Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Saying Farewell to a Leader

"You will have the opportunity here to learn to work hard, to organize yourself, and to make a difference... if you take your academic work seriously and participate fully in the co-curricular activities of student life at Bellarmine, you will not only develop your potential and learn how to make the world a better place, you will also learn the basics for whatever career you will choose."  
-Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, Bellarmine University President
Dr. McGowan's quote truly summarizes why I will never be able to put a dollar value on my experience at Bellarmine University, and the fact it was the President of the University speaking on the topic of participation in student life reflects exactly why his unexpected passing was such saddening and shocking news for the Bellarmine community.

I don't think it is normal for students to feel such a connection to their university president, but in Bellarmine life, if you were engaged at all, McGowan was a part of your world and hearing the news of his death hit home. From hosting events at his home, attending performances at the theater and being involved in athletics, he loved being a part of the core of the BU world--the core being it's students. 

For me, Dr. McGowan is Bellarmine. Although the campus has changed drastically since my 2008 graduation, I have always felt so connected to the school by its mission and the vision I knew McGowan was working toward. I worked two years in the communications office when his "Vision 2020" was in its early stages and was widely talked about and I witnessed some of the initial physical changes in person--like the addition of the stadium that I had the pleasure of running on my senior year (after the duration of my BU career had been spent training on hills and the cinder track.) 
When Dr. McGowan assumed the leadership of then-Bellarmine College in 1990, the school was a largely commuter liberal-arts college with 15 mostly yellow-brick buildings and 2,500 students. Today Bellarmine is a distinguished, bustling university with 46 buildings and it attracts 4,000 students from all over the world to its stunning Italianate campus and its curriculum steeped in the Catholic tradition of academic excellence and ethical awareness.
I admit there is a slight sadness in seeing the university change from the place where my memories were forged--that cinder track and the smaller (and only) Koster's cafeteria; there was no fancy Siena hall, so freshman were left to the trenches of the old Kennedy-Newman dorm rooms. But I remind myself that even what I experienced was a different world from those who were there ten or 20 years prior. And despite the physical changes, added curriculum, and growth in the student body and faculty, I always felt, that at its core, Bellarmine had not changed in who it inspired individuals to be and to become. And I believe great things begin at the top with the right leadership. McGowan's passion poured down from the top, seeping into the faculty, staff, students, alumni and even those who were only partially involved in Bellarmine life. 

My fondest memories of McGowan came working with my newspaper staff, and they were the first people I thought of upon hearing the news of his passing. He was always more than willing to give us what we needed for our stories and, best of all, he never cared to be the laughing stock of our satirical edition, The Discord. I was involved in a lot at BU-- track, clubs, class activities, honors society, sporting events--but nothing felt as "Bellarmine-Centric" as newspaper. I suppose that's because it was drilled into our minds that by publishing the weekly paper, we were responsible for writing the history of our school. We liked to joke about it--particularly when the pressure of the final hours of deadline made us a little slap-happy, but putting together that publication kept us at the heart of what Bellarmine University was from every angle: in the classroom and out; the good and the bad. We did our best to encapsulate her spirit so it could be passed on from one generation of students to the next. 

Since graduating, and then leaving Louisville three years later, I have never felt like BU left me behind. I've always felt connected to her; like I could laugh at her stories and the new memories. I feel an instant bond upon meeting someone who is a fellow alum or current student. If I happen to meet someone aspiring to attend college and considering becoming a Knight, I have to limit myself on how passionate and lengthy my encouragement becomes as to not scare them off completely.  But President McGowan's passing suddenly leaves me a little empty and scared. I never realized how much my BU world relied on his presence. He finely nurtured the spirit "high up on a hill" and whether you agreed with every decision made, you admired him. 

I know I was joined by many in mourning his loss, so this was my tiny corner of the world where I could say, "Thanks." I know my memories and life today were impacted through his life and, like the rest of those he reached through Bellarmine, I am forever grateful. I hope the future of BU forever holds on to the torch he lit and his love of life and knowledge stays at the heart of campus. God bless his family and those close to him personally during this time. Thank you for sharing him with us.