There are plenty of numbers from the life of Dr. Thomas Dillon, the 18-year president of Thomas Aquinas College in California who died in a car accident in Ireland days before his 63rd birthday. Among them: 38 — number of years he spent at the college; $100 million — amount raised under his tenure; 10 — average percentage of graduating seniors who consider a religious vocation; four — children of Dillon and his wife, Terri, plus 15 grandchildren.
But what the numbers don’t show is Dillon’s tenacious commitment to Catholic liberal arts education that steered the small private college through a tumultuous landscape of political correctness and increasing secularism among its fellow Catholic institutions — and that nevertheless landed the school atop the rankings of both secular and Catholic college guides.
That, say his friends and colleagues, is Dillon’s legacy.
He brought the original vision of the college founders from principle to reality, said Peter Deluca, a 40-year friend and longtime colleague who is now the college’s interim president. Besides overseeing much of the campus construction, including the $23-million Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel that was dedicated this March and is hailed as a revival of classic Catholic architecture, Dillon also brought the student body and the faculty to full capacity, and worked as a tireless fundraiser and international ambassador for the school and for Catholic liberal arts education in general; he was “woven into the fabric” of the college, living on campus for 18 years as president.
Yet it was not a tenure without battle.
Thomas Aquinas College was founded in 1969 (with classes commencing two years later), at a time when the Catholic identity of American colleges was declining. Its founding document addresses this: “American Catholics are becoming increasingly aware of the growing tendency of Catholic colleges to secularize themselves — that is, to loosen their connection with the teaching Church and to diminish deliberately their Catholic character.”
“The signs of a serious decline were already apparent,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at American Catholic colleges and universities. “There was already a dramatic shift away from Church ownership of colleges to lay boards of trustees, which continued through the 1970s.”
This resulted, at most schools, in a retreat from the strong Catholic moorings of the past. But not at Thomas Aquinas. “What Thomas Aquinas did,” said Reilly, “was go in the opposite direction. It looked back to the roots of Catholic higher education — which are the roots of all higher education.”
This “opposite direction” meant smaller, discussion-style classes that used the original texts of authors, poets, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and theologians of Western civilization, known as the Great Books program. There are no textbooks, no lectures, no majors and minors; the curriculum is organized as a comprehensive whole.
Mass and confession are offered three times daily, and Eucharistic adoration is held for several hours every day.
Dillon joined the staff in 1972 as a tutor (what the college calls professors) with a doctorate in philosophy from Notre Dame. In 1976, he became dean, and in 1991, president. Even then, he recognized that there was only one answer to the threat of secularization.
As he told the Register in a 2006 interview, “Without fidelity to the magisterium, a school simply cannot retain its Catholic character or foster real wisdom. Even when institutions have good presidents, it may still be very hard indeed to effect substantial improvements. Many are like large ships adrift in the wrong direction and particularly difficult to turn around.”
In its adamant refusal to follow the trends of secularization, Thomas Aquinas ironically would later bypass its fellow Catholic institutions in both secular and academic arenas, ranked by The Princeton Review as the fifth “Best Value” in the country for 2008 and 2009 among all private institutions in the United States.
It was also selected by the Cardinal Newman Society as a model Catholic institution in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.
But the road to recognition was not without its bumps. In 1993, Dillon had to battle a wave of political correctness that could have resulted in the college’s loss of accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
When the organization, which certifies higher education institutions in California, Hawaii and several territories, proposed new guidelines that stressed multiculturalism in students, staff and educational materials, Dillon rallied the presidents of larger schools such as CalTech and Stanford in resistance.
Richard Ferrier, a Thomas Aquinas tutor, was the accreditation liaison at the time. He said that the school’s objection was twofold: first, it was unjust to consider student and faculty applicants by race; and second, revamping the curriculum to include, as the association ordered, viewpoints and contributions from all cultures would omit some of the great thinkers of the world.
‘Man of Vision’
In the movement against the new guidelines, “Tom presided over it with a steady hand and considerable personal skills,” said Ferrier. “He had to be bold. We were just a little college. But he never flinched, just steadily pursued his own course.”
The outcome was a revision of the guidelines and continued accreditation for Thomas Aquinas. However, Dillon went even further to stem the tide of political correctness. He helped found a new national accrediting organization, the American Academy for Liberal Education, which certifies mostly small, religiously-affiliated colleges.
All this was accomplished through faith. “He was a person of immense faith,” said Maria Grant, chairman of the college’s board of governors. “At the bedrock, he was a person of deep devotion to the college, to the faith, and to his family.”
This was illustrated, she said, by Dillon’s determination to have the new chapel’s cornerstone blessed in Rome. However, the 765-pound slab of marble the size of a dining room table presented a logistical shipping problem. Nevertheless, Dillon was determined, and one morning at his usual Legatus meeting, he discovered he was sitting across the table from an executive from the delivery company DHL.
The cornerstone was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on Sept. 3, 2008.
On the occasion of Dillon’s death, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, sent a letter to Thomas Aquinas College. Of Dillon, with whom he had worked and encouraged to promote the Catholic faith in the academic arena, he wrote, “By his countless accomplishments and planning for the future, this man of vision left a noble legacy of faith and learning which will continue to enrich minds and hearts for years to come.
“His immense love for the Catholic Church and its splendid tradition of imparting to others true Christian principles in the whole of the learning process is an outstanding example to Catholic educators everywhere.
“May we all continue to be inspired by his tireless zeal and fervent dedication in his efforts to build up the Kingdom of God in our midst.”
Dana Lorelle writes from
Cary, North Carolina.