By Barb Arland-Fye
A $1 million gift from the late Father Joseph Kokjohn’s estate has established an endowment to further peace and justice education at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. It is the largest gift from a St. Ambrose faculty member and priest, said university officials. They were to make an announcement about the gift today, Sept. 30, at a 4 p.m. news conference in Christ the King Chapel on campus.
The longtime priest of the Davenport Diocese served as faculty member and later vice president and then acting president of St. Ambrose before becoming a pastor in Clinton and then returning to St. Ambrose to teach. He lived frugally and invested wisely and was influenced by the early leaders in St. Ambrose’s social justice and peace tradition. A native of Fort Madison, Fr. Kokjohn died May 21, 2009, at the age of 80 in Davenport.
“Fr. Kokjohn’s generous and thoughtful legacy gift to the university is truly a gift to all future generations of students who will come to St. Ambrose,” said Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, president of St. Ambrose. “The university, as a Catholic institution, holds peace and social justice as core values; so, too, did Fr. Kokjohn. His endowment enables us to realize these values and our mission more fully.”
Uses for the Rev. Joseph E. Kokjohn Endowment for Catholic Peace and Justice will include teaching, research and activity in such areas as the early Church, ecumenical councils, and 20th century figures and movements in nonviolence. As the endowment grows, other appropriate uses could include funding for student research and internships, lectures, seminars, retreats, community workshops and convocations. Eventually, the endowment will allow for the establishment of the Kokjohn Chair of Catholic Peace and Justice, providing support for a faculty position in theology, philosophy or a related discipline.
Generally, about $1.5 million is needed to endow a chair; two immediate goals of St. Ambrose are to grow the corpus to full endowment and to begin activities related to its peace and justice mission, said Paul Koch, the university’s vice president of academic affairs. A committee has been formed to “start the visioning process of how we live out Joe’s vision and dream,” Koch said.
Ed Littig, the university’s vice president, advancement, said: “One of the first meetings Sr. Joan had when she came three years ago was with Fr. Kokjohn, and he had this notion to leave a legacy of peace and justice studies. She told him, let’s keep talking about it, until we do it right.” Littig once asked Fr. Kokjohn how he was able to make so much money. “He said when he was a young man one of his relatives said, ‘you need to start investing.’ He made $26 a week as a priest. So he invested $5 a week. By the miracle of compounding he became the millionaire next door. He was very frugal with money and his will was a very simple document, so he was able to leave this legacy.”
Father William “Digger” Dawson, a retired St. Ambrose professor and peace activist, said “the endowment catches the spirit of the O’Connor brothers (both priests) and Father Griffith, Matthew McMahon and Father Jack Smith. They were the forerunners of the peace and justice emphasis here at St. Ambrose. We’ve had strong peace and justice emphasis at St. Ambrose through the years. This will raise it up a big notch.”
Pat Deluhery, a retired St. Ambrose assistant professor and state senator, first knew Fr. Kokjohn as his teacher in freshman religion class in 1956-57 at St. Ambrose Academy. “We were in the middle of the early awakening to social justice issues as they applied in race relations and in peace and justice kinds of things. Fr. Kokjohn’s message in both the religion class in my freshman year and the English class in my sophomore year was that the technique of good writing and careful explanation apply to all of these questions. You can’t persuade people of the rightness of your cause if you can’t express it clearly.”
Father Brian Miclot, also a student and colleague of Fr. Kokjohn, said much of his peace and justice work was done behind the scenes. “Joe brought large amounts of soups to the Catholic Worker House in Davenport (1972-1978) and paid the utilities for the Catholic Worker for the same years.” While in Clinton, he helped persuade business leaders and government officials to construct elderly housing. His inspiration in this was one whom he considered his mentor — Msgr. Sebastian Menke, who, according to Fr. Kokjohn, never exposed the good he was privately promoting.”
David Kokjohn, a nephew, described his uncle as a great guy, with a good sense of humor, and “very dedicated to St. Ambrose.”
Endowments at St. Ambrose University
• Rev. Joseph E. Kokjohn Endowment for Catholic Peace and Justice — established in 2010 to further the education of St. Ambrose students in the Catholic tradition of peace and social justice.
• Baecke Chair of Humanities — Albert Baecke and Rae Marie DeJonghe Baecke, formerly of East Moline, Ill., established this endowment in 1981 to support teaching and learning experiences in the humanities at St. Ambrose. Initially focused on an endowed professorship at St. Ambrose University, the Baecke Humanities Endowment programs have grown to incorporate a range of scholarly activities related to theology, philosophy, history, literature, and the traditions of the fine arts.
• Frank and Jane Folwell Chair in Political Science and Pre-Law — established in 2001. Mrs. Folwell established the chair in honor of her late husband, Frank, a highly respected businessman and philanthropist. The first lecture was in 2003.
• Richard E. Geiger Endowment — established in 2001 to honor Professor Richard Geiger upon his retirement after teaching 39 years at St. Ambrose University.
• Hauber Chair of Biology — established in 1975 in honor of the late Msgr. Ulrich Hauber (1885-1956), a priest of the Diocese of Davenport. He served as fifth president of St. Ambrose College and served on its faculty for 48 years. He was a nationally known writer and teacher of biology.
• St. Ambrose Chair of Catholic Studies — Each spring, this endowment, established in 1986 to address concerns of a religious nature, provides funding for a lecture by a guest in fields that are of concern to the Catholic community. Previous lectures have focused on topics such as theology, history, literature, music, Scripture, liturgy and the natural and social sciences.