea of hospice was in its infancy in the United States. Over the years, the field grew and Thalhuber was there to experience all he could, including becoming board-certified in hospice and palliative care. Instead of saving patients like he was taught to do in medical school, he was spending a lot of time helping people at the end of their lives when recovery was no longer a possibility.
“My colleagues would say, ‘Why do you waste your time? What’s there to do?’” Thalhuber recalled. “Well, there’s a lot to do. You manage the patients’ symptoms and make them comfortable. Then you can help them work through the bargaining, denial, depression and anger, which are human defense mechanisms we all use. The goal is to get the patient to a level of acceptance.
“Once they’re at acceptance, then they can transcend all that physical pain,” he continued. “Then they can do something with their relationships, with their spirituality, with making amends. All that can come into play. It becomes a very rich environment in which to treat a patient.”
A self-described “amateur clergy person,” Thalhuber would spend time asking his dying patients about their spirituality, helping them find the good in their lives and praying with them.
“I was treating the whole patient,” he said. “Even though I had an M.D. after my name, I was more like a friend, a counselor, a buddy, who was trying to get them through a very difficult stage of their life.”
Time spent at Our Lady made his life richer, he said, not only as a physician, but as a human being. He learned how to be more accepting of people and things in his life – even within his own family. “Wayne’s way” wasn’t always the right way, he said.
In his internal medicine practice, meaningful work meant making a diagnosis and helping patients improve their health. At Our Lady it meant managing a dying patient’s symptoms, and seeing the growth at the end of their life.
Even though it’s been a decade since Thalhuber retired from medicine, his work continues.
“Now I take care of my sick friends or people who call and ask for advice on death and dying,” he said. “I continue to be offered opportunities to help friends, family, neighbors, high school and college chums. I’m busy. My calendar fills up.”
Courtney Hauboldt ’17 M.A.: Teaching students on the autism spectrum
Courtney Hauboldt caught the attention of hundreds of people last summer with a heartfelt LinkedIn post. On the social media site, she opened up about leaving her job as a corporate recruiter to teach children with autism, something she had done briefly more than a dozen years ago.
“Life is too short not to do what you love,” wrote the 40-year-old Wales, Wisconsin, native. “It’s never too late. Work hard, follow your dreams and never, ever settle.”
A few years ago, Hauboldt realized she needed a change. While doing some soul searching, she kept coming back to a time in her 20s when she worked at an organization providing autism services to children and adults. So, she started taking online classes at St. Thomas in addition to her full-time job as a recruiter.
In August, she earned her master’s degree in special education with a focus in autism spectrum disorders, along with an autism teaching license. At the start of the school year, Hauboldt became a special education teacher at Highland Elementary in Apple Valley, Minnesota. In her classroom, she has six children – all with a primary autism diagnosis.
“This has been 13 years in the making,” Hauboldt said with a huge smile as she looked around her classroom. “I’ve never worked so hard. I’ve never worked so many hours. I’ve never been so overwhelmed and so exhausted. I’ve never been so happy.”
Even though her career path was a winding one, Hauboldt said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m not the same person I was 15 years ago,” she said. “I’ve grown a lot personally. I’m grateful that I didn’t have an opportunity to get my autism teaching license back then because my intuition, my gut feeling, tells me now is the right time. I have no regrets about being in the corporate world; I grew so much professionally and had experiences there I never would have had and never would trade. Because of all that – my corporate experience and personal changes I’ve made – I appreciate this so much more now than if this would have been my 15th year teaching.”
For Hauboldt, the idea of meaningful work comes down to making a difference in someone’s life.
“The kids bring so much joy to me just being who they are,” Hauboldt said. “I feel blessed I was hired at Highland and to be in their lives and make that difference.”
Amanda Mortwedt Oh ’12 J.D.: Tracking abuses in North Korea’s prison camps
For the past four years, Amanda Mortwedt Oh has been monitoring North Korea’s political prison camps for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a nonpartisan human rights organization that researches and publishes reports about North Korea’s human rights abuses.
For most of that time, she has been based in Washington, D.C., but on Thanksgiving Day 2016, Mortwedt Oh, along with her husband and young twin daughters, relocated to Seoul, South Korea.
“One of the most egregious issues is the political prison camp system,” said Mortwedt Oh, a graduate of the University of St. Thomas School of Law and 2013 LL.M. graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “The Kim family, from the start, has imprisoned people they perceive not to be loyal to them, and the manifestations are these camps where there’s forced labor, and people are tortured and dying – horrors beyond belief that we have learned through former prisoners and satellite imagery. A lot of what I do is look at the satellite imagery and try to identify new facilities.”
Being in South Korea has been helpful, she said, because that’s where the largest North Korean defector community is – about 30,000 people – thus giving her more opportunities to interact with North Koreans and gain a greater understanding of what they’ve endured.
Last fall, Mortwedt Oh briefly returned to the United States to present with human rights advocate David Hawk a report that included former prisoner testimony and satellite imagery of about 20 new unconfirmed political prison sites in North Korea. She’s hoping their findings will put additional pressure on the regime with the ultimate goal of ending the country’s system of political imprisonment.
“I’m not seeing it firsthand, but I feel for the victims,” Mortwedt Oh said. “I try to process and feel as much of it as I can without losing myself in it, because it’s really sad and terrible and makes me angry, too. I think, in a way, it helps me know there’s a bigger purpose in trying to do something meaningful. I’m not sure I’m making any sort of difference or maybe I never will, but I hope to. There are too many people who don’t have a voice, and I’ve been really lucky and blessed. It makes me want to give back however I can, and I hope this is that way. The more I read about North Korea and talk to people and hear about what’s happening, the more I can’t look away.”
Before her time at St. Thomas, Mortwedt Oh was on active duty in the Army for five years, which included two deployments to Afghanistan. Following active duty, she enrolled in the University of St. Thomas School of Law and focused on international law and human rights issues. It was during this time that she had an opportunity to do an externship at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia.
In the spring, Mortwedt Oh, who is an Army Reserve attorney, plans to return to the United States with her family to continue her work with the HRNK in Washington, D.C.
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.