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John Burgoyne ’64, retired from IBM leadership, is now the volunteer fire chief for his home town in Texas.

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Perhaps we should ask more often, “How did you get here?” When John Burgoyne ’64 was honored with the college’s Alma Mater Award at the Alumni Awards Banquet in 2012, he addressed that very question in his acceptance speech.

It’s a great story of one defining moment among many that launched a remarkable career that has encompassed two “C-level positions: as CEO of IBM China and, now, in retirement, as volunteer fire chief for a small town in Texas (“Never Too Late”) – and it’s a story that so moved President Tom Kunkel at the time that he made it the subject of his next letter to alumni. We’ll let Tom take up the tale:

“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.”

Watch a recording of Burgoyne’s acceptance speech.

March 31, 2014