Several people stopped me last week after they read a newspaper obituary on retired Dean of Students Bill Malevich and saw my quote that Malevich and the late Monsignor James Lavin were perhaps the two most-beloved figures of the past half century at St. Thomas.
“Really?” they asked. “How so?”
They didn’t doubt my observation but simply were curious why I felt that way. They were relative newcomers to St. Thomas and they wanted to know more about the impact these two men had on the life of the university. I tried to explain that in a few words but I feared I wasn’t doing justice to their legacies, so I want to offer my thoughts today.
Both men were natives of Minnesota’s Iron Range, Lavin hailing from Aurora and Malevich from nearby Eveleth. Both held bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. Thomas. Both spent most of their careers here, Lavin as a theology professor, counselor and special assistant in the alumni office from 1946 to 2002 and Malevich as a counselor and dean of students from 1965 to 1993.
But as important as longevity can be, because they came to know many generations of students, it was their interaction with those students that made Lavin and Malevich special. They always put the welfare of students first. They had an innate, almost magical ability to ascertain when a student was in trouble, homesick, broke, struggling with classes or at odds with roommates, and they knew the right thing to say or do to turn that student’s life around.
They did it in very different ways. Lavin lived in Ireland Hall for 60 years – four as a student and 56 as a floor priest – and he became legendary for his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a door that always was open. Malevich was more proactive, camping out in The Grill across from his Murray-Herrick Campus Center office, setting up a “Dean, Dean the Answer Machine” booth and writing an “Ask the Dean” column for a decade.
These were different approaches, indeed, and not surprising when you consider that Lavin was more of an introvert and Malevich was an extrovert. But they were equally effective because they were grounded in a simple desire to help others. They had, in today’s parlance, students’ backs.
The incredibly devout Lavin saw service to students as a natural part of his priestly ministry, and they respected him both because of his Roman collar and his quiet, avuncular nature. After Lavin died in 2012, Tim Fischer ’84, now an athletics and reunions gift officer at St. Thomas, told a story about his first encounter with the man widely known as Scooter.
Fischer lived in Ireland Hall and returned to campus early one morning after having been over-served at a local bar. He took pool balls from the basement to the second-floor hallway and set them up on the terrazzo floor. “Laying down, I felt a tap at my ribs,” Fischer said. “I looked around and it was Father Lavin. ‘What in the world do you think you’re doing?’ he asked me. ‘Playing pool,’ I said. ‘Pick ’em up and follow me,’ he said. I followed him upstairs and he quietly proceeded to fix me a sandwich, sat me down and explained how things worked at St. Thomas. From that time on, he was a mentor and friend.”
Malevich’s efforts to reach out to students stemmed from his own experience as a freshman. “Bill was scared to death when he got here,” Father John Malone said after Malevich’s death. “He wasn’t going to let that happen to students when he was dean.” He became what Al Sickbert, who worked for him and then succeeded him, called “an old-fashioned dean – someone whose whole focus was to be a dean who talked to students.”
“He wasn’t that interested in policies and going to meetings,” said Sickbert, now dean of students at Hamline. “He created with every student who ever got in trouble a very personal relationship. He invited students in and got to know them as real people – not just as students. It was all about personal touch.”
Personal touch. Fischer experienced it that night in Ireland Hall, just as thousands of other students came to witness it over nearly six decades.
Personal touch. Malone saw in Malevich “a substitute grandpa” who went out of his way to help others. “He was one of those people lucky enough to find the job that suited him,” alumnus Bill Collins ’87 said, “and then spent his lifetime doing it well.”
We should all be so lucky. More importantly, we should all be grateful. This community filled the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas three years ago to pay their last respects to Monsignor Lavin. I expect a similar crowd will be on hand at 10:30 a.m. this Saturday (Aug. 1) for Dean Malevich’s funeral in the chapel. See you there.