Remarks by President-elect Thomas Kunkel to the community, Old St. Joseph Church, March 4, 2008.
President Hynes, our Norbertine colleagues, our board of trustees members, faculty, administrators, alumni, students and friends of St. Norbert College:
It’s with both great pride and deep humility that I stand here before you, as your selection as the next president of this outstanding institution. What a rare privilege this is, and what a rare opportunity. Debbie and I are simply thrilled to be here.
I don’t suppose I have to tell any of you, and certainly not in this sacred space, that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Now, we journalists are trained to eschew clichés. But clichés become clichés precisely because of their underlying truths, and I’m living proof of the truth of that one.
Once there was a 16-year-old boy sitting in a room full of other teenage boys and, in a question-and-answer session with a local sportswriter, this particular 16-year-old seemed to be the only one asking any questions. A few days later, imagine the lad’s surprise when that same sportswriter called him up, out of the blue, to ask if he wanted a part-time job in the sports department of the Evansville Courier.
And in that innocent, altogether serendipitous fashion, our young protagonist was ushered into the amazing, endlessly fascinating world of news, handed a passport with nothing in it but blank pages to fill up.
And what a journey it would be. Before long he would find himself pestering a disgraced Spiro Agnew about shady land deals. Sitting with Jimmy Carter in the president’s living room in Plains, Ga. Standing in the cemetery for Elvis’ funeral. Interviewing the fashion designer Halston in his Fifth Avenue office overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Talking religion with John F. Kennedy Jr. and popular culture with Tom Wolfe. Flying on a Lear jet with Watergate judge John Sirica. Getting his pedigree read to him by a highly, highly agitated Bobby Knight (and in the process learning some colorful new Anglo-Saxonisms). Riding shotgun down a rainy Interstate 95 with Father Benedict Groeschel, his beloved Puccini cranked up on the car stereo.
Our young man would cover stockyard fires, plane crashes and coal miners’ strikes. He would walk the Great Wall of China and spend a week in the Von Trapp mansion from “The Sound of Music.” He would chase writers into bars and then chase them out again. Along the way, he would be cursed at, yelled at, glared at, pawed at and, in one particularly hairy encounter, nearly shot at.
And always, opportunity kept arriving. He would go on to run newspapers and magazines. He would write books. He would lead a great journalism school. And finally, he would come to a graceful bend in a beautiful river where, over a century ago, Abbot Bernard Pennings was inspired to say, here, this is where I will build my school.
So we may surmise that I am not your typical college president-elect. Indeed, I’m not sure I’m a typical anything! And I have no way of knowing yet exactly how this crazy-quilt collection of experiences has prepared me for the great challenge that now awaits here.
Yet I do feel confident. For among other things, my life has taught me not to be surprised by anything. I have learned how to manage in good times and in bad. I am comfortable in my own skin. I have seen the value of hard work. Most of all, I have witnessed the wonderful things that people are capable of when opportunity, talent, resources and commitment all come together at just the right time.
I believe that time is now at St. Norbert College.
It is a great privilege to be inheriting the leadership of an institution that six presidents have built truly and well. I particularly wish to recognize the many accomplishments of President Hynes, who among other things has solidified St. Norbert’s finances, grown its enrollment, enhanced its national reputation, continued to enhance its facilities on this beautiful campus and, perhaps most important, reinforced the unique combination of Norbertine, Catholic and liberal arts values that make St. Norbert St. Norbert.
Over the years, those of you assembled here have created a place of high academic achievement but also great spirituality. A place where young people not only don’t get lost but are embraced. A place where the students’ educational experience only begins in the classroom, and never ends as long as they live.
And what will the seventh president do? Well, remember, I have spent less time on this campus than literally anyone here today. I’m not sure I’m ready to direct you to Fourth Street, much less to the year 2020.
But a few things I can say. I will focus on building our endowment to fund our aspirations and keep the St. Norbert experience affordable for young people of all walks and backgrounds. I will try to shine a little brighter light on what you have accomplished here. I will strengthen the bridges to our larger De Pere and Green Bay communities. I will strive for excellence in everything we endeavor. And I will keep us focused on our core mission and heritage—remembering that, in whatever we do, education here is about mind, body and soul, and that a life is never really fulfilled unless it is somehow in the service of others.
But mostly, while I’m here these few days and in the weeks and months to come, I will be listening. Then I will listen a little more. Once it’s clear to me where all the constituencies of St. Norbert College wish to go, I will articulate that vision clearly and proudly. And I will relish working with all of you—and make no mistake, it will take all of you—to make that vision a reality.
Our vision for St. Norbert will be challenging, as it should be. But in this complicated, hyperconnected, global world, the core values that we stand for have never been more needed or relevant. Thus, we have not only an opportunity, but a moral obligation to be in the arena.