Message from the President: Autumn at SNC

Oct. 25, 2012

To our alumni friends:

Old St. Joseph Church is one of my favorite spaces on campus at any time of the year, but never more so than on a chill, autumnal evening. At such times, the sanctuary’s terra-cotta-color brick radiates a palpable warmth, made all the more real by the companionship of fellow congregants.

So it was on a recent night when the space was packed for a Heritage Week concert devoted to Gaelic music and the Norbertine tradition. For me, a particular highlight (one of many) was when the St. Norbert Chamber Singers were performing “The Deer’s Cry,” a song I didn’t know but which swept me up in its melodic power and its story about the Lord’s invisible and abiding protection. In the hypnotic refrain the singers punched the word “Christ” over and over so as to leave no doubt as to the message:

CHRIST with me, CHRIST before me
CHRIST behind me, CHRIST in me
CHRIST beneath me, CHRIST above me
CHRIST on my right, CHRIST on my left …

It was the kind of concert you bounce right out of, primed to take on the world. All throughout this fall, in fact, we’ve been blessed with a heavy run of programs and activities that have moved one’s spirit. Which makes me very happy, since that’s what a great college is supposed to do.

A few weeks ago, for instance, we dedicated the generous endowing of the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice and Public Understanding with another stirring installment of the Norman and Louis Miller Lecture series. The speaker, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, an internationally renowned Biblical scholar from Vanderbilt University, gave a delightful talk on how Christians and Jews can look at the same Biblical text and, because of their different traditions, histories and even punctuation, come away with entirely divergent meanings. Like only the best teachers can, she took a subject that might seem inherently dry and made it riveting.

As did Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Catholic priest, author and faculty member in theology at Marquette University, who was on campus for a standing-room-only lecture on what has become of the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice in the 21st century. Fr. Massingale, a Milwaukee native and African-American, is an expert on the subject of Catholicism and race, and his talk – taking us back to Christ’s most fundamental expectations of his followers – compelled us as much as it challenged us.


But perhaps the most moving campus activity came during Homecoming weekend at our annual Alumni Awards. The winner of this year’s Alma Mater Award was John Burgoyne (class of ’64), whose long and successful business career included a stint as president of IBM China during a period of explosive growth. John, now retired but still running his own consulting company, is a funny, down-to-earth and humble man, who in his “spare” time is out fighting wildfires around the West.


He’s also a fine storyteller, and at the ceremony John transfixed all of us with the tale of his unlikely path to St. Norbert, and the fateful intervention of a Norbertine priest.


After growing up on the west side of Green Bay, John went off to study engineering at the University of Michigan, where in two years he built a solid record. But by then he was also stone broke, and with a wife and child to support he had to come back home and find a job. He did, working at a cheese warehouse for minimum wage. As he said, “Odds were NOT in my favor of ever getting my college degree.”


Challenged one day by his father to not yet let go of his dream, John made an appointment to see the head of St. Norbert College’s math department, Fr. Robert Sromovsky.  They had never met.


Once the priest got past the ripe, cheesy odor of John’s work uniform, he looked at his Michigan transcript, impressed. He asked how much money John had to apply to his education if he came to St. Norbert. None,
John told him.

“He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a WBAY Scholarship left. You have it,’ ” John recalled. “You mean I can take a test to compete for it?” he asked. Said Fr. Sromovsky, “No, you HAVE it.”


He then asked if the young man had any money for books; again, no. Well, he said, John could grade papers for the department to earn his book money.


Fr. Sromovsky then returned to the transcript. And by the time he was done, he had given John SNC credit for virtually every course he had taken at Michigan.


“I was stunned,” Burgoyne recalled. “I was really stunned. Nobody in a position of authority had ever treated me like that. It changed my life. It changed [his wife] Nancy’s life. It changed all our kids’ lives. Whatever we’ve accomplished in life would never have happened without Fr. Sromovsky.”


Well, there were few dry eyes in the room by the time he was done. But as we were dabbing at our cheeks with tissues, John Burgoyne was challenging us. We can all reach out and help young men and women who confront the same need 
today that he did when he was 20, he said. Indeed, he added, in the Norbertine spirit we are called to do so.

A few days later, John Burgoyne made another generous gift to the Fr. Robert Sromovsky Endowed Scholarship, which was established by Mr. and Mrs. Burgoyne in 2008.   Yes, it’s been a good autumn here at SNC.

As we share the season’s bounty, you can be sure we also count our blessings.


Tom