On Holy Thursday, my wife and I drove down from our home in San Jose, CA, about 300 miles to the coastal city of Ventura, where we had rented a house to be with our grown children over the Easter weekend. Our two oldest, David and Ben, live with their families in the small town of Santa Paula, about 10 miles inland from Ventura. On the outskirts of Santa Paula, nestled deep among steep hills at the edge of the Los Padres National Forest, our two youngest, Nathan and Anna, are freshmen at Thomas Aquinas College.
It occurred to me on the way down that my wife and I were making the trip for the thirty-eighth time since early 1995, when we first visited the Thomas Aquinas campus. I had spent some months working from a distance on an article about the school and its trouble with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a regional accrediting agency which had recently taken up a certain posture of insistent political correctness regarding the campuses under its jurisdiction.
The original purpose of college accrediting agencies had been to serve the modest function of examining and attesting to the public claims of their member institutions. Thomas Aquinas College, for example, advertises itself as a Catholic liberal arts college “in the Great Books tradition.” There are no textbooks or lectures or academic majors or electives. The curriculum recapitulates the Western intellectual tradition, with a rather imposing four-year reading load stretching from the Bible and Homer through the Greek tragedians to Plato and Aristotle and Euclid to Lucretius and Virgil and Augustine and Aquinas and Dante through the moderns right up to Newton and Darwin and Freud and Einstein and the Tractatus of Wittgenstein.
The readings are monitored in seminars guided by “tutors” (professors with the usual graduate credentials but without the busybody careerist distractions of rank and tenure hustling). In conventional terms, the liberal arts degree of a TAC graduate translates into a double major in philosophy and math, with a minor in literature. And the proper function of WASC is to certify that Thomas Aquinas College does indeed do what it claims publicly to be doing.
In the early nineties, however, the accrediting agencies started getting frisky with their mandates, gradually insinuating requirements having more to do with educationist ideology than with education: race and gender “diversity” in the student body and faculty, required courses in victimology and selective indignation, “multiculturalist perspectives” ignoring or denigrating Western culture, and so forth. The folks at Thomas Aquinas College, perhaps because they were unaffected by a generation of creeping decline in higher education, saw through the political scam instantly and, by a fascinating twist of fortune, spearheaded a movement against the WASC assault on the institutional integrity of the member colleges. The obscure little Thomas Aquinas College (founded in 1970) pulled together a coalition of sure-enough diversity: Stanford, Berkeley, Pepperdine, several small Protestant colleges, St. Mary’s in Moraga…even the lefty Reed College in Portland.
It was an irresistible David-and-Goliath tale, and I got to know Thomas Aquinas College during the several months I worked on the story, especially its dynamic and tirelessly cheerful president, Thomas E. Dillon. Dillon had assumed the presidency a few years before the WASC contretemps broke out. In his undergraduate years at St. Mary’s, he had been taught by the eventual founders of TAC, and he went to work as a tutor at the new college after taking his Ph.D. at Notre Dame. Twenty years later, in 1991, he took on the duties of president, just when the college was starting to have serious financial trouble. For the next eighteen years, under Dillon’s leadership, thousands of new donors were attracted to the school with gifts totaling over $100 million so far; a permanent campus (replacing the trailers that had served as dorms and administration buildings) was gradually built, and the student body tripled (to an annual average of 350).
My wife and I watched all this happening, intermittently from a distance and close up as we’ve sent our own kids, one by one, to the college since 1998. The two oldest, David and Ben, now live with their growing families (our grandkids) in that area. Nathan and Anna, the two youngest, took a break from the rather intense campus life of TAC and stayed with us in the rented house in Ventura when we went down to visit over the Easter weekend. On the Tuesday after Easter, we left the kids and drove back home, and on Wednesday Anna called us from the campus.
The school had just learned by phone from the Irish police that President Tom Dillon, 62, had been killed when the rented car he was driving on highway N7 from Dublin to a college conference in Limerick had suddenly swerved off the road. Also in the car was Tom’s wife, Terri, who was hospitalized with a fractured collar bone. Terri will be coming home to four grown children and fifteen grandchildren.
Early in March, about five weeks before Tom’s death, TAC’s new chapel, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, was finally dedicated after several years of planning and three years of construction. It is a magnificent structure of renaissance and mission design, with a domed bell tower rising high above the campus: Tom Dillon’s dream and crowning public achievement.
Just now, though, I’m inclined to think more of Tom’s countless personal achievements — such as, for example, his inadvertent inspiration to me and my family. God be with you, Tom. And God bless your beautiful school.