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Tom Susanka Looks Back on 40 Years

Posted: July 28, 2020

Note: At the end of the 2019-20 academic year, Thomas J. Susanka, onetime director of admissions and director of gift planning, retired from the faculty of Thomas Aquinas College. Below are his reflections on his 41 years of service. Be sure also to see some reflections from his colleagues.


By Thomas J. Susanka (’76)

Among St. Paul’s many gifts to us from his special revelations and conversations with Christ, I think I begin at last to appreciate this wonderful one, put as a challenge to the Church in Corinth: “Who sees anything different in you? What have you that you have not received? If then you have received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” After the gift of baptism and a young life in a Catholic family, I have the gift of being in the right place at the right time.

For example, I blundered into a history of music class taught by Molly Gustin. And this led to my discovery of Thomas Aquinas College. Surely, this was God’s gift delivered through Molly’s mind and heart. It seemed to me at the time to be my good luck — or, even better, my youthful wisdom — to have merely chosen her class from a course list of teachers of music at Portland State University. But no good luck or serendipity could have prepared me for the love of philosophy she encouraged, nor for the eagerness for truth which she communicated to her students.

Were it not for the gift of Mrs. Gustin, I wouldn’t have met Thomas Aquinas College and wouldn’t have been admitted to the College’s freshman class in 1972, the same year she began her long tenure as a tutor for the College. What gifts she — and the College — have been to me. Nor, of course, would I have met my future spouse, Therese, also a freshman in 1972. Talk about gifts!

Another gift was the telephone call in April, 1979 from Fr. Thomas McGovern, my freshman science and sophomore philosophy tutor. He thought I might be considered for work in the College’s office of Admissions. Here was an unanticipated invitation to me and the growing Susanka family to help in the College’s mission of Catholic liberal education, to meet families from every quarter of the country, and to encourage college-age students to accept an invitation to grow in learning and wisdom. I — we Susankas — jumped at the chance. I arrived on campus on July 2, 1979, and was given a room in a men’s dormitory, an office and a title. I was Director of Admissions. Therese and our children arrived a little later. I moved out of the dorm.

I am not an inventor of office organization. Happily, I stepped into a working office already organized and productive, thanks to our first two Admissions directors, Dennis Kohler and Anne (Wynne) Gribbin. My mind was absorbed by the practical challenges of student recruitment. But a healthy mind needs philosophy, too, cautioned Norman DeSilva. Norman had graduated from the College in the first class and returned to the College’s faculty as a tutor, also in 1979. President Ron McArthur and Dean Jack Neumayr agreed with this wisdom, and they encouraged me to co-lead seminar classes so as to keep my intellect lively and my thoughts focused even beyond student recruitment, focused, that is, on the unique work of the College: conversations aimed at real learning. Good counsel from good friends is a great gift.

As to admitting students, I did have some antecedent practice. As nature would have it, two of the first three Susanka children were admitted into the world at the hands of their terrified father. I delivered these gifts to the family, one at home and another in the car … not exactly the career I’d had in mind, but a director of admission all the same. And these events did give me some experience in the practical application of admitting young people.

Not all good things come to an end. After 25 years in the Admissions Office, and just a few months after I had become an older gentleman past his prime, two new gifts arrived at the door: Jon Daly (Class of ’99) rose over the horizon, and President Tom Dillon offered me new work for the College. 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. In Jon, we had the director of admissions exactly suited to the increasing opportunities and complexities of student recruitment and organization of the expanding Admissions staff.

So, learning something of the art of friend-raising from James Campbell (Class of ’01), our planned giving officer soon to depart for graduate studies, and under the continuing training of my new boss, Quincy Masteller, I  was given a new office and became, voila, director of gift planning. Tom’s promise that I would make friends has been amply fulfilled. I’ve heard it said that God gives good friends to those who most need them. I must be very needy, indeed.

Settling into retirement and anticipating a little time for contemplation, I might try to sort out which of these gifts — among many more from God’s bounty — might be “best.” Therese and our seven children and their seven spouses? Our 22 grandchildren? The holy friendships we’ve gathered in the College community? The graces of its sacramental life? The joy of boasting in the mercy of God’s gracious love? The Providential accident of a survey of music literature course enjoyed with Molly Gustin 50 years ago? There’ll be plenty to do in retirement!