In his time, Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy was the largest individual contributor to Catholic higher education in the country, and much of that generosity was bestowed on his alma mater, St. Thomas. O’Shaughnessy came to St. Thomas after a misadventure caused his expulsion from St. John’s University, and he went on to head the largest individually owned oil company in the world.
The benefactor of many buildings at St. Thomas, including O’Shaughnessy Stadium, O’Shaughnessy Library, O’Shaughnessy Educational Center and O’Shaughnessy Hall, I.A. O’Shaughnessy stands as one of the great characters in the connected lore of St. Thomas and St. Johns.
Q: How did he end up going to both St. Thomas and St. John’s?
A: Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy, the 13th child of a Stillwater bootmaker and homemaker, was born in 1885 and enrolled at St. John’s at age 16. He starred in the first St. John’s-St. Thomas football game, played on Thanksgiving Day 1901 at Lexington Park in St. Paul, and sparked a 16-0 upset win. He started at offensive tackle and carried the ball seven times for 76 yards in the first half, including runs of 20, 13 and 14 yards on consecutive carries.
Q: Were the players and fans as enthusiastic at that first game as they are at St. Thomas-St. John’s games today?
A: Father Louis Traufier, the St. John’s coach, said his team was psyched up because the game was built up as a battle between city kids and farm boys. A half century later, he described the game for Worship & Work magazine:
“We were called ‘the hay seeds’ so (our) boys came on the field with hay seeds in their caps. One of the men from St. Thomas had written a poem and set it to song: ‘When Rueben Comes to Town,’ and they were to sing and play it during the half. They (St. Thomas) were a foregone conclusion to win and had a paid coach. Our boys had no equipment except canvas jackets and shorts, and no headgear. We led in the first half and won the game. The boys ran over each other for touchdowns. They made a human pyramid so they could run over each other.”
The Scorecard, a 1979 history of athletics at St. John’s, noted that “when news of the victory reached St. John’s, the campus went wild. It was heady news for the young partisan-minded St. John’s fans.”
Q: Did the winners get a trophy?
A: No, but O’Shaughnessy could have had a Meerschaum pipe, given to the player with the longest run. He declined. “In those days,” he said, “if a student was caught smoking a pipe, he was immediately sent home.”
Q: O’Shaughnessy may not have been a smoker, but is it true that he enjoyed an occasional beer?
A: At least once! St. John’s expelled him in January 1902 after he was caught skipping Sunday vespers to drink beer in the woods. He headed for home on the train but got off in downtown St. Paul and walked 6 miles to St. Thomas, where he ran into Father John Dolphin, the president. He fed the teenager a hot meal and asked if St. John’s was justified in expelling him. “Absolutely,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I knew the rule and the penalty. I broke the rule and got caught. They had to fire me.” Dolphin appreciated O’Shaughnessy’s honesty and accepted him on the spot.
Q: So did O’Shaughnessy then play for St. Thomas?
A: Absolutely. The Tommies outscored their opponents 63-6 in 1904 and won the state championship the following year, although he never had the opportunity to play against St. John’s.
Q: What did O’Shaughnessy do after graduation in 1907?
A: He married Lillian Smith, who lived in the St. Thomas neighborhood, and bounced around the country looking for the right job. He worked in insurance, banking and tire manufacturing for a decade before he founded Globe Oil Refining Co. in Oklahoma. He became the largest independent refiner in the country, amassed great wealth and gave away much of his fortune.
Q: To whom?
A: To virtually everybody. O’Shaughnessy received countless requests for contributions large and small. If affirmative, he wrote yes and an amount on the bottom of the request. If no, he wrote a letter to explain why.
Q: How generous was he to St. Thomas?
A: Very! He entirely funded O’Shaughnessy Hall (1939, $400,000), O’Shaughnessy Stadium (1947, $500,000) and O’Shaughnessy Library (1959, $1,613,286.96, to be exact). He partially funded O’Shaughnessy Education Center (1971, $1.2 million) and donated to other projects – altogether $8.5 million (more than $100 million in 2017 dollars). After his death in 1973, gifts from his foundation included $1.5 million to the 1991 library expansion, $3 million to O’Shaughnessy Science Hall (1997) and $1.5 million in education scholarships (2010).
Q: Did he forget about St. John’s?
A: He did not. He made a donation to its football stadium expansion in 1957 and received a thank-you note from Father Dunstan Tucker, faculty representative for athletics. “I will treasure your letter as coming from one of our first lettermen and a player in that legendary first victory over St. Thomas,” Tucker wrote. “I was not aware that you had played in that game. It gave me a good feeling to learn that you considered it your good fortune to have had a part in it. We have had many a good battle since that time, and I assure you that they have always been for keeps.”
Q: So why did O’Shaughnessy give away so much money?
A: He liked to joke about it. When asked what it felt like to give so much money to Notre Dame, where his contributions included $2.2 million for the complete construction of O’Shaughnessy Liberal and Fine Arts Hall in 1953, he replied: “It gives you an empty feeling – in your pockets.” If he gave away money, he said, he didn’t have to worry about how to spend it. “I’ve got good health, two suits of clothes and I eat three meals a day,” he said. “What more do I need?” After seeing “Hello Dolly!” on Broadway, he said, “You know, that girl has the right idea. Money is like manure. It doesn’t do you any good unless you spread it around.”
Q: Did he remain involved in sports?
A: Very much so. Semi-pro basketball teams played around the country long before the NBA was formed, and in 1933 O’Shaughnessy began to sponsor the McPherson Globe Refiners in McPherson, Kansas, where he had a refinery. The team won the national AAU title in 1936 and joined forces with its rival, sponsored by Hollywood Universal Pictures, to represent the United States in the Olympics in Berlin. The Refiners won the gold medal, 19-8, over Canada. Twenty years later, O’Shaughnessy joined a group that purchased the Cleveland Indians, and was its third-largest shareholder. He sold his interest in the team in 1966.
Q: Where can I learn more about O’Shaughnessy?
A: Read the biography, That Great Heart, The Life of I.A. O’Shaughnessy, Oilman and Philanthropist, by Doug Hennes ’77, published in 2014.