When I joined the faculty of the College of St. Thomas in September 1959 as a member of the Economics Department, there was a mutual agreement between me and the dean, Monsignor William O'Donnell, that I would be here for one year. As a Muslim from Egypt, I was not sure how I would fit at a Catholic college, and I think the monsignor had the same question. (The word diversity was not yet in our daily vocabulary.) Now I have completed 45 years at the university. Where the time has gone, God knows.
As I look back, I think of my early years as a young man from far away and the regular visits I enjoyed with Herb Slusser, Fred Flynn, Jim Colwell, Rome Sevenich and Franz Mueller. These great men exemplified and shared the culture and the values of the College of St. Thomas. They were the ones who showed me that teaching is not an occupation but rather a vocation, a commitment to growth, knowledge, sharing and communication for the mind, the heart and the spirit. Anything I have been able to pass along to the many students who have touched my life, I owe to these men.
I have had the privilege of working in many capacities as the institution journeyed from being a small college to a highly respected university. I enjoyed every minute of it. I remember one meeting with O'Donnell, who said, "Mo, slow down. I do not want St. Thomas to be the Harvard of the Midwest."
One of the turning points in my relationship with St. Thomas was teaching for two years at Nazareth Hall, the preparatory seminary that closed in 1968. Teaching and becoming acquainted with young men who were seriously considering becoming priests opened up avenues of understanding and mutual exchange. I think it helped me to see and appreciate the human qualities of the priests on the faculty and to include many of them among my close friends.
One of these friends was O'Donnell, a man with a big heart and a ready smile, who saw himself as the head of the St. Thomas family. It was not at all unusual to walk through the halls of Aquinas and come across "the dean" visiting with whomever came by, telling a story. Or he might be deliberately waylaying Franz Mueller, the always-punctual economics professor and then thoroughly enjoying Mueller's discomfort at being late. O'Donnell used to invite me down to his office just to chat. These were wonderful visits, helping to make St. Thomas an integral part of my life.
Following O'Donnell's retirement in 1973, our next dean was Dr. Charlie Keffer, a young man full of energy and totally focused on his many tasks and responsibilities. Charlie didn't often have time to walk the halls and tell stories. I knew that when I had an appointment to see him, I had better be well prepared. The meeting would always start with "What's up, Mo?" And then he would proceed to take the items one-by-one: "Item 1 – we'll do it; item 2 – I'll have the answer for you by 9 a.m." A different style for different times, but one that was always thoughtful.
During these years, the college (and then university) was in the process of integrating a diverse faculty, a national and international student body, and a strong curriculum.
In recent years, I got to know many of the "newer" faculty through my work with the Center for Senior Citizens'Education. Names like Michael Mikolajczak, Father Michael Joncas, Anne Klejment and Joan Griffith come quickly to my mind when I think of faculty who are always ready and willing to offer wonderful programs for our older students. I often hear our friends say, "It doesn't matter what topic they teach; just bring them back!" It has given me real pride to be able to "showcase" these fine people as my colleagues.
I encountered many people from both inside and outside St. Thomas who enhanced my understanding of and belief in humankind. Reflecting on how this Muslim managed to fit into and stay for so long at this Catholic college, I believe the answer lies in the friendship that has been extended to me, our shared, deep respect for the dignity of each individual, a willingness to listen and learn from each other and our trust in God.
Selim earned his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota. He was Professor of the Year in 1978; this year he received the university's Distinquished Service Award and was named professor emeritus before he retired in August. (Read more about Selim in the June 21 Bulletin Today at https://www.stthomas.edu/bulletin/ archive.cfm.)