Alumni Legacy: Generations of Dempseys

The Dempseys - a St. Thomas family for more than 90 years

Matt Dempsey ’87 remembers building a raft for homecoming and paddling down the Mississippi from the Lake Street Bridge.

His father, Terry Dempsey ’54, remembers that the only extraneous thing he brought to college with him was a radio.

Matt’s uncle, John Dempsey ’48, who interrupted his college career to invade Iwo Jima, remembers students being asked to leave class if they did not have on a coat or tie. Both were required by the dress code.

Another uncle, Jerry Dempsey ’55 hated being a “pearl diver” in Ireland Hall and desperately cast around for another job.

John, Jerry and Terry’s father, Mark, attended from 1910 to 1912 and graduated with a certificate from the Commercial Department. Then Mark went home to Henderson, Minn., to help his father run the family grocery and serve at Fort Snelling during World War I.

Mark’s great-grandson, freshman Matt McWilliams, combines old and young. Matt lives in one of the oldest buildings at St. Thomas, Cretin Residence Hall, built in 1894, and made the soccer varsity as a freshman.

The same St. Thomas?

All these and more Dempseys went to St. Thomas. But did they attend the same St. Thomas? It all depends on how you define “same.” Some things did not change. And some things changed forever.

“My father, Mark, had high praise for St. Thomas,” recalls Terry Dempsey ’54, a retired and now part-time state court judge in New Ulm, Minn., and a member of the state Legislature for 14 years. “My mother went to St. Catherine (though she got her degree in social work from the University of Minnesota), so it was sort of a given that we would go to good Catholic colleges. In those days, there was more emphasis on young Catholics going to Catholic schools.”

College – when tuition was $225 a semester and room and board was about $320 per semester – was a financial strain for the first two years, so Terry worked part time in the post office and spent summers at Green Giant Packing and Pepsi Cola Bottling. ROTC military training was still required for the first two years at St. Thomas, and he completed it for four years (mainly because ROTC paid partial tuition for the two final years), serving three years in the Air Force in Texas and California after graduation. He ended up at the University of California in San Francisco Law School, met his wife, Janet, there, and came back to Minnesota to practice law before becoming a judge in 1992.

“Athletic events on campus were our fun things then, ” Terry noted, “especially as they were free. And we all dated girls from the College of St. Catherine, always hoping to find one who had a car. It was kind of a shock to be new in town, at a men’s school, and have no car and little money. But most of us were in the same situation, so we studied and socialized together. We walked to the Grandview Theater, gathered at Stewart’s Café (across from the chapel on Cleveland Avenue), and yes, called St. Catherine the ‘lemon orchard.’”

At the lemon orchard

At this point, Dempsey is laughing, but manages to explain that for some reasons, St. Thomas men occasionally would put lemons on the main gates of St. Catherine’s. “I think it had to do with the fact that those nuns supervised and locked us in when we went to dances there,” he said. “We were never allowed to go outside for a smoke or a drink. The lemon thing is pretty much a family joke since my mother and my sister, Janet, both went to St. Catherine.”

He remembers his best teachers: Monsignor James Lavin, “outstanding in religion and very friendly;” G.W.C. Ross, “brilliant and demanding in political science,” Terry’s major; and Father Walter LeBeau in Christian Marriage. “That was a unique and excellent marriage course,” Terry recalled. “In our classes we were told the right thing to do, but even more important, why it was the right thing to do. We gained an appreciation of moral values that were practiced by our teachers, not just preached. We received an excellent education. Of course, the president, Father Vincent Flynn, scared the bejabbers out of me. He was tough and had a thing about the metal taps we used to wear on our shoes to save the heels. One of my dreaded jobs was delivering mail to his office.”

Named St. Thomas’ Distinguished Alumnus in 1997, Terry was honored for his valuable work in the Legislature as well as his volunteer activities. He and Janet have been foster parents to 15 children. Terry is still involved with St. Thomas. He served on the advisory board that recommended St. Thomas open a law school. Every summer, he and Janet host Japanese students who come to St. Thomas to study.

He would like to see St. Thomas become more affordable, though he is not sure this is possible. “I have great respect for the kids now. Many graduate with huge debt, and I admire what they go through to get a St. Thomas education. I talk to kids at Cathedral High School (New Ulm) about going to St. Thomas, but cost is a huge impediment.” He donates to both schools to help students.

Economics influence society at all levels, he believes. As a judge, he notes that “severity of punishment is really not much of a deterrent to a rising crime rate. Judges do not change people but social and economic changes will. Poverty does not make people bad, but many give up on their options in life.”

Rafting down the Mississippi

His son, Matthew ’87, found a St. Thomas somewhat like his father’s – and somewhat more expanded. As a freshman, Matt entered a raft race down the Mississippi for Ireland Hall and he remembers “it was so cold. I bet they don’t do that now,” he laughed. He played lacrosse and is still an official in the Minnesota Lacrosse Association.

In Ireland Hall, he got to know Father Lavin. “How could you not get to know Father Lavin?” he asked. “He made it so easy.” And Matt graduated from a coed college (St. Thomas began admitting women in 1977). His father and he agree coeducation at St. Thomas is “a wonderful idea.”

Matt, a double major in mathematics and German, also discovered good teachers, the most memorable being Dr. John Kemper in math. “The academics were great but I didn’t realize then the other ways teachers affect students. Education is a lot about personal relationships,” said Matt, who holds a master’s from Mankato State University and teaches math at Normandale Community College.

His interests at St. Thomas ranged from being a photo editor at the Aquin and an honors student to traveling far beyond the St. Paul campus his father knew so well. Matt studied overseas at the University of Vienna and volunteered at the Above Rocks High School in Jamaica for a year after graduation, teaching math in a program then supported by St. Thomas.

“I had spent about 12 years in Catholic education, but college philosophy and theology opened my eyes to not just following the rules but finding values in the rules for yourself,” Matt recalled. “The quality education is still there at St. Thomas but it would be nice to do it for less. I paid about $10,000 a year and it was a good value. Now, I realize St. Thomas has to grow and enhance programs and facilities, so there are no easy answers.”

Invading Iwo Jima

His uncle, John N. Dempsey ’48, had an interrupted college career at St. Thomas. He started in 1941. “I chose it because my father, Mark, went there and I had several friends from my home town there.” Discipline was strict: “I saw many students asked to leave class because they did not have a coat or tie on. Both were required,” John recalled.

John served in the Navy (amphibious) from 1943 to 1946, receiving the Purple Heart and three battle stars for action in the South Pacific. John made three invasions – Iwo Jima (where he was wounded), Okinawa and le Shima. He spent six months in the hospital and had three surgeries for his shrapnel wound.

He went back to St. Thomas in 1946. “It was hard to get down to studying after several years away from it,” he recalled. “On the other hand, it was easier financially because of the GI Bill. Since I was wounded, I got a larger monthly stipend than the regular GI Bill and unlimited allowances for books and supplies. I guarantee I did not abuse the latter and bought only necessities.”

Like his brother, Terry, he found the “most fun events were on campus, like dances at the Armory [built in 1914], when you could scrape up enough cash to attend.” Teachers were tough, too, in his fields. “Professor Fred Taylor was the best math teacher I had, and professor Bill Tomsicek, head of the Chemistry Department, was excellent.”

John went on to get a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Iowa and worked at both Honeywell and Bemis Co. as vice president of science and technology in the Twin Cities. He was a consultant to the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Patent Commission, served on several boards in Washington, D.C., and volunteered extensively. John has a wife, Marian, three daughters and seven grandchildren, and splits his time between Minneapolis and Scottsdale, Ariz.

“St. Thomas was excellent academically, mixing theology, philosophy, religion and ethics with the technical subjects to prepare our minds for a broad education,” he said. And, of course, he knew Father Lavin well.

“Maintaining academic excellence should be the primary goal at St. Thomas today, rather than expanding enrollment,” he said. “Also, never forget that St. Thomas is a Catholic university. Though the Mass and religion are still emphasized, it seems to me as UST gets larger and larger and the student body more diverse, Catholicism seems to play a lesser role on campus. Could be wrong, but that’s the way it looks to me.”

The Dempseys seem to be as successful as they are honest. “My father donates to help students get through college. He and his brothers are amazing,” said Patricia Dempsey Christoforo of Stamford, Conn., the daughter of John; she attended St. Thomas from 1984 to 1985 before transferring to be with friends at Boston College. “They have a hard-working ethic and insist on doing things well. They are successful, however, because they are generous and humble men. God honors those who are humble.”

Pearl diving in Ireland Hall

Jerry Dempsey ’55 lived off campus with his older brother, Terry, at St. Thomas. One of the fun experiences he remembered was that “kids did a little beer drinking at the Persian Palms on Grand Avenue, where St. Kate’s, St. Thomas, Mac and Hamline gathered. Since I was not old enough to drink, I was brought in the front door and immediately shown where the back door was in case the cops came in. We had a lot of spontaneous fun. Once we went to St. John’s for a football game and I decided to lead a few cheers for the team.”

Being a “pearl diver” (dishwasher) in Ireland Hall did not appeal to Jerry, so he used to pull the service hatch almost closed so that people and their dirty dishes would go away. “I eventually got an office job for Lloyd Rogge, delivering messages, a jack of all trades for the money to help pay tuition,” he said, recalling that summers included selling shoes and working for American Can Co. and Green Giant.

“Developing good relationships with a variety of people with different points of view was one of the best things about St. Thomas,” Jerry reflected. “Prior to that, everyone I knew was from around Henderson.” He particularly enjoyed logic, Bible studies, history, math and a variety of logic classes. Ethics, he said, came from his parents.

At home, he recalls a mother who was involved in civic projects and a father who ran a successful grocery business – and sang at Protestant funerals, sometimes to the discomfort of his parish priest. “I’m an Irish baritone and I know these are people of goodness, so I will sing with them in their time of need,” his father said. “And my mother, Mabel, was a great lady and an important element in my being successful.

“We were brought up in the tradition that people were people, not labels, and that you did the right thing, believed in your religion because it guides your behavior, and you helped people,” said Jerry, who enlisted in the Army after graduation and later became a social studies teacher in Goodhue and Hastings. He worked in banking before running for the Minnesota House of Representatives, where he has served since 1992. He and his wife, Joanne, had four children, Nick, Mark, Katie and Patrick. Six years after Joanne died in 1993, Jerry married Julie, and they live in Red Wing.

‘You want to get to heaven, too’

Ethical implications are meaningful, Jerry said, citing support of unions and fair pay, helping people as the function of the state. “Government and business do not determine the value of people; people bring values to them. We pass legislation to empower goodness and truth. The job gives you the opportunity to express your values. In America, sometimes people think the end justifies the means but it’s really just greed, as in Enron. Profit is good, but you want to get to heaven, too.

As for the present-day university, “I like St. Thomas’ academic emphasis and religious teachings. I like its outreach programs to help the poor and homeless,” he concluded. “St. Thomas is a bellwether in our society because it lives by its truth, purposes and values and has not wavered. The St. Thomas degree means something in our society; it’s just the best. It’s a university founded upon the teachings of the Catholic Church. That’s not going to save the world, but you have to have truth and people educated to live by good principles.”

Freshman Matt McWilliams’ grandmother was Janet Dempsey, sister to Terry, John and Jerry. A communications major from Prior Lake, he played varsity soccer this year for a team that was 10-3-4. “I chose St. Thomas somewhat because of soccer,” he said, “but also because of location and the good academic programs.”

McWilliams wanted to stay in the Twin Cities because of his alternative grunge band, the Puppets, and “one of my major passions is music.” In his first semester, he found “some very good teachers at St. Thomas, especially Mr. Campbell in English and Dr. Robinson in psychology.” He is not eager to take the three required theology classes. “I did that for four years at a Catholic high school,” said the Holy Angels graduate, who won an academic scholarship to St. Thomas, “but I guess I’ll have to.”

Parents pushed a good work ethic

St. Thomas seems like a nice community to McWilliams. “It’s not too big or too small and there are lots of programs for kids to get involved and to do things on or off campus. The soccer team and Coach Aaron Macke helped. We went to get-togethers, barbecues and Twins games as a team and got to know each other.”

An honor student in high school, McWilliams explained that “my parents, Pamela and Terry McWilliams, pushed me to do well, to have a good work ethic. I have my own moral standard about attaining and keeping a strong work ethic and that has helped me a lot in school and hopefully in the future.”

He does not know Father Lavin, and said his great uncles, the Dempseys, never pushed him to attend St. Thomas. He lives in Cretin Residence Hall on the south campus and likes it because “there are good people here and it’s nice and quiet.” Informed that the student newspaper occasionally prints stories that Cretin, built in 1894, is haunted by residents from the past, McWilliams laughs and said he hasn’t heard anything about ghosts.

But he is a part of times past. His great-grandfather, Mark Dempsey, who graduated from St. Thomas 90 years ago, was listed with many others in a Roll of Honor for war service in the 1918 Kaydet (the first St. Thomas yearbook).

Explaining why they created the pages and pages of the Roll of Honor, the yearbook editors said: “They have shown to the world that the teaching imparted at St. Thomas makes for good citizenship. … Love for the old school has made them heroes by adhering strictly to the principles implanted in their hearts when they sojourned in the land of books. … We now pledge ourselves ever to be true followers of the men who for us have blazed the trail of honor, citizenship and patriotism.”