Fascinated by "That Great Heart"

Editor's note: Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, contributed this guest column to The Scroll.

I.A. O’Shaughnessy always has fascinated me.

I never met the man. I was a St. Thomas freshman when he died, at age 88, in 1973. I still remember the long line of black limousines that lined Summit Avenue one November day as they arrived on campus for a memorial service. A couple of weeks later, I eagerly read an Aquin four-page special section that paid tribute to him and “a saga of hard work, generosity and humor.” I found it all so fascinating at the time, this seemingly larger-than-life man.

Three years ago, I helped the university commemorate the centennial of O’Shaughnessy’s graduation by writing a magazine profile, co-producing a video and planning a symposium. As I spent several days digging through the archives on campus and at the Minnesota Historical Society, I marveled over O’Shaughnessy’s accomplishments as an oil “wildcatter” and his generosity as a philanthropist, and I kept saying to myself, “Fascinating. Just fascinating.”

On Wednesday it was time again to revisit the O’Shaughnessy legend as we removed the time capsule from O’Shaughnessy Hall, the first St. Thomas building that he paid for out of his own pocket. The building was his way of saying thanks – for the education that he had received, that his sons were receiving and that he expected his grandsons would one day receive. O’Shaughnessy believed it was important to give back to one’s community and, in this case, college.

I.A. O'Shaughnessy in library

“The bond of loyalty between any alumnus and his alma mater depends primarily on whether the school did for him in his youth what it promised to do,” O’Shaughnessy told the audience at the 1959 dedication ceremony for O’Shaughnessy Hall, another building that he donated. “If in his mature years, he finds by experience and competition that his early instruction was sound and his youthful formation was complete, his appreciation for the school in which he was trained, and shaped, and made aware, will grow with the passing years.”

That comment – that definition of “the bond of loyalty” – always has stuck with me as I have tried to articulate my own feelings about our common alma mater. Two other comments also bear repetition on this day – the first from James Shannon, president of St. Thomas from 1956 to 1966, and the other from Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987.

Wrote Shannon in a Minneapolis Tribune commentary after O’Shaughnessy’s death: “ ‘Unique’ is a strong word. It should be used with the greatest restraint. Having said that, I say that Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy was a unique human person. He was brilliant, tough, relaxed, determined, incisive, devout, witty, generous and a thoroughly lovely man.”

And said Hesburgh in his homily at O’Shaughnessy’s funeral: “All of us can be very proud that he was a dear part of our lives. While we will all miss him greatly – those twinkling eyes, that spontaneous smile, that great heart – both our lives and our institutions have been enriched by his presence and his great spirit, and we will long be reminded that he passed this way on his path to heaven and eternal life.”

Fascinating, isn’t it?