“The story of Thomas Aquinas College is one of Divine Providence,” says Founding President Dr. Ronald P. McArthur. “What this College has become, what it has achieved, in just four decades is far greater than the sum of our human labors. Where our own efforts have failed — where we have erred or simply come up short — He has, again and again, offered His blessings and protection.”
In the 1960s at St. Mary’s College, Moraga, near Oakland, California, five philosophy professors — Dr. McArthur, Dr. John Neumayr, Dr. Frank Ellis, Mr. Marc Berquist, and Br. Edmund Dolan, F.S.C. — observed with great concern the rapid disintegration of Catholic higher education in the United States. Their observations engendered a series of conversations, which culminated in the drafting of A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, the founding document of Thomas Aquinas College.
The “Blue Book,” as it came to be known for the color of its cover, detailed plans for a new college, one that would operate under the twin beacons of faith and reason, in fidelity to the Magisterium and the teaching Church. At this new school, the curriculum would employ exclusively the great books — the seminal works of the greatest minds of Western civilization. In classes of 15-18, students would learn through the Socratic discussion method. There would be no electives and no majors or minors; all students would study from the same, integrated curriculum ordered to learning the truth about nature, man, and God Himself.
From “The Blue Book” sprang Thomas Aquinas College. From the very beginning, the College would rely on the generosity of many friends and benefactors Among the first were oil magnate and philanthropist Henry Salvatori, whose initial $10,000 grant funded the College’s incorporation on October 14, 1968. Dr. McArthur was the corporation’s president and chairman, and one of his former students, Mr. Peter DeLuca would serve as the College’s first employee and principal administrator.
On April 25, 1970, the College staged a major promotional dinner at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, attended by 450 people and featuring as the keynote speaker the Most Rev. Fulton J. Sheen. Members of the Board of Governors, especially San Francisco attorney John Schaeffer, played a substantial role in the success of the event.
Although originally the College was to have opened its doors on the campus of Dominican College in the Bay Area, those plans fell through. Fortunately, through the invitation and assistance of James Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles, the College was able to lease a campus at Claretville, the former novitiate and seminary of the Claretian order in Malibu Canyon in Southern California. A freshman class was recruited, and on September 11, 1971, 33 students enrolled, with classes commencing three days later. In 1975, the California Department of Education gave the College power to grant degrees, and on June 7 of that year, the College graduated its first class.
Relocation and Transition
For seven years, the College operated and educated students at Claretville, but it needed a permanent campus of its own. In 1975, College officials learned of a property located in a canyon six miles north of the picturesque farming town of Santa Paula, amid the steep mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. The founders thought its beautiful and secluded location would make an ideal setting for the Catholic community of learning they were nurturing. Yet the price of the property — in excess of $2 million — was more than the fledgling school could afford.
Then Divine Providence intervened. An extraordinarily generous benefactor, Mr. Larry Barker of San Francisco, offered to purchase the land for the College. Officials quickly began making plans to build the new campus and raise the necessary funds — an undertaking which they anticipated would occur over a number of years while the College remained at Claretville.
In October 1977 those plans had to be accelerated when the Claretians informed College officials that the Claretville property had been sold. In less than 10 months, the College would have to relocate the campus an hour’s drive away to undeveloped land — and add enough buildings, temporary or permanent, to house, educate, and feed more than 100 students.
Architects immediately went to work preparing drawings for the initial buildings and devising plans for the basic infrastructure — roads, paths, water, sewage, and utilities. Construction permits were sought in haste. Relocation costs would be in excess of $3 million.
Through God’s grace, officials were able to raise just enough money to go forward, thanks in large part to a $400,000 gift from Henry Salvatori and a $100,000 gift from the Dan Murphy Foundation. The remainder of the expenses were covered by bank loans and financing arrangements. Although such debt would burden the College for many years, there was no other option -- short of closing its doors.
In January 1978 ground-breaking ceremonies were held for a multi-purpose campus building to house a dining facility, a small chapel, a library, two classrooms, and a student lounge. Then the rains came halting construction until May. It soon became apparent that the new building would not be ready in time for the arrival of students in the fall. In addition to the modular buildings that had already been obtained for residential needs, more units would now be needed for classrooms, a chapel, and food service.
Work proceeded at a frantic pace throughout that summer, but in September of 1978, when school was to open, the modular dormitories had not yet arrived. Students were called and advised that the opening would be delayed. Finally, on the last day of October, school at last began, though on opening day, two of the modular dormitories were still being assembled. Electricity remained unconnected. Hot water was unavailable. Noisy outdoor generators supplied power for lights only. Then, the rains came again, and for much of the first year, the campus was a sea of mud.
“These were about the worst possible conditions one could imagine for starting a college campus,” remembers Dr. McArthur. “Yet there were very few complaints. Our students embraced the experience as an adventure, and our tutors seemed to relish their roles as pioneers. We were perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy, but no one ever despaired. It was a time of great grace.”
By May of 1979, the Commons was completed, and the Most Rev. Thaddeus Shubsda, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, presided over ceremonies to dedicate the new building under the patronage of St. Joseph. (The tribute to was one of thanksgiving; Dr. McArthur had invoked the saint’s intercession for the acquisition of the property.) By then, too, lawns had been seeded and were green with life. Walkways were paved. Tennis and basketball courts were added. Feast days were celebrated. Dances and parties were enjoyed. The life of learning continued.
In 1982, the College received national exposure when Bl. Mother Teresa served as Commencement Speaker. The foundress of the Missionaries of Charity had chosen Thomas Aquinas College as one of only three campuses she would visit on a trip to the United States. “Having Mother Teresa come here was a real encouragement for us,” says Dr. McArthur. “Here was a living saint, blessing this project with her presence. We all recognized her visit as providential.”
For the next 10 years, College administrators were concerned primarily with making ends meet under the crushing debt incurred during the relocation. Throughout much of the 1980s, enrollment remained constant at about 120 students. But in 1987, after implementing an aggressive advertising campaign and adding another admissions counselor, class sizes increased, and more tutors were hired. In 1997 the College launched its Summer Great Books Program for High School Students which, by giving prospective students a taste of the life of the College, prompted many to apply. Before long, the College attained its maximum capacity of 350 students.
Throughout this period — first under the leadership of Dr. McArthur, and then under that of his former student Dr. Thomas E. Dillon a longtime tutor who became president in 1991 — both the College’s reputation and its financial support continued to grow. “At a time of great need,” says Dr. McArthur, “God sent the College many generous friends who made the completion of this campus possible.”
Three foundations, in particular, helped ensure the permanency of the College: The Dan Murphy Foundation, the DeRance Foundation, and the Fritz B. Burns Foundations. Their magnificent grants and many more generous gifts made possible the construction of four more permanent buildings, most notably St. Bernardine of Siena Library.
In 1996 President Dillon commenced efforts to design, fund, and build a permanent chapel to replace the small, temporary one in St. Joseph Commons. He envisioned a worthy House of God, one that would speak to the centrality of the Faith in the life of the College. Through his leadership and with a lead gift of $10 million from the Dan Murphy Foundation, on March 7, 2009, the College dedicated Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel the crown jewel of the campus.
Shortly after allowing Dr. Dillon to see his dream fulfilled in the Chapel’s completion, however, God would call the president home. On April 15, 2009, Dr. Dillon died in a tragic automobile accident while traveling in Ireland for an academic conference. Fittingly, his would be the first funeral Mass ever to be offered in Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel.
The Board of Governors promptly named Mr. DeLuca, one of the College’s founders and then its senior vice president for finance and administration, as interim president. Mr. DeLuca held that position until the Board appointed the College’s then-dean, Dr. Michael F. McLean, as his permanent successor in January, 2010. “We were blessed with a very smooth period of transition,” recalls Dr. McLean. “Shocking though the news of Dr. Dillon’s death was, the College remained focused on its mission, our benefactors remained loyal, and the good work our founders started nearly four decades ago continued.”
In 2011 the College inaugurated its 40th academic year, still faithfully operating from the same model for Catholic liberal education as originally outlined in the “The Blue Book.” Its alumni continue to testify to the soundness of the academic program through their leadership both within the Church and throughout our broader society. The College’s reputation, as evidenced by both secular and Catholic college guides remains strong.
“It is simply impossible,” says Dr. McArthur, “that this college ever should have even survived, let alone flourished, without Divine assistance. Lest we ever get prideful of what we have achieved, we need only remember where we began.” Adds Dr. McLean, “God has been extraordinarily good to us. It is now our responsibility to prove ourselves worthy of His gifts.”