Responding from the Seat of Wisdom
Do you know why the armored Green Knight disappeared from Burke Hall in 1957? When St. Norbert College crowned its first Ugly Man? Or whether it’s true that an elephant once appeared in a Homecoming parade?
If you read @St. Norbert, the college’s monthly e-newsletter, you know exactly who holds all the answers to these questions: Abbot Bernard Pennings, O.Praem. The college’s founder, personified by the bespectacled campus statue in his likeness, is the voice of the quirky Ask the Abbot column, which debuted in 2006. As @St. Norbert’s most popular feature, it’s a rare month that sees another article bump it from most-read spot. (The only two e-newsletter articles that attracted more readers than the most popular “Abbots” have been a 2010 report on the triple wedding of the daughters of President Tom Kunkel and the recent piece on the Milwaukee Brewers’ canine mascot, Hank, who lives with the team’s general counsel, Marti Wronski ’94.)
Readers send the abbot all sorts of questions, often about St. Norbert history but occasionally about the abbot himself. When asked what he would like for Christmas, the abbot answered with trademark humility: “I have noticed that among my confrères there are those who, when attending college athletic events, sport fetching items of attire that evince their school spirit. I should be so pleased with some such modest item. Perhaps a baseball cap ordered from what, I am told, is referred to as the online store might not look too unseemly atop my robes, and I would deem it a wonderful gift.”
Several staff members have brought the abbot’s voice to life over the years, including current Ask the Abbot writer Jessica Jacques (Alumni & Parent Relations). “Writing the column has helped me grow in my knowledge of the college and the history that brought us to where we are today,” says Jacques. “It is definitely among my favorite duties.”
Others who have helped shape the abbot’s style include Susan Allen (Office of Communications), and contributing editor Lisa Strandberg. Strandberg found inspiration in her past work as editor at St. Norbert Abbey, where she read some of the real Pennings’ letters. But, as she has found: “You have to have a little fun with the voice. There’s a balance that has to be struck between being fusty, being earnest and being believable.”
It’s a balance that has occasionally teetered. Abbot Gary Neville, O.Praem., ’73 at the (real) abbey had to ask the college to include a disclaimer at the foot of the column: Readers were sending their questions to him instead of to the Pennings persona.
So what is the secret to the column’s lasting success? Jacques credits the nostalgic content. “It’s a neat opportunity for alums to reminisce every month, and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Visit our archive of Ask the Abbot questions and answers at snc.edu/alumni/abbot/, or write the abbot with your own burning questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask the Abbot appears monthly in @St. Norbert: Subscribe at www.snc.edu/go/enews.
July 9, 2014