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OJAI, Calif. — In a 2006 essay titled “Discipleship in the Intellectual Life,” written for the Thomas Aquinas College newsletter, the college’s co-founder, member of the board of governors and senior tutor Marcus Berquist spoke of the importance of making a “good beginning.” A good beginning in the intellectual life, Berquist argued, is essential for a firm foundation and everything that follows.
“Our object is that the students make a good beginning, first things first,” wrote Berquist. “Otherwise, it is like having a house on a foundation that is unsound; the whole edifice collapses.”
A good beginning, one might say, is also necessary for a good end, which leads to a new beginning.
That end came for Berquist on a most appropriate date. Berquist passed away at 2am at his home in Ojai, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 2, the feast of All Souls. Berquist had been diagnosed with lymphoma towards the beginning of the school year. His death marks the second significant loss at the college during the past two years. Longtime president Thomas Dillon died following a car accident in Ireland in April 2009.
“The news,” said Anne Forsyth, director of college relations, “didn’t come as a shock, like when Tom died. Yet, it brings all of that back, and it affects everyone.”
Berquist’s life was one spent in education, in pursuit of truth, particularly in the fields of philosophy and theology.
Born in St. Paul, Minn., in 1934, Berquist was one of three sons of Gertrude and Reno Berquist, a farm equipment manufacturer.
Berquist’s love of philosophy was born during his fifth year at Nazareth Hall, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ then-minor seminary. It was then that Berquist heard the Thomist scholar Charles de Koninck lecture on the doctrine of Mary’s assumption.
“It was the first time I had ever heard someone explain a doctrine of faith that was derived from evidence and principles, rather than simply state something which was an article of faith or a teaching of the Church,” Berquist told the Thomas Aquinas College newsletter in 2001.
Berquist followed his older brother to the then-College of St. Thomas, studying philosophy and graduating in 1956. He obtained his licentiate in philosophy in 1958 from the Université Laval, where he studied under de Koninck.
Through de Koninck, Berquist was recruited to teach philosophy at St. Mary’s College. There he met Ronald McArthur. Between 1966 and 1968, Berquist, McArthur, and John Neumayr — all Laval-trained philosophers — taught at St. Mary’s. When administrative changes left Berquist and Neumayr without jobs, the three men decided to form a college of their own. Peter DeLuca joined the three as a fundraiser and co-founder as well.
In the summer of 1968, Berquist and McArthur began drafting “A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education,” the founding document of Thomas Aquinas College, otherwise known as “The Blue Book.” The college opened in 1971. Berquist joined as a full-time tutor the following year. There, he not only taught but also met his wife, Laura Steichen, a 1975 graduate. Laura and Marcus have six children, all of whom are graduates of Thomas Aquinas College; the youngest graduated in the spring of 2010.
Berquist served as an advisor to Laura’s Mother of Divine Grace School distance-learning program. The couple was awarded the 2009 Paideia Prize for Lifetime Contributions to Classical Education.
“One sobering thing is that we’ve lost the second youngest of our four primary founders,” said Forsyth. “There’s this sense that we won’t have them with us forever.”
A Teacher Par Excellence
Those who knew Berquist spoke of his intelligence, piety and humility. Not only did he serve as a member of the college’s board of governors for nearly the past 40 years, but he also continued to serve as a tutor until he was prevented from doing so by his illness.
Founding president Ronald McArthur is fond of sharing an exchange he once had with a student who wondered whom to go to if there was a difficult philosophical question.
“Well, you’d go ask your bishop for the answer,” McArthur replied.
“What if he doesn’t know?” asked the student.
“Then you’d ask the Pope.”
“What if the Pope doesn’t know?” continued the student.
“Well, you’d have to ask God.”
“What if God doesn’t know?” asked the student.
“Then,” said McArthur, “you’d ask Mr. Berquist.”
McArthur spoke of Berquist’s role in providing a “good beginning” for the college.
“He understood what we all too often but believed, and so he was the anchor that kept us from drifting from the winds of change that bedevil the untethered intelligence,” said McArthur. “I could not have conceived of being a part of a new college without knowing that he was one of us, that we could rely on him to keep us securely grounded in the study of Aristotle and St. Thomas, without which our college could never have achieved its purpose.”
Former student and current tutor Glen Coughlin described Berquist as a teacher.
“I learned from him to think carefully, to proceed one step at a time, to identify premises which are certain and to build on them slowly, deliberately and therefore confidently,” said Coughlin. “I also learned by his example that one should not take St. Thomas merely as one teacher among others, but as, after Christ and the Church, the teacher par excellence,” because he always thought about the truth.
Berquist was a tutor to the end. When the college recently needed to articulate the goals of its philosophy courses, Dean Brian Kelly said there was “no question whom we should ask. It had to be Mark. He cared deeply about the well-being of this community and did everything he could to promote our commitment to Catholic wisdom.”
Berquist received the anointing of the sick on Monday afternoon, Nov. 1, from college chaplain Father Cornelius Buckley. The college president, Michael McLean, said that Berquist “died a holy and peaceful death,” surrounded by his family.
A Rosary was recited on Friday evening, Nov. 5, in the college’s new Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. The funeral Mass was celebrated in the extraordinary form in the chapel on Saturday morning, Nov. 6, with interment immediately following at Pierce Brothers Santa Paula Cemetery.
A luncheon followed at St. Joseph Commons on the college campus, with remarks from the three surviving founders and one of Berquist’s sons.
“He was a deeply faithful Catholic whose piety and holiness inspired all who knew him,” said President McLean.
“His faith in God and the Church were simple and direct as that of a holy and devout peasant,” said McArthur. “He would have had the same faith had he been unable to read or write.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
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