Former U.S. senator’s message: Learn to live with diversity

Retracing the steps he’s walked hundreds if not thousands of times, former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger visited students in grades six through 12 at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville Nov. 11.

Durenberger was raised on the campus of St. John’s University, where his father served as athletic director for 42 years. The 1951 graduate of the prep school and 1955 grad of St. John’s University said for him, visiting the campus is like being “home.”

“All of us have a sense of place that we will never forget,” he said. “Mine is Collegeville, Minnesota.”

David Thorman, director of major gifts for the prep school, invited Durenberger to visit during the second annual Legacy Week, which marked the school’s 160th anniversary. The week also included a history lesson of the site formerly called Indianbush by historian Peggy Roske and prayer and rededication of the mission by Benedictine Abbot John Klassen.

“Legacy is about the past, but also about the present. It’s how we live our lives and the decisions we make every day that helps us build our future,” Thorman said.

St. John’s Prep senior Salma Muftah talks with former Sen. Dave Durenberger in the school’s Weber Center after he visited with upper school civics and philosophy students Nov. 11. (Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)
St. John’s Prep senior Salma Muftah talks with former Sen. Dave Durenberger in the school’s Weber Center after he visited with upper school civics and philosophy students Nov. 11. (Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

Durenberger, a member of St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Paul, addressed the all-school assembly in the morning, building on the message of learning to live with diversity, something the school’s principal, Pamela McCarthy, has tried to instill in students, especially in the days following this year’s presidential election.

“When I look out at all of you, I can see the tremendous opportunities of converting differences into friendships,” he said. “That’s something I think we’ve lost in our country — the ability to bring people together.”

Too often, he said, “in this country, we are no longer sending to represent us people who are like us; we send people who agree with us, not people who are committed to serving a cause. We are not sending people to Washington or even the state legislature who are willing to learn from other people how to resolve the problems that we’ve already experienced among our constituents.

“That’s what’s happened to both political parties,” he added. “Both are operating from these extremes — easy answers rather than difficult problems. Difficult problems can only be solved if you care enough about the people you disagree with so that you can figure out how you can agree. That is the biggest challenge right now.”

According to Grace Knoblach, a junior at the prep school and member of St. Paul Parish in Sauk Centre, the halls have been ringing with conversation about the presidential election.

“I walked in and that was the only thing anyone was talking about,” Knoblach said. “It’s been a huge deal. For some of us, we are just around voting age and are looking at the future and how this [election] is going to affect us. There has been a lot of discussion about what that means for us as high school students moving into college in the next four years.”

McCarthy also overheard some student conversations.

“Some of the students were struggling to process the election,” McCarthy said. “I felt I needed to address how to help them feel comfortable and safe. I wanted to give those students hope and to remind everyone that that is what is really important here.”

In an email to the prep school community, McCarthy wrote: “Whether you have a heavy heart or are full of joy about the presidential election, I implore you to continue to live the core values of our school — community, integrity, excellence and spiritual growth. Be up-standers — support each other as learners and fellow human beings. Set high expectations for yourself and others and live up to those expectations. Respect each other and each person’s choices. Spread understanding and love. Take care of each other.”

Durenberger expounded on her message. He told the students, “How you feel just before the election is one thing. How you feel after the election will define who you are as a person. It’s up to you to decide who you will be.”

Diversity, the 82-year-old former senator said, begins with a sense of community.

“It’s about who we are, why we are here and what we together are going to learn from our diversity,” Durenberger said. “We need diversity to grow the economy in the community, in the state, in this country. Change is not a wall. Change is a bridge between differences. Why not start in Central Minnesota? You have opportunity in this community. You shape the future where you live, you shape the future where you work, you shape the future where you go to school.”

McCarthy, who moved to Central Minnesota just four months ago, was pleased with how direct Durenberger was in addressing diversity.
“It gives the greater Prep community a jumping-off point to talk about racial diversity and religious diversity and that we get to coexist together. And then to ask the bigger question, ‘Why can’t more people do that?’” she said.

And that is the opportunity that one of the week’s organizers, David Fremo, director of campus ministry, hoped Legacy Week would provide.

“We want to keep the question of purpose, of ‘Why are you studying all of this?’ front and center with our students. We have no trouble getting our students to be focused on coursework, grades and college enrollment, but we wind up trying to find room for the question of purpose rather than having it be the first question we ask,” he said.

“One of the ways we do that is to try to feed what it is that they identify with. If you don’t ritualize something, if you don’t build it into the pattern of the school week and the school year, you almost lose it. If it’s just an idea, it’s easy for that just to be transient. Every Monday we start our week with Prep Talk — a time for announcements, celebrations, pulse-checking. It has an agenda and a script but it is really student-driven.”

Knoblach said for her, Legacy Week did give her a sense of purpose.

“What I realized is that I am coming to Prep at a time when I was opened up to the ‘real world,’” she said. “We have diversity and different opinions and there’s a lot to learn. That really struck me that this is home, this is a learning community and that’s really unique and wonderful.

“Sometimes you feel like Prep history started when you got there and it’s like, no, there was a lot more that came before us to make the community what it is today,” she continued. “I realized it is a lot more than just me, right here, right now. It’s the history and the future that we really need to look at.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

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