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Message from the President: Reflections on Normandy

July 18, 2012

To our alumni friends:

Wherever you happen to be (for there seems no escaping it), I hope you’re managing to enjoy this unusually toasty summer.

Deb and I have had the good fortune of spending some of it on the road, including the better part of two weeks on a Norbertine heritage tour around Belgium and northern France. In fact, on the Fourth of July, we were privileged to be at the American cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, one of the five points for the D-Day invasion in 1944. 

If you’ve made the visit yourself, you know how powerful an experience it is. And of course the irony is almost breathtaking: that the site of one of the most violent days in human experience is, today, one of surpassing peace and serenity. The memorial grounds are immaculate, with not an untrimmed blade of grass, not a broken limb in the Normandy pines, not a petal out of place in the rose gardens that punctuate the rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David.

Time and again, walking among those rows on an overcast day, I came across random names from Wisconsin on those markers. In one row were Philip Kupper and Robert Stevens; in the next, Sigurd Benson and Alvin Mueller; and one section over, Edward Zelinske. It was a subtle yet sobering reminder of how many of our own made the ultimate sacrifice on D-Day and in the days and weeks after. A little later on, as Deb and I followed the long, winding path down to the beach itself, you couldn’t help but be struck by what a veritable suicide charge they were asked to make.

As you know, St. Norbert has a long and proud tradition of military education; upwards of 1,000 students have been in the ROTC program, and over the years we have had a dozen graduates attain the rank of general, and many more the rank of colonel. During World War II, as you might imagine, our all-male college was nearly emptied out, fuel for the righteous campaign. Forty of those students never came back, and I imagine at least a few are resident today in that peaceful patch of Normandy. 

The gallant soldiers in that cemetery gave their lives so that our nation could continue to govern itself in freedom (and, they doubtless assumed, civility). Today’s troops fighting in Afghanistan and other corners of the world are doing the same. 

It would be my wish that every politician in the land would be required to make a pilgrimage to that sacred ground in Normandy. If they did, I suspect we’d see much less of the partisan bellicosity and posturing that make a mockery of their forebears’ sacrifice.