Filling an Empty Nest
My life is in transition, to say the least. In June I moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., leaving my position as dean of Boston College Law School to become president of The Catholic University of America. At every turn here on this beautiful campus, I have been greeted with an extended hand from students, faculty, and staff.
In late summer, my wife, Jeanne, joined me at CUA after taking some time to tie up loose ends in Boston. I was not only happy to have her back at my side, but also thrilled to introduce her to this welcoming university community. As Jeanne and I settle into the upstairs living space at Nugent Hall, we have reflected on yet another transition in our lives, this one of a more personal nature.
For the first time since 1977, my wife and I are living alone. As the proud parents of five grown children and the doting grandparents of 12 grandchildren (with one more on the way), we are accustomed to noise, activity, and lots of conversation. In recent years we have had as many as 13 people living under our roof with the addition of daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and even my brother-in-law for a time. As the kids were growing up, their friends were always welcome. And during their college years, it was not uncommon to have their friends living with us for the summer.
Now that four of our children have families and homes of their own and our youngest is away at college, we are empty nesters — and it is odd, sad, and wonderful all at the same time. As we make our way through the process of this life transition, something interesting is happening. The students at CUA are helping to fill the void.
In July and August, I often had my meals at the Pryz. At first, I would ask students if I could join them. After a few weeks, they would invite me to their tables before I had even filled up my tray. As the father of a bunch of kids I am, not surprisingly, comfortable around students. I particularly enjoy the age group of our undergrads. They are interesting, thoughtful, and funny — and still a bit innocent. They take advice (although they don’t always admit to it) and they offer their opinions freely. Some of their ideas and concerns we can address immediately. For instance, when they told me of a need for more “play space” in the center of campus, I had a basketball hoop put in at the parking lot near Salve Regina Hall, and we are working on a beach volleyball pit. Other larger ideas and concerns of theirs, I have filed away for reference as we plan a future course for CUA.
Now that the semester has begun and Jeanne has joined me, I don’t eat at the Pryz as often, but I make sure to have daily interactions with students. On Saturdays we cheer for CUA teams at home games; we have been attending afternoon Mass in Caldwell; we joined the freshmen at their retreat in September on the Maryland shore; and we have had small groups of students for hamburgers on the patio or for early-morning breakfast. With each interaction, it is clear to me that what I want these young men and women to get from their education at Catholic University is no less than what I expected for each of our own children’s college education. I feel responsible for every one of our students.
Recently, I met with our emergency preparedness group. We talked about the university’s contingency plans for fire, weather, illness, or acts of violence. I told my colleagues serving on this committee, “We have got to get this right. Lives are at stake and they are our responsibility.” It hasn’t taken me long to feel such a deep commitment to CUA’s 7,000 students, along with the thousand people who work here.
As Father O’Connell was preparing to step down from the presidency, he offered this advice to his successor during a farewell celebration, “Love the people of The Catholic University of America.” Already I can tell him that won’t be difficult.