On the Road to Limerick

Flying into Dublin, the North American whose business is in the west, retrieves his luggage, checks out his rental car, looks unfazed at the morning traffic, and decides to begin his westward journey. Despite jet lag. Despite the fitful sleeping across the Atlantic. I myself have succumbed to this temptation more than once. On a fateful morning last spring, Tom and Terry Dillon set off from Dublin, bound for Limerick and a meeting of other college presidents. They never made it. Their car went off the road and Tom died instantly while Terry suffered a serious injury.

Just the week before I was at Thomas Aquinas College to give a series of lectures and was the house guest of the Dillons in the hacienda, the one reminder of the Doheny ranch, which provided the site of the college. The first permanent building to go up was multi-purpose – dining hall, chapel, library – and soon it was surrounded by a dozen temporary structures reminiscent of World War II so that students might have felt they were on bivouac rather than on campus. From the beginning, on a wall of the dining hall, were plans and drawings of the projected future campus. Tom Dillon, the second president of Thomas Aquinas, brought those plans to completion, culminating in the magnificent college chapel designed by Duncan Stroik, recently consecrated. It was a mark of Tom’s enthusiasm that he took the corner stone to Rome for a papal blessing. If Mohammed can’t come to the mountain. . .

As president, Tom was the chief fund raiser for the institution and much of his time was spent in the air and on the road persuading and cajoling potential donors. His enthusiasm was infectious; his dedication to the unique role of the college unfeigned. TAC offers a single curriculum that is covered over the four years, a curriculum based on the great books, perused in lively seminars. The culmination of learning is sought in theology. Study of the great truths of Catholicism under such mentors as St. Thomas Aquinas provides the basis of, and animates, the religious practices of tutors and students. Many of them attend Mass daily, devotion to Our Lady is evident and widespread. Here is a campus where the pursuit of learning and of sanctity are complementary. All this came as a consoling thought when news of Tom Dillon’s accident spread through the Internet so that in a matter of hours we all knew that Tom was dead. For all, he was a principal figure in the redemption of Catholic higher education in this country; for many, he was someone who, if met only once, left an indelible impression; for others, he was all these things and a dear friend as well.

That death, the one certainty of human life, should surprise us when it comes is due to the fact that, however inevitable its eventual arrival, the time and manner are hidden to all but to God Himself. St. Thomas tells us that not even the angels know future contingents, in this case the how, when, and where of death. This mixture of certainty and mystery are present in the prayer that rises ceaselessly from the campus of Thomas Aquinas College, the Ave Maria. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” For Tom, that hour came on spring morning on an Irish roadway. Where and when will it come for each of us?

I find it impossible to write about Thomas Aquinas College without striking a personal note. Tom Dillon came to Notre Dame to obtain his doctorate and a host of graduates of the college would follow, in philosophy, in medieval studies, in law. During my last visit, there was a dinner for all the tutors who had studied at Notre Dame, many of them “my” doctors. But if there is a Notre Dame connection, a far more basic font of the spirit of the college is Charles DeKoninck, dean of the Faculté de philosophie at the Université Laval during the years when his reputation drew many of us from the States to Laval, there to learn how to read primary texts, particularly those of Aristotle and St. Thomas. Like most of us, DeKoninck was a layman, and philoprogenitive. He and his wife Zoe had a dozen children. To say that his lectures and soirees were marked by the gaudium de veritate is an understatement. The first time I was invited to Thomas Aquinas College, I knew that Ron McArthur, Jack Neumeir, and others of the founding fathers had studied at Laval, but the place itself, the Blue Book which provides the map of the curriculum, bore the stamp of Charles DeKonink. The college is a lasting tribute to our common mentor.

Despite the abruptness of its ending, Tom Dillon’s life formed an integral whole. He knew where he was going and how to get there. He is an inspiration to us all. May he rest in peace.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.