St. John's New President Prepares For The Final 1st Step

Tonight's Inaugural Brings Nelson Full Circle

October 18, 1991|By Dianne Williams Hayes | Dianne Williams Hayes,Staff writer

The historic brick buildings at St. John's College are familiar territory to Christopher B. Nelson. As a student, the playing field just outside his two large picture windows was where he blew off steam after studying Dante, Plato and Shakespeare.

But tonight at 8, on these same grounds 21 years later, he will be inaugurated as the college's 23rd president. And at 43, Nelson also returned to the classroom as an instructor in September -- not a common practice for college presidents.

"I feel like Willie Mays," Nelson said. "Imagine being able to play in the major leagues and you get paid for it too. That's what it'slike."

A former managing partner in a Chicago law firm and a 1970graduate of St. John's Santa Fe campus -- he took courses in Annapolis and New Mexico -- Nelson admits the idea of returning as presidenthad crossed his mind.

"It's something that had long been kind of an ideal," he said. "I thought it would be a wonderful thing to do inlife. I feel great. There's too much to do to be nervous."

His favorite artifacts -- including an African mask, Navajo rug and Chinesesilk screen panels -- lean against a wall of his office. His large modern desk with sharp right angles and copper legs was a gift to the college from an alumnus. Across from his desk is a wooden secretary once owned by Francis Scott Key.

Settling in behind the desk, Nelson said tonight's inauguration is the last of four major hurdles he's had to leap.

"My first hurdle was the faculty meeting, then welcoming back students, teaching the class, and finally the inauguration,"he said. "I'll feel like I'm really here. It's the last step."

Taking on the position now means tackling tough fiscal realities that have not escaped the serene campus. Tuition averages about $14,260 a year for full-time students, with half receiving some form of financial assistance. The college receives 5 percent of its $12 million operating budget from state aid, and 62 percent comes from tuition. Private donations make up the remainder.

"Every institution has been affected by cuts to state aid," he said. "We had to tighten our budget in every category. But there will be no cuts to financial aid or cuts to the basic programs of instruction. We are purchasing no new equipment, and there is no travel other than what is necessary for development or admissions."

Nelson credits the college's "Great Books" curriculum -- which eschews traditional classroom teaching in favor of acurriculum centered around 120 books and documents that form the backbone of Western intellectual tradition -- with providing the liberalarts foundation that creates "free thinkers." Twenty-one percent of St. John's graduates become teachers or educational administrators. About 20 percent go into business, 10 percent become lawyers and another 10 percent become scientists or doctors.

"The kinds of things we do here can be done for everyone else and by anyone else in the country," Nelson said. "The way we teach, which allows students to find their own answers within himself or herself and examine issues, is the only way to teach in higher education and public schools. Without free thinkers, we can create a real danger to our free nation."

Returning to the campus and tackling its operation was not an overnight move. Nelson has been working directly with St. John's since the 1980s, providing pro bono legal counsel to its presidents. He also serveson the board of visitors and governors committee and has been a member of the college's Alumni Association Board, where he has served as treasurer and secretary.

Nelson's father attended the Annapolis campus in the 1940s, and his oldest son, Tollof, is a sophomore at the Santa Fe campus. Two of his siblings, a brother and a sister, are alumni.

During the inauguration, Nelson will be united with his wife,Joyce, their four sons and his parents for the first time since his move from Chicago in August. The family will live in a house providedby the college, about 1 1/2 miles from the St. John's campus.

Theinauguration will be held in the Key auditorium. Senior instructor Marshal Edward Sparrow will lead a procession of faculty, board members and alumni.

Nelson said he is most looking forward to a performance by a high school classmate, internationally known pianist GarrickOhlsson. The Rev. Charles Banet, president for 27 years of Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind., will deliver the invocation.

Nelson will replace former President William M. Dyal, who served at theAnnapolis campus from 1987 to 1990. A year long search was conductedbefore Nelson was selected to replace interim President Donald J. MacIver.

"I'm here to stay, if they'll have me," he said. "I would love to finish my career out here."

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