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College Bids Farewell and Thank You
to Tom Susanka

Posted: July 1, 2020

After 41 years of faithful service, Thomas J. Susanka — erstwhile director of admissions and, later, gift planning — retired from the faculty of Thomas Aquinas College at the end of the 2019-20 academic year.

“I have the gift of being in the right place at the right time,” he says, with characteristic humility and candor, of the fortuitous circumstances that brought him to the College nearly five decades ago. As a sophomore at Portland State University, he “blundered,” as he puts it, into a music class led by Dr. Molly Gustin, who captured his imagination with her love of philosophy and yearning for truth. When Dr. Gustin departed the next year to join the teaching faculty of Thomas Aquinas College, Mr. Susanka followed, enrolling as a freshman in the Class of 1976.

After two years, and now in his mid-20s, Mr. Susanka found that, as a result of his affection for classmate Therese (Rioux), he was looking to quickly settle down. So he returned to Portland State, wed his sweetheart, completed a bachelor’s degree, and began a master’s program in biology. Not long thereafter, however, College Chaplain and Tutor Rev. Thomas McGovern, S.J., asked Mr. Susanka if he would interview for the position of admissions director — a title he would hold from 1979 to 2004, recruiting hundreds of young men and women along the way.

“As director of admissions, he was the perfect man for the difficult job of persuading excellent young men and women to attend what was then a relatively obscure little college,” says Paul Blewett (’85), who is succeeding Mr. Susanka as director of gift planning. “In those early years in Santa Paula, the campus had yet to be landscaped, classrooms and dorms consisted of temporary buildings on wheels, and the College continually hovered on the brink of insolvency. Add to that the prospect of oil wells in the middle of campus, and you can imagine just how difficult it would be to represent the College to aspiring students and their parents. Yet that’s just what Tom did, and he did it in the only way it could be done — with a thorough commitment to and love of the mission of TAC, and a love and commitment to those whom he recruited.”

That love proved more than sufficient to overcome even the most serious misgivings of prospective students and their families. “Tom’s personal attention to me as a high school junior and senior made me comfortable with taking the crazy risk of joining a weird commune 2,000 miles from home,” remarks tutor Andrew Seeley (’87). Echoing the sentiments of many, alumna tutor Elizabeth Reyes (’03) states the matter plainly: “Tom Susanka is the reason I attended TAC.”

Ever the recruiter, Mr. Susanka found his own successor as director of admissions, Jon Daly (’99). “Tom is humorous, he is direct, and he is at the same time the most genuine and truly humble man I have known,” says Mr. Daly, who worked in the Admissions Office for four years before taking the helm. “He never took someone for granted, and always gave them his full attention. I am blessed to have been among those who knew him and worked with him for so long, and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude for that.”

Populating the College’s student ranks over the course of a quarter-century, however, was only the first act of Mr. Susanka’s extraordinary career. The second act proved no less impressive.

“In 2004 President Tom Dillon offered me new work,” he says. “I would, Tom promised, make many friends and would enjoy conversations with adults. Charming and illuminating as conversation with adolescents and teenagers can be, the prospect of speaking with middle-agers and oldsters was truly an appealing novelty.” Thus he became director of gift planning. “Tom’s promise that I would make friends has been amply fulfilled,” he says. “I’ve heard it said that God gives good friends to those who most need them. I must be very needy, indeed!”

If the greatest challenge facing the College in its earliest days was attracting qualified students, by the early 2000s — when a firmly established reputation began to yield ever more prospects — that challenge shifted to fundraising. “As the College has expanded, and with it, our need for financial aid, planned giving has played an ever more important role in our development efforts,” says Vice President for Advancement Paul J. O’Reilly. “For the last 16 years, Tom has done a tremendous job of helping us both to meet our annual needs and to grow our endowment. He has been so successful because he genuinely cares for our benefactors and has formed abiding friendships with them.”

In both his admissions and development positions, Mr. Susanka’s faith, kindness, and good humor served him well. “From this past February until mid-May, I worked with Tom to transition into his role as director of gift planning,” says Mr. Blewett. “As I reflect on our time together, what I find most remarkable is that the Tom Susanka I worked with these past few months is no different than the Tom Susanka I knew and loved as a student. He is a truly good man, whose love and commitment to the College and, more importantly, to God and neighbor, have left an indelible imprint on all those around him.”

Consistent among all the accolades that Mr. Susanka’s colleagues and friends have to offer are these sorts of observations about his character: his virtue, his prayerfulness, his calm strength. When the College produced a promotional video some 15 years ago, Mr. Susanka was chosen as the narrator, not merely because of his clear cadence, but because his voice carries the same warmth that’s ever present in his words.

“I have known Tom since he first came to Thomas Aquinas College as a student almost 50 years ago. I have labored with him in that same province of the Lord’s vineyard for almost 40 of those years,” says Peter L. DeLuca, one of the College’s founders and a former president. “He has been a major part of its success and has affected all our lives for the better. In all those years, Tom has never failed to put the common good first and to exemplify what a Christian gentleman should be.”

Adds President Michael F. McLean, “I, along with countless others, have been inspired by Tom’s holiness, joyfulness, and humility. His sense of humor is unfailing and always uplifting. He, his wife, Therese, and their seven children — including six alumni — have been tremendous blessings to the College.”

Cartoon of Tom Susanka by Pat Cross

Illustration of Tom Susanka by Pat Cross (’14)

Isaac Cross (’19) -- quote 2

“There’s a joy for life here you don’t get in most places, a sense of purpose, a sense of love and fellowship bound up in our common cause of seeking the truth.”

– Isaac Cross (’19)

Leominster, Massachusetts

“With an academic program as rigorous as Thomas Aquinas College’s, and with a long line of successful alumni, Thomas Aquinas College is essential to the health of our Church in the United States and beyond.”

– The Most Rev. Thomas Daly

Bishop of Spokane