Like many of those who are old enough to remember the terrorist attacks of 9/11, St. Thomas seniors from the Class of 2002 will never forget where they were when they heard the news.
“I was eating breakfast in my apartment in Morrison Hall,” said John Wagner ‘02. “My mother called and told me to turn on the television immediately. I did so and watched the second jet crash into the twin towers as it happened.”
In fall 2001, Wagner was a scholarship ROTC cadet at the University of St. Thomas, majoring in political science and minoring in aerospace studies on the St. Paul campus. At the detachment on campus, where he and fellow ROTC cadets gathered after watching the twin towers tragically topple under a plume of smoke, they talked about many things associated with the attack. He noted that one of their primary concerns was: “Are we going to war after graduation?”
That 11th day of September became a defining moment for Wagner.
“Prior to 9/11, I didn’t think about terrorism very much. Now it occupies much of my thinking." - John Wagner '02
“The attacks changed the trajectory of my life,” he told the St. Thomas Newsroom just ahead of the ill-fated day’s 20th anniversary. “I became an intelligence officer after leaving St. Thomas and most of my career has been spent working at home and abroad on intelligence and counterterrorism, including in Iraq where I served with a special forces unit targeting Al Qaeda affiliates in 2004.”
Wagner’s original plan was to go to law school after finishing his bachelor’s degree and receiving a military commission, then enter the JAG Corps (Judge Advocate General’s Corps members are attorneys in the military). After he separated from the U.S. Air Force as a captain, he completed a master’s degree while interning at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in Scotland. He then completed another master’s degree and then a doctorate in war studies, both from universities in London.
“I took this academic path in part to better understand the nature of transnational threats like terrorism and how they affect international security,” he explained.
Making his home in Washington, D.C., Wagner now conducts oversight of U.S. counterterrorism operations abroad. His current portfolio includes operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In short, he examines how the United States is doing in the fight against ISIS. He also authors quarterly assessments of the military’s progress for Congress and briefs congressional members and staffers on how the operations are evolving.
“Prior to 9/11, I didn’t think about terrorism very much. Now it occupies much of my thinking,” he said.
No day for learning
Many of the current juniors and seniors at St. Thomas witnessing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan were in their first year of life when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. To them, what caused the 20-year war is a part of history. For Dan Geislinger ‘02, it’s a vivid memory.
"Everyone was dead silent watching both towers burning. I struggled to comprehend what I was looking at..." - Dan Geislinger '02
“I lived off campus and normally drove in. That beautiful morning, I decided to bike instead. I parked outside Murray Hall and headed downstairs to check my mail. While rifling through my mail, I noticed an unusual number of people in Scooter’s, so popped in,” said Geislinger, who is now a director of technology at Cigna / Express Scripts in Bloomington.
“Everyone was dead silent watching both towers burning. I struggled to comprehend what I was looking at – it then dawned on me that planes hitting both towers couldn’t be an accident. I joined the crowd watching in shock,” he said. “I don’t know how long I was there before the first tower collapsed. I recall there being a collective gasp, but that might have just been me. How many people did I just witness dying?! It was awful.”
Geislinger then headed to his theater class across campus. “In class, we were doing silent skits and I remember one small group doing one of the event – two people were the buildings and another person put their arms out and flew into one of them. It was surreal.”
Later in the day, Geislinger, who graduated from St. Thomas in December 2001 with a major in computer science, had a communications class with Communication Studies Professor Julie Friedline. “We gathered just long enough for her to tell us all to go home – that this was no day for learning. So I did. I biked home and spent the afternoon watching all the coverage, horribly entranced by it all.”
Looking for wisdom
Debbie (May) Olson '02 remembers that 9/11 was her first day at a work-study job in the basement of the library. That morning, she was asked to run a quick errand to Aquinas Hall.
"As I was walking up the stairs, I heard two people discussing a plane that hit a building." - Debbie May Olson '02
“As I was walking up the stairs, I heard two people discussing a plane that hit a building. They were dressed professionally as they were probably employees in one of the offices inside so the seriousness in their voice didn't strike me as unusual. I thought they were talking about some new action movie and didn't really think anything of it. I did the drop-off and returned to the library. By then someone had turned on MPR and we listened to coverage for the rest of the shift,” she said.
Olson was a senior studying elementary education and recalled that she was looking for wisdom and comfort from her professor. The next day in class, she said, she remembers that the education professor gave a wise statement regarding 9/11 at the start of class.
“She discussed how when we are teachers, we will need to do this with our students when traumatic events happen. Sadly, I've used Dr. Hanson's advice too many times these last 20 years, but I think of her words often.”
Forever etched in mind and heart
“I remember the morning of 9/11 so vividly,” said Megan Reams ‘02, who lives in Bloomington with her husband and two children. “I was getting ready in my Morrison Hall room to go TA for a biology lab when I saw the news. I recall the shock, confusion and disbelief. I remember reaching out to my parents and boyfriend at the time (now husband) to try and start making sense of what I’d just seen on TV.”
"The service at the chapel allowed all to mourn and process what had happened to our country." - Megan Reams '02
Now Reams is working in Minneapolis as a manager for research and education at TRIA Orthopedic Center after receiving a master’s degree in occupational therapy and working on the clinical side of health care. She recalled, “It was a long walk across campus to the O’Shaughnessy Science Hall that morning. That day on campus was different than any day before or any day that followed. I recall the strong sense of community. All differences were set aside and everyone (faculty, staff, students) came together to support one another as we were searching for answers from a higher power. The service at the chapel allowed all to mourn and process what had happened to our country. We all came together in prayer.”
She added: “I was a mere 21 years old when our country was forever changed on 9/11. It is a day that will forever be etched in my mind and heart.”
‘We lost a lot that day’
Ben Kummer ‘02 was on the cross-country team during his senior year at St. Thomas. The team ended up taking fifth at nationals a couple months after the attacks. “But on this particular morning, it was a quick three-mile run on a cloudless morning,” he recalled. “The morning runs were voluntary, but we were all there. Driving back home, my roommates and I heard an oddity on the radio about a plane flying into a building.”
“Weird. Probably a small plane that made a few wrong turns!” he thought at the time. But when he arrived home and turned on the “TODAY” show, he said he quickly discovered this was no small plane. And it was certainly no simple “building.” It was the World Trade Center.
"It was in that moment, leaving class early, where I finally lost it... The world suddenly felt really, really different." - Ben Kummer '02
“If it happened today, our minds would all go instantly to terrorism,” he said. “But 14 years ago, it wasn't that black and white. We were watching live when we saw, on live TV, the second plane hit the second tower. It was absolutely horrifying, and it was finally evident that we were under attack. It was pretty hard to unglue from the TV coverage, but after a while, I had a class to get to on campus. Maybe in 2021 classes would have been immediately canceled, but they weren't, not in 2001.”
Kummer, who graduated in marketing and currently works at Direct Benefits leading people and culture, added, “In the heat of the moment, things were still so fluid. There was no real-time internet reporting, no Twitter, no Facebook. So we continued on. Class didn't last long. The professor wasn't into it, and neither were us students. But it was in that moment, leaving class early, where I finally lost it. I wandered out of the building and just walked. The world suddenly felt really, really different and I had to find a way to reconcile that. And then it hit me. It was primary election day in Minnesota. And I could vote. It was an odd numbered year primary, so I can't even recall what was on the ballot or who I voted for. But I do remember voting. And the feeling it gave me. For just a moment, I was able to exercise American life and privilege. And while we lost a lot that day, the duty and honor of voting was still with us.”