By Lindsay Steele and Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — One of the first places Austin Smith visited at the beginning of his freshman year at the University of Iowa was the Newman Catholic Student Center. Almost immediately, he knew it would become his “home” for the next four years. “It’s been the heart of my experience at Iowa, aside from classes,” he said.
Now an incoming senior, Smith shared this memory with guests at the Newman Center’s annual gala on June 11. Recent graduate Kelsie Tingle added, “We want more students to be able to make those memories. That’s why we’re here tonight.”
The hybrid gala, Blessings and Blue Jeans, took place at Celebration Farm and online June 11. The gala functions as a major fundraiser for Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa, whose mission is to prepare disciples for the Catholic Church and for the world. Newman Center is 100% self-funded through donations, grants, investment income and special events.
Last year’s gala took place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Usually the gala takes place during the spring semester, but organizers decided to plan the 2021 gala for early summer so more people would feel safe participating in person, said Father Jeffry Belger, priest director of the Newman Center.
Although fewer students were able to attend due to summer break, he was pleased with the turnout. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here,” Father Belger said, appreciative of the opportunity to celebrate with friends and supporters of the Newman Center in person again.
Brent Wears of Wears Auctioneering roused the crowd with rapid-fire speech as he drove up bids for pies, cakes, vacations, autographed jerseys and more. Additionally, guests bid on silent auction items. The hybrid format allowed both in-person and online participants to make bids.
The Newman Singers provided entertainment, rocking the house with jazzy renditions of classics such as Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Director Joe Mattingly encouraged the crowd to sing along to Christian favorites such as “How Great Thou Art.”
Smiles were abundant as guests walked about, enjoying conversation and viewing auction items before settling into their seats for dinner. Longtime centerpiece creator Mary Dreckman had decorated each socially distanced table with an arrangement of bright yellow sunflowers in a mason jar accented with a blue gingham bow. Inside each jar was a string of fairy lights. Cheryl Bombei assisted her this year, creating the denim pockets that identified each of the 25 tables by number.
Dreckman attended the gala with husband, Patrick, a retired lawyer who graduated from the University of Iowa. They wore “cowboy chic” attire for the occasion, tuxedos and jeans. She hoped the event would make an impression on the young people in attendance and “let them know that the adult community of the Newman Center is supportive of the students in our community. … If we don’t support the young people, our church will fail.”
Seated at Table 10 for the Newman Center Gala were Dan and Janet Teets, who met in a Bible study group at the Newman Center in 1986. Dan also was a member of the Newman Singers. He was a student at the time and Janet was a young nurse looking for a good Bible study to attend. The couple fell in love and married in 1989. They have six children.
Both express deep appreciation for the Newman Center. Dan was a Protestant whose roommate had invited him to the Newman Center. “I just fell in love with it,” Dan said. Janet appreciates all of the activities and resources the Newman Center provides, such as Scripture study and service opportunities in addition to Mass. Dan serves as director of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) at the Newman Center and director of Adult Spiritual Formation at St. Mary Parish in Iowa City.
Tingle, who alongside Smith served as an emcee for the evening, said seeing some of the people “who made it possible for us to have our Newman Center experience” was amazing. “It’s special to see them here, talk to them and spend some time with them.”
April Rouner, Newman Center’s director of development, said net income is projected at $85,000 to benefit general Newman Center ministries and programs. An additional $25,000 was raised at the event for audio/visual technology enhancements in the Newman Center chapel and large gathering areas.
“The Newman Center board, staff and students want to thank everyone who participated in the Blessings and Blue Jeans Gala 2021,” Rouner said. “Not only were needed mission funds raised, but we were so excited to be able to celebrate in person again as a Newman Center community. We are truly blessed!”