In Three Centuries of Harvard, historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that America's oldest and most venerable institution of higher education only found its footing and its mission to be the finest such institution in the world about 150 years after its founding, at the time of its sesquicentennial.
This sesquicentennial year, this Year of the Gael, Saint Mary's and its namesake magazine have celebrated the complex history, the powerful demonstrations of traditions—liberal arts, Catholic and Lasallian—that have shaped it, and the remarkable Gaels who established, supported, nurtured, challenged, defended and defined this College. Is it possible that these inspiring, colorful and compelling first 150 years which we have happily Gaelebrated over the past 12 months are only the beginning, the prelude?
Almost all SMC alums have a powerful memory of the first time they saw the campus, of turning down the main road, seeing the place for the first time, sensing that it was the place for them and in some immediate, intuitive and essentially mysterious way knowing it was their College.
At first, it is almost always the beauty of the place that captures us—the tree-lined drive framing the Chapel, the hills enfolding the valley, the blinding white stucco and terra cotta tiles, the arcades, the courtyards and the blue California sky.
But of course, it is much more. In a moment, we sense and perhaps in memory overlay the ideas, the conversations, the books, the parties, the meals, the explorations of belief, the contests, the friendships, the community that the place engenders. And, most importantly, we sense that it will be a good new home for us—yes, providing nurture but also challenging us to discover and develop our yet unrealized true best self.
But there is another drive for every SMC student, another view that every alum remembers with more than a little melancholy. That is the trip off the campus after graduation, the Chapel and hills a fading reflection in a rearview mirror. Generations of graduates have stopped to take a last look, maybe even a photograph, to try to capture and hold forever their memories and to hold on to a bit of their sunny Ithaka. Turning left or right, one's new life commences.
Of course, it wasn't the desire to create an idyllic academic village that led De la Salle to found schools, Archbishop Alemany to entreat the pope to send Christian Brothers, or the initial hardy band of Brothers to cross the Isthmus of Panama and sail into San Francisco Bay to devote their lives to Saint Mary's College. No, it was for the salvation, broadly understood, of the students, the Brothers and of the world. As new SMC president James Donahue noted at the announcement of his presidency, "What Saint Mary's offers today is what the world desperately needs and wants." Amen, to that. Now it is up to the Gaels of the present and future to deliver.
By a quirk of fate, good fortune and the decision to commit the past 34 years of my life to advancing the educational mission of the Christian Brothers, I essentially never really graduated. Except for the five weeks between my commencement on May 24, 1979, and my first day as an SMC employee, every working day of my life since and innumerable others have found me either literally or figuratively on the Moraga campus. So, like many other Gaels (and SMC itself, post-sesquicentennial), I'm about to commence, to turn into the future. I do so knowing that the education I've received on this patch of soil in Moraga has prepared me well to save myself and, in some small way, the world.
In defeat or victory, it's Hail Saint Mary's, Hail!
-Michael Beseda '79
Michael Beseda, who served as publisher of this magazine since its inception in 2005, is now vice president of enrollment and university communications at Willamette University.