The life of Ronald McArthur ’49 serves as a testament to faith, philosophy and the furtherance of knowledge. A former Saint Mary’s professor and founder of Thomas Aquinas College, he left his mark not only on generations of students but on the landscape of Catholic higher education.
A monumental man, McArthur stood six-foot-six-inches tall, had a booming voice that could be heard several classrooms away and was a profound thinker with a zany sense of humor.
“He was a very charismatic character,” said Jack McClenahan ’66, a former student of McArthur’s who became director of college relations at Thomas Aquinas College. “He was a man on a mission, and an unusual mission—the preservation of the perennial philosophies and the intellectual traditions of the Catholic Church.”
McArthur accomplished his mission through the creation of Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts college of 350 students near Santa Paula, Calif. With a curriculum based on the Great Books and Seminar, the college has been heavily influenced by Saint Mary’s. Its three presidents and several other key administrators and faculty were Saint Mary’s graduates.
Establishing a college can be a nearly impossible endeavor, and Thomas Aquinas was no exception. After accepting its first freshman class of 33 students in 1971, with McArthur as its founding president, it struggled to survive both physically and financially in the early years.
But survive it did and not only became a successful school in its own right, but has inspired a host of other small Catholic liberal arts colleges such as Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo.
These colleges, along with Thomas Aquinas College, owe their existence to the determination of McArthur, a man held in awe by many, including Dennis Koller ’66. Koller lived in the McArthur household while attending Saint Mary’s and served as vice president of development at the College and director of admissions and financial aid at Thomas Aquinas College.
“Dr. McArthur loved teaching. He loved students,” Koller said. “He was by far the smartest guy I ever met, and I’ve been around education my entire life. He was a brilliant man, a holy man. He was a saint.”