Five Honored at Annual St. Thomas Day

Dennis Farrell, Father Greg Tolaas, Dr. Michael Degnan, Priscilla McNulty and Greg Aitchison are award winners

The University of St. Thomas community gathered March 6 to celebrate its annual St. Thomas Day and to honor recipients of its Distinguished Alumnus, Humanitarian, Professor of the Year, Tommy and Monsignor James Lavin awards.

St. Thomas Day events began with a 5:30 p.m. Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas celebrated by Archbishop Harry Flynn, chair of the university's board of trustees. It was 86 years ago – on the March 7 St. Thomas Day of 1918 – that the first Mass was celebrated in that chapel.

A dinner and awards program followed in Murray-Herrick Campus Center. The awards were presented to:

  • Distinguished Alumnus – This year's award was given posthumously to Father Greg Tolaas, a member of the St. Thomas community for more than two decades, who died last September from complications associated with cystic fibrosis. Established in 1971, the Distinguished Alumnus Award is presented for leadership and service to the university, to the community and in the person's field of endeavor.
  • Humanitarian of the Year – Dennis Farrell, St. Louis Park, received the 2004 Humanitarian of the Year Award. He was honored for his volunteer and fund-raising efforts on behalf of Catholic schools, churches and organizations that serve those in need. Established 34 years ago, the Humanitarian of the Year Award is presented by the university's Alumni Association.
  • Professor of the Year – Dr. Michael Degnan, of St. Paul's Merriam Park neighborhood, is this year's Professor of the Year. The 43-year-old award recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and inspiration to students.
  • Monsignor James Lavin Award – Priscilla McNulty, of St. Paul's Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, received this year's award. Established in 1994, the award annually honors a volunteer for service to the St. Thomas Alumni Association.
  • Tommy Award – Greg Aitchison was selected the 2004 Tommy Award winner by a vote of students, staff and faculty. The award has been given annually since 1931 to a senior who exemplifies the ideals of the university.


Distinguished Alumnus – Father Greg Tolaas '78, M.A. '83

A St. Paul native, Father Greg Tolaas grew up in the St. Thomas neighborhood and attended Hill-Murray High School, St. John Vianney Seminary and the St. Paul Seminary. He was ordained in 1983. He later become spiritual director at St. John Vianney and, from 1990 to 1997, was the university's director of Campus Ministry.

When he left St. Thomas in 1997, the student newspaper wrote: "Father Tolaas' legacy will be a tough act to follow. Anyone who has never heard one of his homilies has missed something. He has a way of driving home his point and making the message interesting." Students, faculty and staff also were inspired by the matter-of-fact way he handled his cystic fibrosis; the disease claimed his mother and two sisters.

Tolaas left St. Thomas because, he said, he wanted to serve the church in a hard-pressed inner-city parish. He was pastor at St. Philip Catholic Church in Minneapolis from 1997 until his death at age 47. During his time at St. Philip, he revived the parish to one that drew about 500 to Mass on Sundays, and had many enrichment programs, especially for children.

Tolaas was recognized for reviving the parish, and for his work at the university.

Father Dale Korogi, Tolaas' best friend, spoke on St. Thomas Day:

I met Greg Tolaas in September of 1976 on the fifth floor of Brady Hall, then the home of St. John Vianney Seminary. He was a junior that year, an elementary education major. The '70s, despite double-knit polyester, were heady and joyous times. We were on fire, inspired by Jesus – and sometimes, John Denver.

We tried to live our faith boldly and energetically, in light of the justice demands of the Gospel. We traveled to Appalachia and Guatemala, the first group of St. Thomas students to go there. We involved ourselves in local politics. Our Christianity and Catholicism were fed by vibrant liturgy and fueled by brave theology among a tight-knit community of students.

At St. Thomas, students listened to him and trusted him when he passionately preached the Gospel, because he believed and lived it passionately: He was the real thing.

The archbishop of Paris during World War II, Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, said, "To be a witness does not consist of engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery." Greg did engage in propaganda, and he certainly stirred people up, but – most compelling of all – he was a "living mystery," carrying the death and resurrection of Jesus in his fragile, yet seemingly indefatigable body.

For complete texts and audio versions of all speeches, visit:


Tommy Award – Greg Aitchison '04

orn and raised in Davenport, Iowa, Greg Aitchison spent his freshman year at Iowa State University before transferring to St. Thomas. He is majoring in theology with a minor in Catholic studies and has been involved with many volunteer activities on campus and in the community, including mission work in Honduras and on the Mohawk Indian Reservation in New York.

Aitchison plans to enter a Catholic seminary to further discern a vocation to the priesthood. If he does not become a priest, he would like to teach theology in high school.

Among the most fulfilling activities during his years at St. Thomas were his work as a resident adviser in Ireland Hall and his work with the university's VISION volunteer program.

"I'll be forever grateful for the VISION program here at St. Thomas," he said. "I feel it brings the university's mission to the fore, offering every student a chance to grow and serve in unimaginable ways. It is one program I would encourage every student to take part in at least once during her or his undergraduate career."

From his speech:

As with all of you, I've been called to climb, to push back what others may think and strive ahead, and I thank God for the strength to have done so thus far. It is a find grounded in faith, committed to the search for truth and encompassing of all peoples. You and I both know it as the University of St. Thomas. It has been a gift to me É and I have only felt obliged to give back as much of myself to this university as I have received from it.

Now all through my life I've been blessed with an encouragement from my family and friends to simply be myself, to serve others until I've nothing left to give, and to continually allow myself to be picked up and placed in the arms of grace.

My friends, of course, both here and away, have brought much joy and craziness to my life. Many are strange and goofy just as I am, but as my parents have often reminded me, ÔThey are always great people.' I owe much thanks to each and every one of them, and only hope I can be such a blessing to them as they have been to me.


Humanitarian – Dennis Farrell '66

Originally from north Minneapolis, Dennis Farrell graduated from St. Thomas in 1966. In addition to a career in business, Farrell has spent the past 40 years actively raising funds for a host of organizations in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the country.

Two organizations he has been most involved with are De La Salle High School and Families Moving Forward, both based in Minneapolis.

A 1962 graduate of De La Salle, he serves on the school's board, is president of its Alumni Association and heads its Development Committee, which raises funds for scholarships.

He has been involved with Families Moving Forward for the past 10 years and is past president. It is an interfaith network of congregations and volunteers that provides shelter and services to homeless families with children. The organization coordinates the volunteer efforts of 40 churches and 4,000 volunteers.

Farrell is president and CEO of Hermanson Dental Services, the state's largest dental lab. He and his wife, Mary, have four children. He credits his late parents, Gordon and Delores Farrell, for teaching him to "take care of others' needs before taking care of my own."

From his speech:

Families Moving Forward also owns 23 apartments in two buildings on the north side of Minneapolis and last summer we built 12 new townhouses in south Minneapolis. The difficulty of finding affordable housing is what has prompted us to be proactive and develop our own. Our focus is on the kids because more than 60 percent of our guests are children under 10. Our funding comes from individuals, churches, corporations and foundations, along with special events.

I have been blessed to continue to have the energy to do what I love. I hope St. Thomas will continue to focus on educating others to make a difference.

The following is a prayer that I read each day at my desk to remind me of things we should all focus on: "Lord, touch our souls with your compassion for others. Touch our hearts with your courage and infinite love for all. Touch our minds with your wisdom that we may proclaim your praise. Teach us to lead others to you by example. Bring us health and spirit that we may serve you. Touch gently our lives, which you have created, now and forever."


Monsignor James Lavin Award – Priscilla McNulty '81, M.A. '83

Priscilla McNulty, who holds both bachelor's and master's degrees from St. Thomas, is a former board member and vice president of the Alumni Association. An attorney, she serves on the board of governors for the St. Thomas School of Law and is a mentor for law school students. She also teaches business law to undergraduate students.

She helped establish the association's popular First Friday Luncheon Series and has been a class reunion volunteer. McNulty was a member of the first undergraduate coeducational class at St. Thomas.

From her speech:

As for success, that's a concept I have thought a lot about ever since a discussion we had during my freshman year at St. Thomas in Father Dennis Dease's class on faith. Students were commenting on what they thought made someone successful, things like hard work, intelligence, and Father Dease agreed with those suggestions, but then he said that success undoubtedly takes a good amount of courage and an even greater amount of faith: faith in God, but often an even bigger challenge in having faith in God's ways, which includes faith in man, faith in process and faith that we get all the things we need at the time we are meant to receive them.

My father [the late Patrick J. McNulty '44] attended St. Thomas in 1940. Like almost all of his classmates, his time here was cut short. They were called to service in places such as Germany, France, Japan and the South Pacific. But, he always kept his St. Thomas ties.

One of my fondest memories of St. Thomas took place in this room, 10 years ago. The class of '44 was having their 50th reunion, their induction into the Old Guard.

You see, all but a handful of the class of '44 missed their graduation. Most had missed the two or three years before as well. But graduation was scheduled for D-Day, and they couldn't be here. So they took their seats, and Father Dease and Monsignor Murphy stepped up here to the podium. These were guys who had known Monsignor Murphy long before he was a priest. He was their old friend, Terry, and they cheered him as he came to the front of the room. And Monsignor Murphy began reading the names of the class, sometimes telling a little story about one or another of them, and Father Dease shook their hand and handed out certificates, and they had the graduation of the class of '44 that night. Tom Brokaw called them "the greatest generation." That night, St. Thomas celebrated the greatest graduation for the most grateful class I can imagine.

Priscilla McNulty '81, M.A. '83, is shown at The Depot, the downtown Minneapolis home of the First Friday Luncheon Series.


Professor of the Year – Dr. Michael Degnan '77

As an undergraduate at St. Thomas, Michael Degnan studied philosophy and graduated summa cum laude in 1977. He began teaching part-time at St. Thomas in 1980 and fulltime in 1982.

Degnan, who received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Minnesota in 1990, is a professor at St. Thomas and teaches ethics, contemporary philosophy, environmental ethics and honors seminars.

A fall at his home seven years ago left him in a wheelchair, and while he misses walking around during classroom discussions, he arranges students' chairs in a U so he can wheel around at eye level.

Degnan enjoys teaching his students to be "inquirers" and has them examine both sides of a question in many areas – biology, psychology or theology, for example – to help them form a foundation for making moral decisions.'

From his speech:

A teacher is a midwife to the birth of new understandings, new ways of making sense of experience. This Platonic analogy reminds us that learning can be gut wrenching, demanding every ounce of one's mental, emotional and physical strength. As a teacher I seek to offer such experiences to my students. Adapting to the new life as a paraplegic has given birth in me to new understandings about what it means to be human.

Compensation for these losses is deeper realizations about the vulnerability and interdependency of human life. I have experienced firsthand how much I, and all of us, rely upon the institutions and practices established by our political and religious communities, as well as the character and good will of individuals that such institutions and practices foster.

Finally, the injury and its aftermath have caused me to reflect on the purpose of suffering or evil in the world.

Reflection on the community support my family received in the aftermath of my accident led me to write a reflection on the Good Friday reading of the suffering servant passage in Isaiah.

Our stripes can heal others.The cruelty, the suffering, the helplessnessPrompt others to loving responseAs healers, reformers, teachers,Modeling your self-giving loveTill we all join you with our crossOn the road to a resurrected life with you.