A financial manager, born of hard-working immigrant parents, Mr. James P. Conn knows the value of a dollar. He has seen how much effort goes into making money, and how much effort it takes to manage it. He has been a member of the Board of Governors at Thomas Aquinas College since 1995 and has provided essential financial advice to the College as Chairman of the Board’s Investment Committee.
Born in Ireland, Mr. Conn’s father converted to Catholicism and, as an adult, moved to Canada. He immigrated to the United States by walking across the Canadian border, but never became a U.S. citizen. Mr. Conn’s mother graduated from Western Reserve University in Ohio in 1918 — long before it was common for women to obtain a college education.
The Conns came to California in 1942 and raised their six children in South Pasadena. After working for many years, Mr. Conn’s father contracted diabetes so his mother took on the responsibility of supporting the family financially. Mr. Conn says now that the example of his parents’ dedication to the family had a big impact on him and his five siblings. Under the influence of these hard-working parents, the six Conn children grew up appreciating their close-knit family and valuing a strong work ethic.
Two of the Conns were ordained priests in the Jesuit order. One, Rev. Thomas Conn, S.J., served as a chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College from 1992 to 1997, when he died of cancer. For the 20 years prior, Fr. Conn had worked as a parish priest in Mexico.
Mr. James Conn received a B.S. in business administration from Santa Clara University in 1959 and married Joelle Walsh in 1963. They have two grown sons, Michael and James, Jr.
Mr. Conn has had an impressive career in investments serving in corporate capacities for a number of corporations, including having been the chief investment officer at Transamerica Corp. for a number of years. Currently he is retired, but keeps active by serving on a number of boards including LaQuinta Corp., First Republic Bank and a number of Gabelli mutual fund boards.
Besides giving generously of his time and expertise to Thomas Aquinas College, Mr. Conn also serves on the boards of the Odell Fund and Basic Fund (Bay Area Scholarships for Inner city Children) a large scholarship fund in the Bay Area.
Q: How did you learn about Thomas Aquinas College?
My brother Tom was a chaplain at the College from 1992 to 1997. While he was there, I would go down to visit him and stay at the campus. That’s when I learned how the College was molding the students. I saw that the curriculum doesn’t just give them an education; it teaches them the important things in life. I also witnessed the student life on campus, and saw that while in many ways these students are no different from their peers at other colleges (they aren’t any less competitive or ambitious), their religion is an essential part of their life.
Q: What in particular about the College intrigued someone like you, whose primary interest is finance?
It is true that my intellectual pursuits are mainly business and investment related. But, my interest in Thomas Aquinas College is generated by the success of the educational environment in producing adults who are of high moral character and have been trained to think properly.
I have very strong feelings about this. If you want to see how good an institution is, look at its results. Forty-five percent of the graduates from Thomas Aquinas College go on to graduate school. That’s impressive. I feel strongly that the College deserves support because its alumni are going to make an impact on other people’s lives.
The difference between Thomas Aquinas College and other Catholic colleges these days is that the students only learn information in the other schools, whereas they also receive formation at Thomas Aquinas College. Cardinal Arinze said it in his (2004) Commencement speech. He said that parents can feel comfortable that they can send their kids to this school “not only to get information but formation.” That’s the key.
Another thing to look at is how the institution is run. At Thomas Aquinas College, both the administration and faculty perform their jobs well. For instance, the admissions policies are very fair; everyone gets a fair chance and no one gets accepted into the program by just knowing someone. Also, the faculty teaches in an effective manner. The best way to teach someone to live life as a good person is by example, and I haven’t seen anyone on the faculty, including the families of faculty, who isn’t a good example.
Q: What do you think about the College as a preparation for a career in business?
I think the College prepares the graduates well for any career, because it provides a formation with a strong moral base and the sound ability to think properly. Both of these qualities are essential to good performance in any career.
I feel my family environment and educational background provided me with this formation so that when I graduated from college with a degree in business administration, I was able to advance quickly in my chosen career. Even though I had virtually no knowledge or experience in investments, I know that whatever success I achieved was a result of honesty and trustworthiness, along with my ability to think and willingness to learn. I was also lucky!
Q: How does your faith influence your business activities?
In the same way that it influences my whole life. I believe that you should treat people as you want to be treated, and do it for the love of God. The most important aspect of this is the example you give. In raising children, for example, you can’t say one thing and do the other. I firmly believe this applies to all facets of one’s life, and I apply it to my work.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge for the College?
I believe the biggest challenge for Thomas Aquinas College is to maintain the moral culture and educational environment that it has established. As changes in the administration and faculty occur, it is mandatory that the culture remain constant. I see the future of the College as a continuation of its current success in producing graduates who make a difference in people’s lives.
A secondary challenge is to continue to expand the reputation and awareness of the College. As a young school with a relatively small number of alumni, Thomas Aquinas College doesn’t naturally get a lot of exposure.
When I first came on the Board, enrollment was about 150 students. The lack of exposure at that time put the College at a disadvantage, relatively speaking, which the members of the Board and the administration have done a remarkable job at overcoming. Recently, as the College has received more exposure and has become better known as an institution that stands on principle, people are much more ready to support it. So the College has become better positioned in recent years.
Q: How has your involvement with the College affected you?
The association I have had with Thomas Aquinas College has helped me to be a better Catholic. The example of the people who make up the Thomas Aquinas College family can’t help but have a positive effect.
“In our classroom discussions, we are not only given free rein to speak, but free rein to think. No question is off the table. Anything that can bring a more full understanding of the truth is welcomed and encouraged.”
– Christopher Sebastian (’13)