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Message from the President: Reflections on the Passing of a St. Norbert Tradition

April 24, 2014

To our alumni friends: 

On Tuesday we held our Academic Awards Dinner, which each year recognizes those graduating seniors who have performed brilliantly in their time at St. Norbert College. It never fails to uplift and inspire, each student’s accomplishments more head-shaking than the one before. Quite a few of the honorees are destined for law school or medical school or dental school; others are poised to pursue research careers in biology and history, anthropology and theology. Some have already landed jobs at top accounting and financial firms. Many more will teach.

As signal an evening as this is for our students, it’s also eloquent testimony to the SNC faculty. Many of these students worked with their mentors in research projects or other scholarly pursuits, some from the time they were freshmen. All had careful, thoughtful advising. These powerful, personal connections are hallmarks of a high-quality liberal arts experience.

Alas, there was a conspicuous absence at the dinner. In a sad irony, just 24 hours earlier, we had gathered in a memorial service for our friend and colleague Bill Bohné, who in nearly half a century here became as much a part of St. Norbert as Main Hall.

Bill died on April 14 from leukemia, a disease he fought and kept at bay for more than two decades.

A member of the art discipline, Bill was our longest-tenured active faculty member. Fr. Burke hired him back in 1965, and Bill and his wife, Judy, never left; they had found their home.

A fine artist in his own right, Bill was an inspiring teacher. But what many of us will always remember about him was his irrepressible personality. 

One of my enduring memories of Bill was one of my first. The autumn of our initial year at St. Norbert, Deb and I were the guests of honor for the homecoming parade. We would be riding in a classic open convertible – on a drippy, windy and chilly day. 

Just as we were about to begin, here pulled up on bicycles three gents from the art discipline in fancy hats – Fr. Jim Neilson, Brian Pirman and Bill Bohné – to escort us. They looped around in lazy circles just ahead of the slow-moving parade, calling to mind Butch and Sundance in that film’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” scene. Well, I mean you could see something of Butch and Sundance in the dapper Jim and Brian; Bill, a little heavier and older than his colleagues, and looking a tad less steady on the bike, seemed more like a refugee from the Hole in the Wall Gang. But the entire escort was charming. And it told me a lot about my art faculty – all good.

Like all colleges, we talk a lot about tradition at SNC. But I think the best traditions are people, and people do become traditions when they are here not for years or even decades, but generations. People like Fr. Rowland De Peaux and Dudley Birder, or Eliot Elfner and Dave Pankratz, or Wayne Patterson and Sandy Odorzynski. Or Bill Bohné.

Incredibly, Bill was in our classrooms and studios for 48 years. Put one way, that’s more than 41 percent of all the years we’ve been around. But when you take into account how small our classes were in the first half of SNC’s existence, Bill actually interacted with probably 75 to 80 percent of all the people who have ever been connected with SNC! Imagine that kind of enduring impact, the lives he touched in his long journey. Bill and committed teachers like him are a major reason we can stand in awe of those talented students we honor each spring.

As I wrote to the campus when Bill died, he was a true original. He was a top-class marathoner and a sage armchair philosopher. He loved a great wine, a good cigar and a rude story. He cared far less about rules and policies than whether you were going to do the right thing. 

Bill was never boxed in by convention, never cheated, never bored. He had a loving family and more friends than he could count. And he belonged to a college his whole life that he loved, and which loved him back. 

As Bill would be the first to say – and he did say, often, even in his last days – he was a lucky man.

Maybe not as lucky as we were to have him. Godspeed, Bill.