SANTA PAULA, Calif. — He was the biggest man on campus. He was so big that when he slapped you on the back you had trouble not falling over. His laughter was booming and infectious; his humility was tremendous. Excepting those traits, he nearly fit the profile of Aristotle’s magnanimous man. But he would have been the last person to think so.
Ronald McArthur, the founding president of Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), died Thursday, Oct. 17, at the age of 89. He had retired from teaching in 1991; he returned in 2002, continuing until this spring.
When I came to TAC as a freshman, McArthur was about 80. He’d taught my mother 30 years before, and he remembered her enthusiasm — and he seemed to have decided to look after me. When I tentatively asked him to direct my senior thesis — tentatively, the way you’d ask Stan Musial to give you batting tips — he responded as if I’d done him the honor in asking. That’s how Dr. McArthur was.
He took intellectual disagreements and perplexities seriously. He was one of those rare, experienced professors who would engage with all student questions, instead of answering what he thought had or should have been asked.
He was frank and idealistic to the point of worldly impracticality. Once, in the college’s early lean years, he told a hesitant donor that if he (the donor) didn’t believe in TAC’s mission he shouldn’t support the school.
He claimed his scholarly beginnings were inauspicious. He told students that, as an army private, he “knew nothing, NOTHING!” (He would speak the caps emphatically, chopping with his arm.) After his military discharge, he decided to become a lawyer. He went to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., where someone who had a bone to pick with America’s legal profession handed him Plato’s Apology. McArthur was hooked. He realized that ideas were important.
The exceptionalism of TAC’s “Great Books” education was a frequent theme with him. In a 1996 speech, he explained the school’s tutorial presentation of original texts from a range of disciplines. When TAC was founded, McArthur said, Catholic schools “imitate[d] the worst features of secular education.” They judged themselves against Ivy League models of specialization and relativism.
But, as McArthur observed, “Princeton’s not going to judge us at the end of the world.” The real judge of an education — as of everything else — is Jesus Christ. And devotion to Christ could largely be measured, McArthur believed, by how seriously you strove to understand this Truth.
That, to McArthur’s mind, was the purpose of the Great Books: to serve faith through their approach to Truth. Students should read them “to see something about reality. ... It’s easy to become conversant with books and start quoting books and playing a game of books. It’s almost like going to a fun house with mirrors and flashing all kinds of images around. That’s got nothing to do with learning.” Rather, learning “has to do with people’s souls.”
As he put it 16 years later, “[M]ost of the great things that are done are the supernatural things.”
Not surprisingly, 11% of TAC’s graduates find religious vocations. That said, graduates with TAC’s idiosyncratic major — a “liberal arts” B.A., equal in credit hours to a double major in philosophy and math, plus a theology minor — have been admitted to places like Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Yale and, yes, Princeton for graduate school. They’ve become doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and businessmen. The professional and spiritual reverberations of McArthur’s lifework are incalculable.
His scholarly achievements and honors were also significant: a Ph.D. under Charles De Koninck, Laval University in Quebec, 1952; co-author of A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education; editor of The Aquinas Review; recipient of the Salvatori Award and the Pro Deo et Patria Medal. But you wouldn’t have known he was all that if you met him, not from the way he talked.
Tom Susanka, a former student and current member of the college’s administrative faculty, speaks eloquently of McArthur’s unassuming character. “He had wonderful insights into nature and human nature. He was learned and wise in things Divine. But he was as humble and, in consequence, as good humored a man as I’ve been blessed to know. … He held himself and the disappointing world up to the highest intellectual standards. But what touched you in conversation with this man, what you met in this man’s moment-by-moment life, was love, not logic. … You wanted afterwards to be good, not intellectual. Well yes, intellectual, too, but only as a part of goodness.”
Michael McLean, TAC’s current president, was another of the many students whom McArthur touched. McLean told the Register that he “had the honor of being a student of Dr. McArthur’s at St. Mary’s College in the late ’60s, as well as his friend and colleague” at TAC.
“With the help of an excellent faculty and staff, I now have the privilege of leading the institution he was so instrumental in founding and of doing my best to maintain its strength and its fidelity to the mission he and the other founders so ably articulated,” said McLean.
“I am deeply indebted to him for taking a chance on me as a tutor back in 1978 and for the inspiration, guidance and constant encouragement he was kind enough to provide since then.”
McLean’s acknowledgment of his predecessor’s influence is representative; but McArthur, were he alive, would, with equally representative modesty, deflect the credit. It was his habit, whenever his role in founding the college was mentioned, to turn the discussion to the other men involved.
About two weeks before Dr. McArthur died, he visited TAC, attended Mass and ate lunch in the Commons. The last classroom was under construction; the school’s quadrangle was finally complete. His work was finished.
He died at home with his wife, Marilyn, and their longtime friend Cathy Walsh by his side. Shortly before his death, his speech became unintelligible. But when they began the Rosary, he joined in and spoke his last words clearly:
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”
Sophia Mason, a 2009 graduate of Thomas Aquinas College,
is studying for a master’s degree at The Catholic University of America.