Monday, October 21, 2013

Remembering Dr. McArthur

When I was a freshman at Thomas Aquinas College, I had a very lowly work study job, or at least it felt like it. I came with pretty strong secretarial skills, so they put me in the "Development Office", which at that time (back when there was only one permanent building on campus) consisted of a small, four-room temporary building which housed the offices of the president and vice president of the college, and two work rooms, all in one row. There was one entrance, through one of the workrooms, and you had to walk through those rooms to get to the office on either end.

(Here is a picture of the TAC campus from up on the hill, with the same basic layout as when I arrived - labeled with the accrediting agency for some reason. It sure looks different today!)

The reason it felt so lowly was that, because of the cramped space, the student workers were only able to put in their work-study hours outside of business hours. So we did our work at night and on weekends, communicating with the office staff almost entirely through memos. And on top of those complications, as I was one of two primary student typists (the other, by the way, was Margot Davidson of Hillside Education) who couldn't work at the same time as each other, I often worked alone in the building.

So, anyway, I was rather surprised one cold evening, as I sat cross-legged on the workroom floor all by myself with an enormous pile of papers that I was alphabetizing on my lap, to have the school president, Dr. Ronald McArthur, walk in and greet me on his way to his office. It's hard to express how funny this encounter was - this immensely tall (I've heard he was six foot seven, and I believe it!) imposing, yet grandfatherly figure greeting this lowly office worker who was pretty much glued to the floor because of the pile of papers. We exchanged a friendly greeting and I casually mentioned that I thought we had had a little bit of snow in the air (very unusual at that elevation, though we sometimes had snow on the peaks of the mountains adjacent to the school, it may have happened only one other time in my four years at TAC). In his friendly, but gruff (and slightly distracted) manner, he said, "No, no, I don't think we had any snow here." (I can hear these words in his voice as I type this). He went into his office briefly and left. No big deal. I wasn't the least bothered by his skepticism. But about an hour later, he poked his head back in the office (and probably walked all the way up from the Hacienda to do so) - just to tell me that I was right about the snow! It's such a minor thing and a little story, but it touched me deeply and it's one of my clearest memories of him.

There are many other great (though fuzzier) memories of him. He used to give these little mini-speeches to the students on minor occasions or to address particular needs and they were wonderful. I think it was especially at formal dinners that he gave these talks. I'm not a strong auditory person by nature, so I don't generally enjoy listening to people talk, but these were marvelous; little expositions about education and the Faith that were beautiful, motivating, inspiring and to the point.
One of my favorites was after a little spat had erupted among some of the students because of a few students espousing some silly ideas about girls not belonging on campus, dances being merely mating rituals or whatever. I can't remember his exact words, but they were along the lines of the importance and beauty of friendship and intellectual engagement between the sexes and ended with a slam (or maybe slam-dunk!) that anyone who thought otherwise must think that the only point of interaction between men and women is sex. Wow.

Dr. McArthur was a great teacher and a great man. That didn't necessarily mean that I agreed with him on absolutely everything, but his convictions about the value of a classical great-books education (which included a deep faith, true humility and a broad mind) and how they played out in my educational experience at TAC have had a deep impact on my life, especially in how I choose to encounter others in my life on a day-to-day basis. I had him as a professor for Senior Theology and also joined an informal study group he put together to read Pope John Paul II's recently-published encyclical On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.

He had a wonderful sense of humor and I loved how he engaged the students in class. My favorite humorous jab that I remember from his class was, "Don't let any ideas disrupt the free flow of your conversation." ;)

Here's a nice piece I found on YouTube that might give you a sense of what I'm talking about (this video is from April 2012):

But there also were some fun points of commonality. Dr. McArthur also hailed from the Bay Area (his mother-in-law was actually from my hometown of Los Altos) and was a die-hard San Francisco Giants and San Francisco 49ers fan. All the 49er fans on campus very much enjoyed the hospitality of Dr. and Mrs. McArthur at their lovely home on campus for back-to-back Superbowls in 1989 and 1990.

Dr. McArthur died last Thursday, October 17, 2013, at the age of 89. Rest in peace Dr. McArthur!

Here are some other tributes to Dr. McArthur:

Larger than Life by Tony M.
In Memoriam: Dr. Ronald P. McArthur (Thomas Aquinas College Website)
Thomas Aquinas College Founder Remembered for Humility (Catholic News Agency)

(will be adding to this piece)

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