Due to cultural sensitivity concerns and accuracy considerations, original references to the Spanish flu have been removed from the online version of this story.

In times of crisis, Tommies of every generation have shown their abilities to find ways to help others and to keep St. Thomas a safe and strong institution, while simultaneously experiencing sadness and uncertainty.

As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many examples of strength and compassion exhibited by Tommies throughout history.

The 1918 flu pandemic

The St. Thomas infirmary, photographed in 1920.

The St. Thomas infirmary, photographed in 1920.

“Social distancing” may be a new term in the modern era, but it’s not a new phenomenon at St. Thomas. Self-isolation was prescribed to Tommies in 1918, during the flu pandemic. The first diagnosed case in Minnesota appeared in late September of that year.

“Classes had already started for the college and high school students enrolled at St. Thomas,” wrote Ann Kenne, head of special collections and archivist at St. Thomas. “A unit of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) – a contingent of soldiers preparing to fight in World War I – were also posted on campus.”

The university did not close entirely, and students remained on campus. They were asked to isolate themselves to prevent the spread of the illness. Those who contracted the flu were cared for in the college infirmary (empty but still standing today, next to the Saint John Vianney College Seminary in the upper quad). “While no records exist to tell us how many of the approximately 1,200 students at the college contracted the flu during this outbreak, we know at least three students and one member of the SATC died from the flu. We also know the following year that the flu reappeared and claimed the life of one seminarian.”

World War II: 1942

In an April 1942 message to alumni, the College of St. Thomas Alumni Association secretary, John A. Madigan ’22, wrote, “Higher education in America must lead, not follow.” He was referring to the role that all alumni must play in America’s fight during World War II.

His belief in the college’s ability to make a difference, coupled with his faith in his fellow alumni (all men at the time) to stand up and help, was strong: “St. Thomas men, everywhere, are joining the armed forces; are buying defense bonds; and are contributing time and energy necessary to keep the world safe for democracy. As a college trained man, you should do more than your share. Prove to America and the world that our higher educational system is the best on earth.”

Indeed, St. Thomas knew it could play a critical role by bringing more leaders to the front lines of all industries. The college introduced summer sessions, which enabled students to complete four-year degrees in only three years. It created faster pathways for students preparing to give back through careers in medicine, dentistry and engineering. Not surprisingly, St. Thomas also rearranged courses in chemistry, physics and mathematics to better meet the demands of industry and national defense.

Bert McKasy ’23, Alumni Association president at the time, may have said it best: “Our duty is clear. Our country is facing one of the gravest crises in its history. St. Thomas students as well as St. Thomas alumni will not be found wanting.”

Sept. 11, 2001

St. Thomas alumnus Anthony Kuczynski ’98, a first lieutenant in the Air Force, was flying one of the few military planes in the sky during the opening moments of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. He was flying toward Pittsburgh alongside two F-16 fighter jets. “I was given direct orders to shoot down an airliner,” he said in a 2002 article of the student newspaper, The Aquin. Just as he and his crew were about to intercept United Airlines Flight 93, passengers rushed the terrorists and the airliner crashed in a field.

The country was in mourning. We were under attack. Like most of us, St. Thomas students watched it unfold on television. Their reaction was to be together and pray. More than 400 students and faculty and staff members attended a candlelight peace vigil on the evening of the attacks. The campus community gathered two days later for the school year’s opening Mass, whose typical celebratory air was replaced with a somber mood. The Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas was so full that students were standing outside on the steps.

In the months that followed, the St. Thomas family took action to bring forth love, insight and ideas, as we forged our way forward. Religious leaders hosted concerts and discussions to bring us together through faith. Many alumni enlisted or were called or recalled to active duty. And Julie Hanson, a staff member in the Business Office, created a memorial quilt that ultimately featured 19,000 blocks and 300 panels from contributors all over the world.

As President Julie Sullivan reminded us last week, “St. Thomas has weathered many storms in the past and has always emerged as a stronger university. Our mission and our values have never been more relevant to our world, and I can’t wait to see and experience the St. Thomas that we will build together for our future world.”

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