A Campus Deep in his Memory

St. Thomas historian Joe Connors believes in the continuity of a Catholic university with a liberal arts core

In the basement of the Marshalltown, Iowa, library in 1922, Joe Connors and a boyhood friend wrestled over a newly arrived book, The Adventures of Reddy Fox, by Thornton W. Burgess, a noted author of bedtime stories. A horrified librarian intervened and awarded the book to Connors' opponent, while promising the loser the next read. Some 83 years later, an aide in the assisted living complex in which Connors resides heard him tell the story. She somehow tracked down a copy of the original tome and gave it to him with a note than he needn't fight over it anymore. "It wasn't as good the second time," commented Connors.

The story says a lot about the 90-year-old professor emeritus of English, as well as the way in which he has spent his days since learning to read at age 7. It also says something about time and how Connors has chronicled its passage during seven decades spent in the shadow of the now University of St. Thomas.

Reddy Fox is now available as an e-book; it can be downloaded for $7.95.

The story is the same; the delivery system has changed. The school Connors entered in 1933 and later served as a faculty member, administrator and historian is still a Catholic diocesan institution of higher education but one that has evolved into a comprehensive urban university. Despite all the changes, one person who would still recognize the educational narrative, Connors maintains, is St. Thomas' founder, Archbishop John Ireland. "He would say, ÔI told you so,'" observed Connors.

Where others might see only newness, Connors also sees historical glimpses – an earlier time – as when he recalls that the brick skin of the old Foley Theater lies underneath Mankato stone where Coughlan Field House meets Schoenecker Arena. While others might have been surprised by the advent of a Minneapolis campus, Connors' wonder is tempered by the notion that the very location of St. Thomas presaged an educational leap across the nearby Mississippi.

While some might worry about the fate of the liberal arts, he believes a St. Thomas education still "enables one to teach one's self" – his definition of a liberally educated person. He has written enough critically praised history about St. Thomas to deflect any charges of being overly positive. Mark him down as an optimist who stresses continuity. "I much prefer the opinion of John Ireland," he observed in a 1992 talk at a campus forum on the Catholic university, "who argued that since our hours in the sunlight are pathetically brief, we should lengthen life at both ends by borrowing from both the past and the future. From days that are gone, experience and ideals; from those to come, scope and purpose of action." If St. Thomas is to achieve greatness in the 21st century, Connors believes it will only be as a Catholic university with a liberal arts core.

It has been more than two decades since Connors left the classroom after teaching (in his words) "virtually every English Department course in the catalog," to write Journey Toward Fulfillment, the definitive centennial history of the college published in 1986. Institutional histories are, in the words of a former St. Thomas history professor, "a devilishly difficult species," but Connors' chronicle drew praise for not being dull and uncritical. "The text possesses integrity as well as felicity of style," wrote a reviewer who went on to admit his only criticism was the lack of a dust jacket.

Connors enjoys research. "It's a lot like fishing," he explained. "You move into unfamiliar bays, and there's a sense of mystery, not knowing what's under the surface. You cast and get an occasional nibble, then a tug – hints at an answer. When you finally land what you are after, it might be of interest only to you because it clinches something important."

His doctoral thesis at the University of Minnesota, "The Victorian Reappraisal of the 18th Century," took him 17 years to complete, some mornings rising at 4 a.m. to work on it while teaching five classes at the college. "Essentially, it was finding out what everyone in the 19th century thought of everyone in the 18th century," he commented, with the inflection of a man who would not choose the same topic again, fishing simile or no.

Parkinson's disease and other ailments have affected Connors' erstwhile hobbies of hiking and reading. He keeps a street map of London by his side to test his eyesight, and it has been four years since he last walked a campus deep in memory. "I worked on the grounds crew the summer before my freshman year," he recalled. "We pushed hand mowers, four abreast on overlapping paths," across a campus considerably less manicured than at present. It was a much smaller school in the Depression 1930s "when buying a streetcar token was something to consider carefully," but it had an intimacy remembered fondly by Connors.

From his modest apartment about two miles south of the campus on Mississippi River Boulevard, the emeritus English professor can measure an increased pace of institutional advancement. Since he wrote his last longhand sentence in the draft of Journey, the Minneapolis campus grew from rented space in the former Powers department store in 1987 to a gleaming downtown campus highlighted by a newly opened School of Law; the affiliation with the St. Paul Seminary occurred; the college became a university, and Father Dennis Dease became its 14th president; and Frey Science and Engineering Center, and Morrison, Murphy and Opus Halls, and additions to O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center and Murray-Herrick Campus Center were built.

Some of the change is intertwined with Connors' personal campus history. The English Department in which he taught for 27 years established a master's program; the Catholic Digest, on which he was associate editor for seven years, was sold by the university; and a development campaign raised an unprecedented $250 million between 1993 and 2001. The last would impress Connors because he served as assistant director of development, writing materials for the campaign to match the 1962 Ford Foundation grant. That drive raised $6.3 million in three years, considered a fund-raising marvel in its day.

Time also closes friendships. Within a span of five months, two former presidents of St. Thomas, James P. Shannon and Monsignor Terrence J. Murphy, died. Connors admired both and tried to define in his book their contributions by subtitling the Shannon tenure (1956-66) "The Era of Good Feeling" and that of Murphy (1966-1991) "The Comprehensive View." "The single most important element in institutional progress is presidential leadership," asserts Connors, who sees Dease as continuing the tradition of his predecessors.

Extensive reading lists were common adjuncts to Connors-taught courses. He started reading in Boswell when he was 9 years old, and in remarks at an honors convocation in 1982, he stressed the importance of the "neglected R." Constant independent reading leads to all-important intimacy with the written language, he argued. "I have never known a single person who handled the written language competently who was not also a habitual reader," he told his audience.

His own collection of some 500 books is now mainly dispersed to libraries, but he has kept as many volumes as his apartment can comfortably accommodate, including the complete works of Charles Dickens in his bedroom. "Until recently, I read The Pickwick Papers every year," he said. He also had the habit of periodically reading Shakespeare's plays in chronological order – and sometimes in reverse chronological order. Connors advocates the "interested life," one "marked by strong, unflagging interests," and stresses "reading for the pleasure of satisfying one's curiosity."

The historian of St. Thomas has a prodigious memory, not only for chunks of English verse but also for scenes from classic films like "Casablanca," as well as minutiae from Sherlock Holmes adventures. (Connors is a serious student of the famous English detective and, especially, of his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, whom he considers to be under-appreciated.) He can recall today the design of the nametag his future wife Catherine Commerford (who died in 1985) wore when she checked his coat at a Junior Catholic League Halloween dance in the 1940s.

He urged his students to memorize poems, and when he retired, snatches were returned to him in letters from grateful graduates. Poetry was not all for which he was thanked. "Your class notes in the Romantic Age did more to guide me through preliminary and qualifying exams for the Ph.D. (at the University of Michigan) than any graduate seminars," wrote one former student. Others remembered acts of kindness – a five-pound note sent to a recent graduate living as a freelancer in London in the early 1970s, and advice on appropriate love poems given a student embarking on a honeymoon.

A former colleague remembers him as "shy and diffident maybe to a fault." The word "gracious" is perhaps the one most frequently applied by those who know him, and it can be found in the written critiques he gave student writing. Consider the probable hapless condition of the essay that elicited this gentle instruction (reported by the essayist many years later): "Your aim must be to make your expression match your thinking."

When a future historian of St. Thomas tries to define Joe Connors' institutional contribution in a chapter subtitle, let that person ponder this 1977 evaluation by his department chair: "Joe Connors continues to be the main source of strength and inspiration (in the department). Nothing ostentatious – just superb teaching, continual intellectual and professional commitment and well-reasoned counsel."

Richard Conklin '58 retired in 2001 from his position as associate vice president for university relations at the University of Notre Dame. He and his wife live in the Twin Cities.

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