Not king, but ‘Most Honored Citizen’

Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald

Download the PDF

The Rev. John Schlegel doesn’t know if it was God’s will or fate that sent a hockey puck flying into his face when he was 21 years old.

Whatever it was, the incident freed him from a lisp and stutter. It was a pivotal moment for a guy who — despite his difficulties — had always loved words, as a chatty kid and as a high school speech champion.

Now president of Creighton University, Schlegel continues to use his voice to educate, entertain and persuade. Under his leadership since 2000, the university has built residence halls and athletic complexes as part of $250 million in campus growth, including a move eastward that links to the developing Omaha riverfront. And Creighton is wrapping up a $350 million fundraising campaign — the university’s largest. He’s also using the president’s seat to carry out the mission of a Jesuit priest by pushing for more job opportunities for minorities.

To honor Schlegel’s contributions to Omaha, the Knights of Ak-SarBen named him “Most Honored Citizen” at Saturday’s 112th Coronation Ball at the Qwest Center Omaha. Schlegel, 65, said he did not want the traditional “King” title because it honors an individual. He wants to highlight the university.

Schlegel grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, with five siblings in a strong Catholic family. Prayers before meals. Church every Sunday. No questions asked.

Through grade school, Schlegel met with a speech therapist every Friday. Sister Sally sold seashells by the seashore . . . Sister Sally sold seashells by the seashore . . . Sister Sally sold seashells by the seashore, he recited over and over.  He struggled at first but eventually learned to slowly approach words starting with S. Schlegel wasn’t thinking too much about a career at that time, but one thing was for sure.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to do all this, I should do something with this skill,'” he recalled.

And he did. Mom still has his high school speech medals. Schlegel also held lead roles in plays. Powerful speakers like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. captivated the young man as the civil rights movement unfolded. Schlegel’s Catholic upbringing taught him to cherish human dignity and treat everyone as equal.

He enrolled in Loras College, a Catholic school in Dubuque. His plan: finish college, become a lawyer, go into the Peace Corps, then become a politician. But at Loras, he stumbled upon a new path. The college required him to attend a retreat. He picked one attended by a group of students joining the seminary. The retreat leader spoke of Jesuits’ “serving the people of God” and explained how they typically go into education fields or become missionaries, which intrigued Schlegel.

Schlegel decided to become a Jesuit — and shocked his parents. Jesuits are the largest male religious order of the Catholic Church. They take a vow of poverty and are known for their missionary work to promote social justice and human rights worldwide.

“Jesuits are very mysterious,” Schlegel said, “and in Dubuque, Iowa, there weren’t any.”

But if he hadn’t joined, that fateful hockey-puck hit wouldn’t have happened.

It was his second year of seminary, and Schlegel wasn’t wearing a face guard. A puck hit his mouth, damaging his upper lip and front teeth. He had root canal surgery, and the dental surgeons closed a tiny gap between his front teeth, which eliminated the lisp. After seminary, he enrolled in St. Louis University in 1967 and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and classics and a master’s degree in political science. As a Jesuit during the civil upheaval of the 1960s, Schlegel found himself among other believers in racial equality; he knew he was on the right side of the fight.

In St. Louis, he lived in a house “in the ghetto” with other Jesuits. They ran an after-school tutoring program for young black men. By 1977, Schlegel had worked his way to Creighton as a political science professor. He conducted a retention study for the president and found himself working with various committees. He got an itch for leadership. Schlegel became Creighton’s assistant academic vice president.

Later, he held mid-level administrative roles at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo.; Marquette University in Milwaukee; and John Carroll University in Cleveland. In 1991, Schlegel took on his first president position, at the University of San Francisco. After nine years, he returned to Omaha as Creighton’s president.

Some saw that as a step down. Schlegel saw opportunity.

He planned to expand the campus at a time when city leaders were investing in downtown. Many Jesuit universities — Loyola University, the University of Detroit Mercy and Georgetown University — are vibrant entities in the heart of the city. Creighton should be no different, Schlegel thought.

Today, much of Creighton’s eastward stretch is the result of private talks between Schlegel and some of Omaha’s most noted givers. Schlegel said he expresses how he sees Creighton growing and how that ties into downtown’s cultural renaissance. When he talks, donors listen. The evidence shows in the millions of private dollars used to construct two new residence halls, Morrison Soccer Stadium, Ryan Athletic Center and the Mike and Josie Harper student center. Schlegel also has used the presidency to spotlight the poverty among Omaha’s blacks and Hispanics.

“My greatest disappointment coming back after 18 years was that Omaha had not moved toward being a non-racially divided community,” said Schlegel, who encourages businesses to hire more people of color.

Last year, Creighton bought land at an industrial park near Eppley Airfield, then negotiated a deal with Modern Equipment to build a plant for the company there. In exchange, Creighton acquired the manufacturer’s land east of the university for expansion. Schlegel said he crafted the deal so the company would keep and bring more jobs to north Omaha.

Civic groups often ask Schlegel to speak, and he’s a familiar face around town. Last Thursday, he was the keynote speaker at an Omaha NAACP event. A few years ago, he voiced Paul Bunyan in an Opera Omaha production. He also holds weekly breakfast meetings with students.

“I tell a much more compelling and convincing Creighton story to an incoming student or a parent or a donor or an alum, if I know more about the people I’m talking about,” Schlegel said.

While public speaking is important, he sometimes worries that it consumes too much of his time.

“There are days when I do nothing but focus on the institution — as I’m hired to do — but at the same time, there has to be a point where there’s life beyond that,” he said. “At least for a couple hours.”

In his spare time, Schlegel listens to classical music, cooks and gardens. He says he finds inner peace knowing that beautiful flowers will soon occupy a hole he made in the earth. He boasts about his risotto and is quick to tell the tale of how he started to cook: None of his Jesuit roommates in St. Louis knew how.

“We had more than enough Wheaties and cornflakes for dinner, so we decided somebody had to learn how to crack an egg or something,” Schlegel said with a laugh.

Schlegel squeezes in time to exercise, pray and, yes, preach a sermon. He isn’t preaching as much as he wants, but he plans to do more someday after leaving Creighton.

“One of the most important parts of my week is to pray publicly. It’s just who I am,” Schlegel said. “I am a priest first and an administrator second.”