Convocation address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.
September 2, 2010
Good morning. Welcome to a new academic year.
I’ve often used this moment to offer a state-of-the-university talk, of sorts. But unlike many of our peer institutions, DePaul is doing fine. We have no layoffs for financial reasons. No closures of entire academic programs for financial reasons. We are able to continue with our strategic plan’s investments in academic quality and, as you can see, continue also our construction projects to support our academic departments and other activities. It’s true that we continue to maintain a tight financial discipline, but it’s no different than any other year in DePaul’s history, where we try to balance investments in the institution with keeping the institution affordable to our students.
And so, rather than another state-of-the-university speech, I beg you to permit me instead to start this new year with a confession. (Not inappropriate, I suppose, in the confines of this wonderful Church.) Several weeks ago, I made a grown man cry. I didn’t mean to do it. And I didn’t do it alone. David Lively, who many of you know, was with me. I hadn’t planned to make this gentleman cry. He and his wife were sitting in a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan with us. David and I had come simply to thank him for an incredibly generous gift that they had just made for undergraduate scholarships.
Brian Campbell is a Double Demon with a 1963 bachelor’s degree in Commerce and a 1973 master’s in taxation. Today, he’s president and CEO of Campbell Industries Inc., a private investment firm, and former chairman, president and CEO of Kaydon Corporation, a diversified industrial company. Somewhat like those who flip houses - buying them, improving them, and then selling them for a higher price - Campbell takes major companies, improves them and sells them. But unlike those who buy companies merely to break them into pieces and wring the value out of them, Campbell brings the employees together, gives them all stock, and says, “If we do this together, we’re all going to become rich.” And then he delivers on his promise, over and over again. From the bottom of the company to its top, Campbell not only raises the value of a company by improving it at every turn, he makes sure that the employees benefit too.
It’s a remarkable set of values that informs his life-long work. And he often quotes his philosophy professors at DePaul who taught him phrases that became wisdom touchpoints for him for a lifetime.
We talked about the $1 million in scholarships he and his wife had endowed, and even then he quoted a DePaul philosophy professor who once said: "We have all been warmed by fires we did not build, and we have drunk from wells we did not dig."
But that’s not when he cried.
He cried when we showed him an old photograph we had found of Eugene Muldoon, a former finance professor in DePaul’s College of Commerce, who taught at DePaul from 1955 through the late '60s and for whom Campbell named the new scholarship fund. There in the middle of the restaurant, this sophisticated, savvy businessman surprised even himself with the depth of feeling he had after all these years for a former professor who had taken an interest in him once.
Muldoon’s still remembered by some of the more senior faculty in Commerce, who described him to our alumni magazine as “a compact man known for his always-snappy business attire, his reverence for The Wall Street Journal and his ability to teach without notes or textbook, [and] a mentor not only to Campbell and other first-generation college students like him but also to hundreds of WW II, Korean War and Vietnam-era veterans who came to study business at DePaul courtesy of the GI Bill.”
It was a minute or two before Brian could compose himself and say, "Gene Muldoon believed in me," Campbell said. "He always encouraged me and my classmates, and he took a real interest in our success. He had a tremendous impact."
That moment has stayed with me since. I don’t know if any of my former students will someday cry when they see my picture. I suspect they’ll remember that I was tough on their writing, and they had to work hard to get an A from me. But I hope they’ll remember other things too. One doesn’t always know the difference one’s making in the moment.
We stand before a new academic year. And I’ve been thinking of our university motto.
Viam sapientiae monstrabo tibi - I will show you the way of wisdom.
Although we talk a great deal about our mission at the university - and rightly and proudly so - we don’t talk about our motto nearly as much. And yet, it quietly informs a beautiful part of this institution’s heart.
It’s taken from the fourth chapter in The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew scriptures, where the writer pleads with the reader to prize wisdom above all else. To learn what’s most important in life from those who have lived it, to find a path in life that leads to a well-lived life, and to learn to turn away from paths or actions that ruin a life. It reads as the plea of a father to a child, desperate that the child learn this well, so that he or she has a full life.
And it’s something we do quietly every day at DePaul, though we rarely discuss it. In another day, now past, we might have called this “saving souls,” but not in some magic or ritual way in which individuals are branded for one religion or another. No, rather in the way that individuals find enlightenment, that they find their way to something that gives meaning and purpose and direction and a fuller life. That they find some piece of wisdom which they will remember, and to which they will turn as life takes its unpredictable turns.
• Playwrights and filmmakers know this. They “share wisdom” by showing us ourselves on stage and giving us the opportunity to learn from ourselves.
• Poets understand sharing wisdom too, for what is a poet, but someone who speaks heart-to-heart, in the cadence of words deliberately chosen, drawing our attention to some aspect of life and the world. Whether of love, or loss, pain or beauty, poets purposely and intentionally touch our deeper places and share their own hard-won observations and wisdom.
• Composers and musicians, too. With the possible exception of Muzak, musicians go for the heart. They restore the human spirit, or calm it, or awaken it, or thrill it, and set it right.
• Our psychologists and counselors perhaps most directly sit with students or prepare other students for conversations about what’s important in life, and what should be released and let go in life.
• Our philosophers constantly engage students in questions of meaning, and push students for better answers and at least better questions than they arrived with.
• Our theologians attempt to find language to describe the ineffable experience that there is something more, and that this “more” gives meaning.
• Our artists constantly explore and reflect on both human society and the human heart.
• Sociology, political science and law all engage students in conversations about what constitutes human society at its best. And what demeans it.
• Women, Gender and LGBTQ Studies seek a more humane world for populations not always treated humanely.
• Everyone who teaches any aspect of ethics in their classes invites students to think about what’s most important in life, and the impact of their own choices.
• Every conversation in which a staff member encourages a student is a piece of wisdom given.
And all that’s just a sampling. All of you know this for your own disciplines. Any time anyone gives a young person advice about what’s important in life, we’re living our motto. Those passing conversations we have with students aren’t just nice distractions from our work, they’re our motto.
That’s our motto at DePaul, and I recommend it to you at the beginning of another academic year. Whatever your position at the university, you will have the opportunity to meet students, or to support one another this year. We do not seek to proselytize, but we do seek to help each other to a fuller humanity, to pass on what we’ve learned of the world, to offer with open hands and to give students the freedom to accept it or not. A word of encouragement. A word of challenge. A story about something you learned once that proved helpful.
Cor ad Cor Loquitor – Heart speaks to heart.
Viam sapientiae monstrabo tibi - I will show you the way of wisdom
In the end, the search for wisdom – the learning of what’s most important in life - begins and ends with the individual. Brian Campbell had to find his way to his own set of values about how he would run his companies, taking care of the employees along the way. But he often claimed it was at DePaul that he found those values from his philosophy and commerce faculty. The truth is, we have powerful influences on our students, perhaps not immediately, but over time.
Wisdom is a lifelong journey. But individuals find wisdom from those they encounter. May DePaul University always be a place where our students find professors and staff studying the world in all its wonder, excitedly sharing what they’ve found with their students, and together discussing and growing what’s most important in this world as we know it.
Someday our students will look back on their time with us. I do not know for which of us they will unexpectedly cry when shown a picture, but I am confident that they will remember DePaul as a very special place indeed. And that’s because this institution offers them a place of not only knowledge, but personal attention, encouragement and concern. Thank you for that.
May our motto always mean something true and real here, for those conversations and kindnesses will surely be among that which students most remember and value in their lives ahead.
May God bless you. May God bless the year ahead of us. And through all of us, may God continue to bless DePaul University.
I wish you a wonderful academic year.