Please remember in your prayers William J. Quinn, a retired railroad chief executive officer and a former St. Thomas trustee believed to have been the university’s oldest living alumnus.
Quinn, 104, who died Saturday, Oct. 24, in Glenview, Illinois, graduated from St. Thomas in 1933 and served as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1963 to 1994. When he retired from the board, he was its longest-tenured member.
"I remember him as a likable, good-natured gentleman who happened also to be a giant in the transportation industry," said Father Dennis Dease, president emeritus, who has been on board since 1982. "He was an active board member, and highly respected for his business acumen."
Born May 8, 1911, in St. Paul, Quinn attended St. Mark’s Catholic School east of the St. Thomas campus until Nativity of Our Lord School opened in 1923. He was the first altar boy to serve at Mass in the new church, said his daughter, Shannon Norton of St. Paul, and was in the first Cretin High School graduating class at its new Hamline Avenue location in 1929.
He enrolled that fall at St. Thomas, where he was captain of the hockey team and president of his senior class and the student council. He twice won the Northwest Colleges Debate Tournament and once recalled that he participated in 80 to 100 debates on economic, political and social issues during both his junior and senior years. As a senior, he took classes in the St. Thomas School of Law, which closed in 1933, and graduated summa cum laude from the college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and philosophy.
“Dad was one of the select few chosen from St. Thomas for the University of Minnesota Law School,” said Norton ’97, who has a Master of Arts in Education degree from St. Thomas. “They took him on probation, and he had to double his coursework to catch up. He graduated with honors.”
Quinn received his law degree in 1935 and entered private practice. He became an assistant U.S. attorney in 1937 and moved three years later to the law department at the Soo Line Railroad in Minneapolis, beginning a four-decade career as a railroad man.
He joined the FBI during World War II, served as a counterespionage agent and assisted in capturing two German saboteurs after they landed from a submarine off the coast of Maine. He returned to Soo Line in 1945 and was its vice president and general counsel before moving to Chicago in 1954 to become solicitor general of the Milwaukee Road. Four years later, he became the railroad’s youngest president.
Quinn walked across the street in 1966 to become president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. He was elected vice chairman when that railroad and two others merged to form the Burlington Northern, and in 1970 he returned to the Milwaukee Road to serve as chairman and chief executive officer until he retired in 1978.
He had a lifetime relationship with St. Thomas. He served as Alumni Association president in 1940-41, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1959 and joined the Board of Trustees in 1963, serving many years as chair of the Audit Committee. He received the university’s Distinguished Service Award in 1994.
“St. Thomas was like a second home for dad,” Norton said. “It was very dear to his heart.”
“His devotion to St. Thomas is unbelievable – he truly loves the school,” the late Archbishop John Roach, who chaired the Board of Trustees for 20 years, said when Quinn left the board. “He is an articulate and powerful spokesman. His strength, whether on our board or in running a railroad, always has been his integrity. He absolutely has been a man of his word.”
Quinn was preceded in death by his wife Floy, a nurse he met in 1942 when he was hospitalized for an appendectomy. He is survived by eight children, including Norton and a son, George, a 1972 St. Thomas alumnus; 13 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial was at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, at Sacred Heart Church, 1077 Tower Road, Winnetka, Illinois. Visitation also was at the church, for one hour before the funeral.