In My Words/By Virtue of His Highly Superior Brains ...

It was Commencement morning and we were no longer fretting the prospect of rain, as by then the forecasters swore there was zero chance of it. But now what had me worried was the Baccalaureate Mass. Like that afternoon’s graduation ceremony, Mass, too, would be al fresco – but it was scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m., and we’d just seen an overnight low that dipped into the low 30s. Would anyone come? Was the holy water frozen?

But the day dawned sunny and, with no wind to speak of, it was a tolerable spring morning. Certainly what chill there was couldn’t stand up to good cheesehead genes and a sturdy cup of coffee.

Father Andrew Ciferni, who runs our Center for Norbertine Studies and is parochial vicar of St. Norbert College Parish, presented the baccalaureate homily. For his text, he drew upon scripture – Hollywood scripture, that is.

“The Tin Man, Scarecrow, the Lion and Dorothy,” Andrew intriguingly began. “They think that the Wizard of Oz can fulfill all [their] desires. In the end, after trial and peril, they unmask the man behind the curtain, who really can’t produce brains, hearts or courage. But the journey reveals that, in fact, they already possess what they thought they lacked.”

Andrew’s trip down the yellow brick road was a lovely metaphor for the process of education, and as he spoke to our graduates and their families, I found myself nodding along in contented agreement. Then a jarring notion occurred. Hmmm … . A mysterious old guy (well, I did hit 60 last fall) hangs out in an imposing palace (Main Hall, check) that rises amid lush green fields and colorful flowerbeds (check and double-check), to which people beat a path because they think this magically omniscient geezer has the solution to any problem. Alas, the desperate pilgrims are usually intercepted before they can actually lay eyes on his imposing self (thanks, Amy and Jamie!), but once in a while they manage to slip through and peek behind the velvet curtain.

And when they do, they find he not only doesn’t have all the answers, he doesn’t seem to have any answers at all!

Well, while I can appreciate your disappointment, in my defense I do believe I’ve learned a thing or two in my life, and on one important point I certainly concur with the real Wizard. For years now, I’ve been telling anxious high school students who are trying to decide on the “right” college that 90 percent of their higher-ed success will be basically up to them. In my experience, when students have the curiosity, the drive, the perspicacity, the passion and the work ethic, they will secure an outstanding educational experience most anywhere they go. Of course, it never hurts if they have talented and dedicated mentors when they get there, and I’m proud that St. Norbert offers them both a world-class faculty plus staffers who have been repeatedly honored for their dedication to our mission and for their student-affairs acumen. These dedicated folks are incredible trail guides for our students’ journeys of self-discovery, as they proved again by adroitly delivering another cohort that Sunday afternoon under the wide-open Wisconsin skies. 

It was my eighth such witness, and I am looking forward to it one final time, come next May.

Between now and then, however, I have much I want to do. High up on that list is making sure I get to see you, our devoted alumni and patrons, to thank you personally for what you’ve meant to Deb and me, and to St. Norbert College. In fact, our office of alumni and parent relations is assembling a little tour we’re calling “Tom’s Last Tango.” It’s not a victory lap nor a valedictory – just a chance to see some people who, nearly a decade on, have become dear friends. We’ll cut a wide swath: In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in August; Milwaukee and Wausau, Wis., in September; Denver and other points west in October; Madison, the Twin Cities and Chicago in November; Kohler, Wis., in January; Florida in March; and Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin’s Fox Valley in April. Details are already on their way to you.

For now, let’s give the Wizard the last word. “Back where I come from,” he told Dorothy and the lads, “we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma.”

June 27, 2016