One of the co-founders of Thomas Aquinas College and now a senior tutor, Dr. John W. Neumayr delivered the following address at the reception after the funeral for the College’s founding president, Dr. Ronald P. McArthur, on October 25, 2013. (See video)
I’m speaking as a fellow founder of the College about Ron McArthur, and as a friend. I did not promise Ron that I would not say any nice things about him!
The first thing I would say is that the College did not start up because of the crisis in education that took place in the late ’60s. Indeed, that was the occasion, in a way, for it to start, but that is not where the College comes from. There were many other movements that were taking place around the ’70s that, I think, were really reactions to a whole eruption that just sort of destroyed all traditional education. And, of course, liberal education was on its way out. Mario Salvio, who led protests at the University of California, said, “Trust nobody over 30.” I know of libraries that were emptying their shelves of books written over 30 years before that time, so the past was out of the question.
The origins of Thomas Aquinas College have been alluded to here by Tom Kaiser and Peter DeLuca, and the origins are much more older than the problems of the ’60s. They go back to Jerusalem, and Athens, and to an educational vision that came out of those centers of learning theological and philosophical. It was a vision that shaped Europe, that shaped the Western world, that shaped Christendom. It was a vision that was the heart and soul of that movement of faith seeking understanding, fides quaerens intellectum. That was the movement that brought into existence the first universities of the world, the great universities of Europe — Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Salamanca, and so on. It was that vision that was finally behind Thomas Aquinas College.
Ron McArthur shared that vision from the first time he started studying philosophy. It only grew through his life, and when he became a teacher, he championed that vision. Now, we have alluded already to that sense that things were eroding through modern time and disappearing gradually as the secular took over from the sacred more and more. So when Ron McArthur went to work as a teacher, he was already in a culture that was against everything he believed in. This was true even as it found its way into the catholic schools. He had the true vision that there was something more to Catholic education than was happening in the 20th century, and as time went on, the 20th century actually got worse and worse
I met Ron in 1954 when he was teaching at San Francisco College for Women (the Madames of the Sacred Heart school), and my sister was a student of Ron McArthur. She wanted me to meet him, so she introduced me to him and we got to be friends, played a lot of tennis together, and went to sporting events. Ron and Marilyn would come over to my parents’ place, and we would have these Thursday-night dinners, these kind of congenial affairs that a lot of people would come to.
So we had plenty of opportunities to talk and to discuss things, and largely the conversations were about education. The question was: What can you do with a poor situation? Ron always tried to improve things, especially at Lone Mountain. He had proposals to improve and strengthen the program, to bring it back closer to its origins, closer to what was really genuine. He met a lot of resistance. He went on through his whole teaching career attempting to do this. His love of this tradition was so strong it drove him to always want to do the right thing by it. Now, in those discussions we had way back then, it was a matter of talking about perhaps what one should do, and then what one could do. And since half a loaf is better than none, you were not going to start talking about creating your own school back in the 1950s.
In fact, the 1950s were, paradoxically, kind of an optimistic period. World War II had a sobering effect on Americans GIs. Many came back and went into religious life around the time of Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, for example. Great books discussions were even starting, and in colleges various classic programs came into being. At the University of Notre Dame they brought in the General Program, which was taken, in a way, from St. John’s in Annapolis. Then at St. Mary’s College the Integrated Program was also brought in from St. John’s, directed by tutors from St. John’s, and that actually gave Ron a lot of hope.
The other programs that came about in that era turned sort of wobbly and faded and disappeared, but the Integrated Program had a strong impact, at least for a while. What he saw in that program was: Here’s a place where we are going back to the great minds and the works that actually made the West, that made our civilization. On top of that — maybe more significantly — St. John’s had actually worked out the old trivium and quadrivium, the mathematical arts and the verbal arts. They had books that helped you through those, and these subjects were at the core of the classical education. They were among the handmaidens to theology, the little rivers, as St. Thomas called them, that one ought to travel before he enters the great sea of wisdom. That seemed a good thing, and in fact here at Thomas Aquinas we have adopted much of that.
All the while, even though there were optimistic things going on through the ’50s, the erosion that had started centuries back continued, and things were becoming weaker and weaker. By the end of the ’60s, the whole thing erupted. There was really nothing left. It was at that point that we began to think something had to be done, and we didn’t know what to do. None of us had been in the field of founding colleges. We didn’t know the first thing about it. The idea of starting your own college was almost unthinkable until, as a matter of fact, some people whose opinions we trusted encouraged us to do so.
That led to the putting together of the “Blue Book,” A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Education. The chronology here isn’t going to be exact, but it was in that era that we began to promote the College, and Dr. McArthur was the face of it. He spoke eloquently to great groups of people, convincing them that this was a good thing. The College was well-received, especially when people were aware that all around them in universities there was just chaos. Students were invading college presidents’ offices; there were riots and so on and so forth, and people knew something had to be done. But as a matter of fact, most of them — though they believed in the vision being presented — did not think it could happen.
I think of one case where we went to a man who had been a very successful businessman, a very charitable man, a very generous donor to this college. When the idea of the College was presented to him, he listened and said, “Well that’s a beautiful idea. It’s a wonderful idea, but you can never do it. You can’t bring it into existence.” As he was lecturing to us why it could not be done, he was writing out a check for $10,000, and he pushed it across the table to Ron McArthur and said, “You can’t do it, but everybody deserves a chance to fail.”
It didn’t fail, and by God’s good grace, it came into existence. Now, I cannot help but think that it would not have come into existence had we not had the leadership of Ron McArthur. His presence, his talent, his persona, his enthusiasm carried that whole movement. Then finally it happened, and I would say that between God and Ron McArthur, the College is here today. I understand that God is the universal and primary cause of all these things, but in choosing Ron McArthur as His instrument, He chose very well.
Now I want to mention a couple of remarks that two men made that are relevant to Ron and his career. The men are very different from each other. One is a most learned man and renowned, and the other man is simple and humble, and the world probably scarcely knows he exists.
The first man I am thinking of is Ralph McInerny, who was a leading philosopher in America, especially in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, certainly the leading Thomist. He loved the College. He was on our Board of Governors for a while, as long as his health would allow, and he would come and visit as frequently as he could. For him, the College was an island in a sea of chaos, and he loved it, though not because it was a refuge, but because it was place where they were doing the right thing in the right way. So when he was our graduation speaker one year, he assessed the College and how he felt about it. He said that when the annals of Catholic education are drawn up ultimately — which, I suppose, will be at the end of time — the name McArthur will loom large in that history. Ron McArthur will have a prominent place in that story.
There is another man I want to mention, too. In Ron McArthur’s large presence — which is physical and psychological, both — you might not notice that he’s a very generous person, a very kindly person. I remember, for example, he and I were talking to a man who had come to visit the first campus. In the course of the conversation, he looked at a fountain pin that was in Ron’s pocket, and it was one of those old classic fountain pins. He looked at it and he said, “You know, I like that fountain pen.” And Ron said, “Do you? Well here, it’s yours!” Well that’s just like him. I remember his mother once told me that when he was a little boy he would bring the waifs and strays off the streets to his home, and these were usually the kids that were rejected by their peers and didn’t have friends, the uncool kids. So Ron would make it a point to become friendly with them and bring them home, and his mother said that went on for years. Actually, I think his friendship with me is based on the same thing, just another uncool person. All the instances of such kindness and charity that took place in his life only God will know about. But, I do know about one that I thought I would mention to you.
Ron and Marilyn had been in Quebec a number of years before I went up to study at Laval, and while they were there they met a family — the Lavoie family, I believe — and when I was leaving for Quebec, Ron said, “You must call on the Lavoie family. They are very nice people, but they have a lot of children and they are very poor. I mean, really poor, but go see them.” So when I got to Quebec, I went to their house to call on them. When I said I had been sent by the McArthurs, the smiles came over their faces and they invited me into their humble abode, and indeed it was a humble of abode with a lot of children around. But they sat down and told me for a long time all of the kind things that the McArthurs had done for them while the McArthurs were in Quebec.
In particular, he said, one Christmas, in their poverty, they were so poor that could not afford any of the trappings of Christmas. They had no Christmas tree, no lights, no gifts for the children, nothing. All of the things that mark that holy day they could not afford. On Christmas Eve there came a knock at the door, and when they opened the door, who was there but Ron and Marilyn with a Christmas tree in tow and all of the decorations and gifts for all the children and a Christmas meal. His face was beaming as he was telling me this. I think the McArthurs had just been recently married and probably were struggling as well to meet their own needs. But when he told me the story, he just beamed and raised his finger to the sky, and said, “That man,” referring to Ron. “When that man dies, he will go straight to heaven.”
Now these two men, the learned and the simple, spoke wisely and well of the life of Ron McArthur. Of a life that was that of a good man, a wise man, and a holy man. A man of extraordinary accomplishment and, of course, a friend, a dear friend. So now we pray that the vision that Ronald McArthur had from his earliest days as a thinker — that vision that he fought for his whole life — can be fully enjoyed in its wholeness in the Beatific Vision. “This is eternal life, that they know Thee, the only true God” (Jn. 17:3). God Rest his soul. Thank you.
Posted: October 30, 2013
“Thomas Aquinas College is a small college, but its reputation has spread far and wide. Because it lives off the masterpieces of thought and literature emanating from the Christian tradition of the Western world, it provides a first-rate education for a select body of talented undergraduates.”
– Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J (†)