St. Thomas Day: Celebrating the Best

St. Thomas honors five at annual St. Thomas Day

The St. Thomas community gathered March 4 to celebrate its annual St. Thomas Day and to honor recipients of its Humanitarian, Distinguished Alumnus, 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. The Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Harry Flynn, chair of the university’s board of trustees. It was 82 years ago — on the March 7 St. Thomas Day of 1918 — that the first Mass was celebrated in that chapel.

At the dinner, awards were presented to the following people:

Humanitarian of the Year: William Connelly, Bloomington.

Until recently the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Economic Development Fund, Connelly was recognized for his work with Minnesota’s American Indian community. The Humanitarian Award is presented by the Alumni Association.

Connelly, 62, is a 1959 St. Thomas graduate who spent the first 25 years of his career with the First Bank System. He was president and CEO of First Banks in Babbitt, Northfield, Grand Forks and Austin. In 1986, he was appointed deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Energy and Economic Development and two years later came to St. Thomas and its Graduate School of Business, where he now is director of urban economic initiatives.

In addition to teaching, for a time Connelly directed the university’s Small Business Development Center. While still associated with St. Thomas, Connelly in 1990 became the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Economic Development Fund, which he helped create. Supported by the McKnight Foundation and affiliated with St. Thomas, the nonprofit fund provides technical assistance to American Indian entrepreneurs who develop businesses on the 11 reservations in the state.

Just about the time he started his work with the fund, Connelly bought a new Buick. In nine years he put 264,000 miles on the car driving to the state’s four Dakota and seven Ojibway reservations, including the Red Lake Nation. Ten days after completing his work as the fund director, the car quit running. "After all those years it never gave me a bit of trouble," Connelly said. "But it died just after I stopped making those long trips to the reservations."

Instead of meeting clients in nicely appointed bank offices, Connelly worked at the kitchen tables of reservation members hoping to launch businesses. More than 20 companies now thriving on reservations have been helped by his efforts.

Although he no longer directs the fund, Connelly continues to work with both St. Thomas and the American Indian community. He has been involved with the American Indian Research Culture Institute at the Benedictine Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota. And from his office at the archdiocesan Office of Indian Ministry in Minneapolis, he conducts research on how parishes are affected by inner-city demographic changes, and programs that are successful in keeping American Indian students in high school.

Distinguished Alumnus: Gerald Heaney, Duluth.

Gerald Heaney of rural Duluth is the senior judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Distinguished Alumnus award is presented for leadership and service to the university, to the community and in the person’s field of endeavor.

Heaney, 82, was born in Goodhue and attended St. Thomas from 1935 to 1936. Like many from that era, he transferred to the University of Minnesota law school to complete his undergraduate and graduate law degrees.

Heaney enlisted as an Army private in July 1942; six months later he was commissioned an officer. After the war, he was partner in a law firm until named to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1966; he became its senior member in 1988.

Heaney is a noted analyst on constitutional law and is known for his work and rulings in the areas of civil and human rights. Through his efforts Duluth became the first city in the country to pass an open-housing ordinance, and he helped lead a team that built one of the first housing projects for low-income families.

On the civic front, Heaney helped organize the Northeastern Minnesota Development Association, was on the University of Minnesota board of regents and supported the development of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, worked to help create the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth, and chaired the Duluth Inter-Racial Council.

Professor of the Year: Dr. Steven Hatting, St. Paul.

A member of St. Thomas’ political science department since 1982, Hatting is this year’s Professor of the Year. The 38-year-old award recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and inspiration to students.

Hatting, 53, earned his master’s and Ph.D. at Duke University and specializes in constitutional law and judicial politics. As the university’s pre-law adviser and educator-coach of St. Thomas’ highly successful mock trial teams, Hatting has worked with hundreds of students interested in pursuing legal careers. The St. Thomas mock trial team won the national championship in 1987, and has won the North Central regional tournament four times in the 1990s.

Hatting founded the St. Thomas Pre-Law Society in 1983, chaired the Political Science Department from 1986 to 1996, and directed the Division of Social Sciences from 1992 to 1996. He also served as president of the Minnesota Political Science Association from 1997 to 1999.

The university’s Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society called Hatting "tremendously dedicated" and said his "encouragement and integrity are inspirational" when it named him adviser of the year.

Monsignor James Lavin Award: Rachel Wobschall, St. Paul.

Director of citizen outreach for the Minnesota Governor’s Office, Wobschall is the Lavin Award winner.

Established in 1994, the award annually honors a volunteer for service to the Alumni Association.

An active alumna since her 1981 graduation, she is a past alumni board member and vice president and has helped with volunteer efforts.

This wasn’t her first trip to the podium on a St. Thomas Day. In 1981 she received the "Tommy" outstanding senior student award. St. Thomas became coeducational in 1977, and she was the first woman to win what previously had been called the "Mr. Tommy" award.

During her senior year, Wobschall was president of the All College Council. She majored in political science.

The Tommy Award: Jon Merchant, Norfolk, Neb.

Merchant was selected the 2000 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.

Merchant is president of the All College Council and has been active in many clubs and organizations, including Campus Ministry.

A public relations major, Merchant holds a 3.6 grade-point average and is planning to pursue graduate studies in higher-education administration.

Merchant told The Aquin that he appreciates the "window of opportunity" college life provides. "The time between high school and professional life should be spent shaping one’s identity and learning to be independent. … Get involved. I think that’s the biggest component to truly appreciating the academic life of college," he said.

"Everything at St. Thomas was a learning experience, good or bad," Merchant said. "Looking back, if one thing did not work out, it opened the door for another opportunity. The hardest challenge was creating a balance in life between school and work.

"I like the sense of community at St. Thomas worship services. Through my work in Campus Ministry and theology classes, I have learned more about the principles and foundations of the Catholic faith, which has helped me develop my own faith life. I don’t make decisions on what other people think. I have faith in God to help me make the right decision.