Michael Collins Strides Final Word

A Brief Reflection on 33 Years of Continuity and Change

By Michael J. Collins, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Chemistry
Reprinted from Strides magazine August 2009

I remember the words clearly and can almost hear them as I recall them. “I think Viterbo has a good thing going, and I think we would be a good fit for you.” It was October of 1975 at the Holiday Inn in Des Moines, and I was at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Association of Chemistry Teachers in Liberal Arts Colleges, which was being hosted that year by Drake University. I had run into Ron Amel, whom I knew from our days at St. John’s University as undergraduates, and who was then in his third year at Viterbo. It was Ron who spoke of the “good thing” after he had suggested that I apply for the open inorganic chemist faculty position.

Thirty-three years later, here I am, and I have to admit he was right. Viterbo had a good thing going. It still does—but my introduction to Viterbo the next fall was not exactly according to the “good thing they have going” book.

The day I moved to La Crosse in early August of 1976, I stopped at a gas station downtown to fill the U-Haul before I returned it. When I went in to pay, I was greeted by a big banner, “WELCOME BACK STUDENTS—HAVE A GREAT YEAR!” In smaller letters: “UW-L! WWTI! Logan! Aquinas! Central!” As I was paying, I offhandedly said to the clerk, “You left off Viterbo.” The clerk just stared back at me and asked, “I left off who?” I repeated, “Viterbo College.” This gas station manager at a store no more than eight blocks from Marian Hall had never heard of Viterbo ­College! I was so stunned that I actually took my car over to Viterbo later that day just to make sure the college was still there and still open.

The introduction to Viterbo continued. At my very first professional personnel meeting a couple of weeks later, we were told by Fr. Tom Finucan, Viterbo’s president at the time, that had it not been for a generous gift from one of our trustees, Viterbo might very well have closed its doors for good the previous summer.

I had been so relieved to land this job, and then my first college meeting had put me, and all of us assembled, on “red alert.” Fr. Finucan, to his credit as an optimistic Irishman, followed those remarks with the promise that Viterbo would never again operate with a deficit, and it would use that near miss to figure out how not merely to survive but to thrive. Thirty-three years later—with 32 consecutive balanced budgets resulting from that commitment, as well as from good planning, fantastic FSPA and broader community support, and good stewardship—that promise is still being kept.

There have been huge changes to Viterbo in the decades since I arrived, the most significant of which, to us in the sciences, has been the D.B. and Marge Reinhart Center for Ethics, Science, and Technology. The successes of our graduates confirm that our major programs in chemistry and biology were doing well when we were in Murphy Center, all things considered—and I am sure many alums have fond memories of their times in the old Murphy labs—but there is no comparison with the facilities we have now and the programming they have enabled.

As I write this, my office is down to the bare walls. I have packed up everything that I will be taking with me. I am leaving with lots of good memories. I met my wife here. I raised a family here. I had an opportunity to participate in curriculum development, campus development, and faculty development processes.

While I was going through the somewhat tedious process of sending old files to the recycling bin, giving away and tossing old books, and deciding what to keep for mementos, I found a manila folder labeled “kudos and thanks.” It was filled with cards and letters from students and colleagues. Many of them were well-written thank you notes from students who now sport prestigious titles. The folder also contained letters from colleagues, from former colleagues, and from some who are now deceased, congratulating me for this or that award, grant, or publication. Those notes and cards reminded me that there have been lots of amazingly talented students and colleagues with whom it has been my privilege to work over the past 33 years. My successes really have been their ­successes.

I also am leaving with the conviction that Viterbo, the sciences, and our students will be in good hands with the next generation of faculty who replace us old guys. I take some satisfaction in reflecting on the role I have had in moving Viterbo and the sciences forward and in contributing to the successes of our graduates. But do you know what would really make my day, what would really be the capstone of my career? It would be to find that gas station manager from 33 years ago and see what he thinks of Viterbo now.