Today is the Annunciation – the patronal feast day of Ave Maria University since its founding. The marvelous sculpture on the front of the Oratory reminds all who behold it of the joyful “yes” of Our Lady to the angel Gabriel’s message that if she consented, she was to be the mother of the Savior of the world.
Her “yes” to God set salvation history into motion, and countless souls throughout the ages have imitated her faithful, humble response.
One of those is Tom Monaghan, our founder, who by God’s providence was born on the feast of the Annunciation. His vision, wealth and faith put Ave Maria University on the map of Catholic higher education where it now stands proudly.
Tonight after the Mass celebrated by our own Bishop Frank Dewane, we will have our annual outdoors festival that includes student music, steak dinners, and joyful fellowship. It is hard to believe that we are only eight years on our beautiful campus. “God who is mighty has done great things” were Mary’s own words at the Annunciation, and I think all of us echo those sentiments about the glory that characterizes the history of our young University.
Recently I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by one of our Nation’s most distinguished historians, David McCullough. He twice received the Pulitzer Prize for his presidential biographies, and was awarded America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. If you saw the movie Seabiscuit or the acclaimed documentary series by filmmaker Ken Burns, The Civil War, then you have heard his voice in narration.
He came to Naples to speak at an event hosted by the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center. Bob Graham was a two-term Democrat Governor of Florida and a three-term U.S. Senator, and he hosted his friend on the occasion of the publication of McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.
McCullough’s book opens with this splendid quote from Wilbur Wright, the older of the brothers: “No bird soars in a calm.”
In other words, turbulence attends the labor of any seeking new heights. Tom Monaghan knows that well.
From the time it first broke ground on campus, Ave Maria University had one turbulent takeoff. Three successive hurricanes in Southwest Florida drove construction and labor costs through the roof. China bought so much steel at the time that many millions of additional dollars were needed by Tom to frame the Oratory and other buildings. And no sooner did the campus construction end and the nearby residential construction begin, than the U.S. housing market “bubble” popped and threatened Tom’s vision that the sale of lots would fund the University’s operations. One could say of the early days that anything that could have gone wrong for Tom, did.
And AMU’s troubles didn’t end there. In the succeeding years, there have been countless challenges and existential threats to AMU, with key professors and administrators occasionally departing to other institutions, and the University’s finances facing successive tests. Through it all, Tom and those like me who joined him at or after the founding, never quit. Faith, courage and confidence in God’s will helped all get through some turbulent times. In my five years I have benefited greatly from my colleagues many sacrifices – and also have had a few white-knuckled moments in the pilot’s chair myself!
The Wright brothers risked their lives. They knew death might occur any instant during any one of their fifty glider or test flights. That’s why they never flew together (and likely why neither married!). Wilbur said that there were two ways to tame a horse: study and observe it, or get on its back and ride.
Tom Monaghan was a kindred spirit to them. Like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in December 1903 when they finally launched successfully, Tom got AMU off the ground safely notwithstanding the fierce winds that forced him to bank and turn to stay above ground.
And thanks to his “yes,” the University is still climbing to new heights. We have Our Lady’s prayers to thank for that – and the Annunciation birthday boy’s steel will, too!