St. Thomas Day Winners Are All Teachers In Their Own Right

I’m old enough, wise enough and contrite enough to get interested, enthused and impressed when other people get awards. Judging from the reaction of the 500 in attendance at Saturday night’s St. Thomas Day celebration, I wasn’t the only one. The 2011 Tommie Day winners are an impressive group – and each has a distinguishing characteristic making him memorable.

Of course, they’re more than one dimensional but they each define, with character and clarity, a trait I’d like in my backpack for this life’s journey.

It begins with the Monsignor James Lavin Award winner, 81-year-old Dr. Jim McEnaney of Owatonna.The “Doc” practiced medicine, made house calls and delivered babies for 43 years. He figures he delivered somewhere between 500 and 1,000.  He was there at the beginning of life … and at the end. In between, he conducted himself and his life, according to those who know him best, with JOY.

He was, and is, joyous about life. He’s got a quick smile, an ever-present handshake and a willing ear – for an old friend or a newcomer he just met at the Homecoming football game. When he grabs your hand, he looks you in the eye, repeats your name and focuses his attention. He’s as good at the meet-and-greet at an alumni affair as Hubert Humphrey was at a DFL county picnic.

Tom Connery, the Professor of the Year, is teaching undergraduate Communication and Journalism majors in what is now his fourth decade at St. Thomas. Watching him in front of a class, reading from the Bible at a morning Mass with the Visitation sisters or talking about a former student, it’s hard to believe he’s lost a step. He has not lost his PASSION, especially in a classroom.

When he’s reading a passage or paper he likes, the volume rises, the inflection grows and the intensity deepens. He gets into it, and the whole class can tell. His former boss and department chair, the late Father James Whalen, used to say that if he didn’t work up a sweat in class, he wasn’t doing his best. Tom still works up a sweat.

Tim Flynn, the Distinguished Alumnus Award winner, is no stranger to sweat and hard work. While he was a full-time student at St. Thomas (Class of 1979), majoring in accounting, he also worked 32 hours a week unloading freight at Overland Express, where his father was the chief financial officer. Tim defined multi-tasking before the term was invented.

But his trademark, his foundation, his mantra, is TRUST. You earn it. You need it. You inspire it. You encourage it. He’s done all of that as the global chairman of KPMG, a network of professional firms providing audit, tax and advisory services in 144 countries. Accounting firms ran into big trouble for deception and deceit beginning with Arthur Andersen in 2002, a time Flynn calls a dynamic moment and used to instill a culture at KPMG “where people will do the right thing.”

While Tim Flynn runs a global company, Humanitarian Award winner Ryan Schlief is a global citizen. He works for Witness, headquartered in Brooklyn but present around the world to call attention to human rights abuses. The non-profit provides video cameras, editing equipment and training so citizens can record what’s happening to them – from police brutality to forced evictions.

Ryan has been helping people tell their stories in Cambodia, India and Papua, Indonesia. He doesn’t “parachute in” to tell them what to do; he teaches them how to do it. Given language and cultural barriers, that’s a challenge. But he thrives on CHALLENGE and always has, from the time he was All College Council president at St. Thomas, trying to bring more students of color into student government and campus activities. Now he’s coordinating activities with folks in a half-dozen time zones and occasionally trying to find a bed for the night in a youth hostel in some faraway place.

While Schlief was trying at St. Thomas to make groups feel welcome, the Tommie of the Year actively revived one – the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Dan Carr rallied athletes from track and field, volleyball and football. The driving force is his FAITH, which he says is the foundation of the life he lives.

According to his friends, Carr practices his faith without pretense or preaching; just the opposite, he’s humble and helpful. Those are a couple of traits this 70-year-old can learn from that 22-year-old.

I can learn a lot, in fact, from all of our St. Thomas Day award winners – about joy, passion, trust, challenge and faith. So can you!