THE BLOG
09/15/2013 03:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2013

My Alma Mater in a New Light

My alma mater, Saint John's University -- not the one in bustling Queens, New York run by the Vincentians, but the one in bucolic Collegeville, Minnesota run by the Benedictines -- is widely known for several things.

Among others, it is the birthplace of the liturgical reform movement that had its ultimate expression in Vatican II; Senator Eugene McCarthy was a student and briefly a Benedictine novice there; Marcel Breuer designed its world famous Abbey Church, and until John Gagliardi retired this year, it had the winningest coach in the history of college football. (His successor won his second game this Saturday and can catch up with Gagliardi with only 487 more.)

But now it's known for alums who are key figures in two of the most important current issues facing the United States. They are Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff who played for Gagliardi and is helping President Obama decide what to do about Syria, and the late Matthew Ahmann, who helped shape the civil rights movement that is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

I was reminded of the importance of both when I received the latest issue of the Saint John's Magazine, which displays McDonough's photo on the cover and includes a cover story about Ahmann.

McDonough, a Minnesota native and 1992 summa cum laude grad who was named chief of staff in January, was profiled by another alum, John Rosengren, who graduated six years before McDonough and wrote a biography of the Detroit Tigers legendary Hank Greenberg.

He portrays McDonough as a tireless, dedicated and humble aide -- he must have some faults but they aren't evident here -- who has Obama's complete trust and confidence. But after Rosenberg wrote it, Obama invited McDonough to accompany him on a walk in the White House Rose Garden before he informed his staff of his fateful decision to seek congressional approval to bomb Syria as punishment for its use of nerve gas.

That, alone, assures that McDonough will share the credit or blame for one of Obama's most critical foreign policy decisions -- and by extension the success or failure of other initiatives such as Obamacare and his handling of the economy. In short, McDonough will influence history's ultimate judgment of the Obama presidency. A lot more difficult than figuring the best way to play safety for Gagliardi's football teams.

As for Ahmann, his place in history has already been determined. He helped organize and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the historic 1963 March of Washington that culminated with King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The 1952 St. John's grad was at the time the director of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice in Chicago, and addressed the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial just before King.

"Matt's work brought the Catholic Church out of its shell on civil rights issues," Jerry Ernst, who later worked with Ahmann in Catholic Charities USA, told the article's author, Brendon Duffy, a 2002 graduate of St. John's School of Theology. He said Ahmann's role in the 1963 March on Washington led to his appointment as one of the chairman for March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.

Ahmann, who spent the last 16 years of his life with Catholic Charities USA in Washington, died on the last day of 2001. He will be honored for his leadership in the civil rights movement when he will receive an award named after former St. John's President Colman Barry, OSB, at a peace studies conference at St. John's on October 14.

There, now, I have told you why my alma mater is now known for things other than liturgical reform, Gene McCarthy, Marcel Breuer and John Gagliardi.

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