by CHRIS ROGERS
Brother William Mann knows what it’s like to have a transformational experience in school. The son of a firefighter and one of seven children growing up in an Irish-Catholic family in 1950s Brooklyn, Mann was set on going to Brooklyn Tech for high school, even after a nun at his Catholic middle school handed him a scholarship offer from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School. The tech school would have been a great launchpad for a career in engineering, but the sister convinced him to take a different path. “That’s when I met the brothers,” Mann said. Years later, after Mann took vows himself, he recalled his mother saying, “Your dad and I knew something was happening to you as a freshman.” When he talked about the de la Salle Christian Brothers who were his teachers, there was an excitement in Mann’s voice his parents had never heard before.
Flash forward many years and Mann, by then the head of the religious order’s Northeast division, was at a six-week retreat, a sort of congress of Christian Brothers from across the world. “I was pretty sure at the end of the six weeks, I was going back to the Northeast. Over the course of a weekend I was elected to spend the next seven years in Rome,” he said. Mann was named the Vicar General, the second-in-command of the order of Christian Brothers worldwide. “I used to joke that my books and clothes lived in Italy and I lived on a plane somewhere,” he said of an earlier job in Rome leading trainings across the globe. As Vicar General, Mann lived in Rome, used Italian around the city, travelled constantly, and was expected to chair meetings in French. “I’m a bit linguistically challenged,” he admitted. At one point, an older brother told him, “You need to go to France so the brothers will understand you.” As hard as picking up languages was, truly understanding culture is harder, Mann stated. “It was an opportunity to learn how much I had to learn about the others in the international community,” he said of living and working with people from around the globe, adding, “We have a lot of learning to do if we’re going to live in harmony.”
Lately, Mann’s French has been getting worse. He has spent the last 10 years as the president of Saint Mary’s University (SMU), and two weeks ago, he announced he would retire at the end of this school year. When he first came to Winona, a fellow brother who was having his appendix removed called to ask if Mann would visit him before the operation. Used to riding the bus one hour each way, all without leaving the Brooklyn Borough, Mann told the brother he didn’t think he could make it across town in time. “I didn’t realize the hospital was six minutes away,” he said.
Mann presided over a dynamic period in Saint Mary’s history, when the university’s annual fundraising nearly tripled and helped fund a big new environmental science center in Rochester; a state-of-the-art, 50,000-square-foot science center in Winona; and the school’s First Generation Initiative to prepare would-be first generation college students, offer them scholarships, and tutor and mentor them during college. The latter includes a Countdown-to-College initiative for high school students. SMU Board of Trustees Chair Mary Ann Remick said this initiative makes college accessible for first-generation students, and “inspires them to think, ‘This is attainable. This is something I can do.’” It’s fitting, she added, that the first group of students to complete the Countdown-to-College program as high school students will earn their diplomas from SMU this spring.
“That’s a huge step forward for Saint Mary’s,” Brother Larry Schatz said of the school’s fundraising progress. Schatz is a SMU trustee and the head of the Christian Brothers’ Midwest district. He praised the university development office. “The key these days, especially with private education, is that if you’re going to make education accessible, you’ve got to grow the endowment.”
Both Schatz and Mann described a big part of the Lasallian school’s mission as improving underprivileged people’s lives by making quality education accessible. “Higher ed, I think, is the transformative place in our network right now,” Mann said. Another part of the mission: helping form students into spiritually and ethically upright people. “If you’re part of the fraction of Americans that receive a college education, you’d better be making the world better because of it,” Mann told the Post in 2013.
Schatz praised SMU’s Axis, a journal of Lasallian education research read in numerous languages across the world, and the Winona campus’ welcoming environment. Schatz also credited Mann with helping to start a tradition of trustees traveling to Europe together. “It built relationships among board members that I haven’t seen elsewhere,” he stated. “[Mann] has done a wonderful job. I think what he brings to the campus is a great aesthetic sense and great art and its role in causing people to stop and meditate,” Schatz said.
“What I admire about him is his ability to relate to the students,” Remick said. “He has made himself a very approachable president, who, I would say, really cares about all of the students.”
Mann described interacting with students as a perk. “I like being around them. Their world is an interesting world. I know it’s not my world,” the 70-year-old added, with a joke about students’ proficiency with technology and his proficiency with chalk and a blackboard.
Explaining his decision to retire in a letter to campus and an interview, Mann said he would be going home to the East Coast. “I’m 100-percent sure it’s the right decision, but I have mixed feelings about the decision,” Mann said. The trustees wanted him to stay, but Mann thought the time might be right for a new leader to come in and guide Saint Mary’s through the coming years. Mann pointed out that he recently turned 70. “It was less about ‘will I or won’t I,’ but did I really believe I had the energy and stamina to go another piece,” he stated.
Mann’s hometown is out East, where his surviving siblings and a few dozen nephew, nieces, and grandnephews and grandnieces live. His home district — the Lasallian branch where he took his vows — is there, too. For most of his career, Mann has been asked to serve in leadership roles that somewhat separated him from the life of an ordinary brother. “Since 1984, I have only lived at home in my own District of the Brothers for about five years,” he wrote in his letter to campus. In an interview, he explained, “Brothers live in community. This job is not an easy job to live in community. I think this morning was the first time in a week I was in morning prayer because I haven’t been in Winona for a week.” Back East, two of Mann’s familial sisters died in recent years, and one morning, one of the religious brothers with whom he was closest just did not wake up, he said. It made him stop and think, “When I go home, who will be home?”
“Deep down he’s kind of an introverted, thoughtful, spiritual kind of guy,” Schatz reflected. “So to be out there and make yourself available to people around the world takes a lot.” Schatz continued, “While I certainly respect Brother William’s decision and I understand it on so many levels and nobody is irreplaceable, I think the standard he has set for Saint Mary’s leadership — it’s a great step forward … So we’re very concerned that we can find someone who can step into that role and continue the great momentum.”
A committee to search for SMU’s next president is already being formed. “Hopefully we’ll find some very good candidates and select one of them to be the 14th president,” Remick said. Asked what she would look for, the board chair replied, “I’d like to see someone who would be as personable and skilled and visionary as Brother William is.” The next president needs to understand Lasallian values, she added. “Lasallian brothers firmly believe that every child can learn. Some have more challenging circumstances from which they come, but everyone deserves the ability to receive a quality, meaningful education that will carry them through life.”
Correction: the original version of this story erroneously referred to the Saint Mary's University Board of Trustees chair by the wrong name, Theresa Remick. The chair's name is Mary Ann Remick.