Remembering Tom Dillon

One would be hard-pressed to find a man better suited to the task he had been given than Thomas E. Dillon. The students at his beloved Thomas Aquinas College, where he served as president for almost 20 years, were blessedly unaware of the incredible pressures Dr. Dillon bore day-in and day-out; still, they all recognized that God had given us just the right man for the job. And while it is easy (and often hopelessly hyperbolic) to speak of someone as "making something what it is today," there is no doubt that Thomas Aquinas College would not exist as it does today were it not for the tireless efforts and prayers of Dr. Dillon.


"I send you my prayers and best wishes and pray that God’s blessings may abide with you as you lead the college into the future. May you be the presence of Christ — His Love and His Compassion — to your students and staff."
 
— Letter from Mother Teresa to Thomas E. Dillon on the occasion of his Inauguration, September 1991
 
One would be hard-pressed to find a man better suited to the task he had been given than Thomas E. Dillon. The students at his beloved Thomas Aquinas College, where he served as president for almost 20 years, were blessedly unaware of the incredible pressures Dr. Dillon bore day-in and day-out; still, they all recognized that God had given us just the right man for the job. And while it is easy (and often hopelessly hyperbolic) to speak of someone as "making something what it is today," there is no doubt that Thomas Aquinas College would not exist as it does today were it not for the tireless efforts and prayers of Dr. Dillon.
 
There are two kinds of deaths: those that make us sad because we fear that the person might not have been quite ready to die, and those that make us sad because we were not ready for him to leave. Dr. Dillon’s unexpected passing last week, the result of a tragic car crash in Ireland, is as clear an example of the latter as I have ever known. As I sat in the newly dedicated chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity and listened to the countless supplicants beseeching God to grant Dr. Dillon speedy entrance into his eternal reward, I was struck by the way in which his death made explicit to the rest of the world what his family already knew so well: Tom Dillon gave his life for Thomas Aquinas College.
 
For years, he poured himself out for her; there was no sacrifice he was unwilling to make for her, no task he would not undertake. His fiercely competitive nature, self-deprecating humor, painstaking attention to detail, and neverending pursuit of excellence — character traits that many alumni will remember with particular fondness from his frequent presence on the TAC basketball courts — were the perfect tools for one faced with the daunting task of keeping the College in existence. If TAC needed him to spend months out of every year away from the comfort of his home so that she might survive, he was ready. No man could have loved his family more, and I am sure that his time away from them was one of the greatest sacrifices he was asked to make. And yet few men could say that they had more "family" than did Dr. Dillon; the entire TAC community has lost a father. He was indeed, as Mother Teresa had hoped and prayed, the "presence of Christ — His Love and His Compassion" to the students, the staff, and the entire TAC family.
 
Looking back on my time with Dr. Dillon, I am truly amazed by the impact he had on the lives of countless students and alumni — unquantifiable, but which will be keenly felt through its absence. I am amazed at the way in which he was able to convince so many friends and benefactors of the profound importance of what TAC was doing, and at the way in which he became a genuine friend and confidant for so many of these same supporters. And I am blessed to have spent time living with and learning from a man so unstinting in his willingness to sacrifice for others, and so unswervingly committed to the cause of Truth.
 
Dr. Dillon would have been the first to remind us that nothing is certain, and that his final destination depends greatly on the prayers and sacrifices of those he leaves behind, and (thankfully) on the Mercy of his Divine Redeemer. I can almost imagine him, like Mark Antony, asking for a little less praising and a little more burying. Prayers for the happy repose of his soul are more than just appropriate; they are essential. But at the same time, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine Our Lord greeting him at the Heavenly Gate with anything other than words of welcome — "Well done, my good and faithful servant; come, share your Master’s joy." While the sadness felt at his untimely death is great, I suspect that the college gained an extraordinarily well-placed advocate just as it lost an able earthly leader.
 
For many of us TACers, one of the most vivid memories we have of Dr. Dillon will always be the moment when he delivered his "Charge to the Graduates" at the conclusion of every graduation ceremony. It is difficult to imagine these words being said by any voice other than his, though not nearly as difficult as it is to imagine anyone for whom they are more applicable at this moment than Dr. Dillon himself:
 
Each of you must live your life so that, when you are to meet your Maker, you can say, as did the angelic doctor as he received the Eucharist for the last time:

"I receive Thee,
Price of my redemption,
Viaticum of my pilgrimage,
For love of whom I have fasted, prayed, taught, and labored.
Never have I said a word against Thee.
If I have it was in ignorance
And I do not persist in my ignorance.
I leave the correction of my work to the Holy Catholic Church
And in that obedience I pass from this life."

May God bless you on your way.

 


Joseph Susanka, C ’99, writes from Lander, Wyoming. Dr. Dillon’s funeral was celebrated today at 10:00 a.m. in his crowning achievement, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. Please pray for him and for the family and friends he leaves behind. Requiescat in pace.

By

Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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