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Interview by Ron Hansen M.A. '95On April 24, Michael Engh, S.J., will be inaugurated the next president of Santa Clara University. He took the helm of the University on January 5, and during his first months on campus, he’s put a priority on what he calls “deep listening.” To give SCM readers a better sense of the man, we thought listening seemed like an excellent idea. Here’s President Engh in his own words.
SCM: Let’s start with history. What prompted your interest in the field?
And from that my interest broadened: early California, then the frontier of the American West. And then when I was assigned to teach in high school as a Jesuit scholastic, I was given Western Civ for the freshman boys, taking me back to all the old history classes I took as an undergrad.
I guess you would say I grew up with this love of stories—that’s how I got into it. I grew up in Westchester, in the suburbs on the west side of Los Angeles. There was no history; everything was about 10 years old. The houses, the church, and the parish school had just gone up. Carey McWilliams wrote an article about Westchester in The Nation in 1949: how it popped up and became an instant community. It was kind of a prototype for many, many other communities after World War II.
There was no sense of the past, so I felt like I was missing a dimension in my life. When you grow up in an instant community, you have no sense of extended family. I knew both sets of my grandparents, but I wanted to know: Where did they come from? Who were they related to? So I began writing to older relatives and asking for their stories.
My dad’s dad, Peder Engh, came from Norway, but when he became American, he dropped everything having to do with the old country. The language wasn’t passed on; the customs and culture weren’t passed on; nothing. So when I had a chance, after I finished college, I went back to Norway and saw the family pictures and the old farm that they had all come from, and I got a sense of connectedness to a broader group of people.
My great-grandfather on my mom’s side, Marius Magnier, had come from France. He was a shepherd. I never met him; he died just before I was born, but I heard how he was brought over to help manage a huge sheep operation, driving the flocks from Los Angeles County over to Kern County by way of the Grapevine, in search of pastures in the summer. He never learned to speak English. He lived in the French colony in L.A. and socialized with that group, so that my grandmother grew up speaking French and had to be sent to a boarding school to learn English.
Because of those histories, I became very interested in studying immigration. I can still hear my grandfather’s heavily accented English as I listen to the people who are migrating to this country now. I have a keener sense of what they face in their struggle with language, the economic insecurity, the transition from one generation to the next as they adapt to this country. Those tensions are very familiar to me.
SCM: Have you worked out a genealogy of the family?
SCM: But I assume the Norwegians were not Catholic?
The Norwegian relatives I met were in Oslo, but actually the Engh family came from farther up the valley, near Lillehammer, where the Winter Olympics were held some years ago. The name "Engh" means “the mountain meadow” in Norwegian. It’s narrow, that meadow, up the side of the hill. It’s spectacular, beautiful, beautiful country, but how could you support a family living like that? No wonder they left.
TAKE THE TIME TO DIG DEEPER
SCM: What kind of surprises have you found in historical research?
SCM: Is that the source of your vocation to be a teacher?
SCM: And your interest in becoming a teacher led you to the Jesuits?
SCM: Why did you choose the University of Wisconsin for your Ph.D. studies following ordination?
The frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner had taught at Wisconsin. A graduate student I interviewed at Yale, Bill Cronin, is now the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of American History at Wisconsin. When I first met him, I asked, “What are you studying in the American West?” And he said, “Chicago.” For Yale, that was the American West. It’s all about perspective.
I lived through three winters in Madison. I thought I’d known winter because I’d lived in Spokane during my studies in philosophy, but that was nothing compared to Wisconsin.
SCM: Three years for a Ph.D. program in history is very quick, isn’t it?
SCM: You started a historical society on L.A., didn’t you?
HEARING BULLETS FLY
Engh: Yes. After six years I was tenured, then I served six years as rector of the Jesuit community. So after 12 years at Loyola Marymount, I took a sabbatical and then got a grant, which meant I had a two-year break from teaching and a good, long stint at Dolores Mission while doing research at the Huntington Library. That combination meant going daily from one social reality to a vastly different one. My mind felt like a rubber band sometimes, because I would leave the intellectual world of the Huntington in Pasadena to go to the Central Juvenile Hall on Eastlake Avenue in L.A., where I was volunteering with Sunday Masses and helping in a program for guys trying to get their GED, their high school diploma.
SCM: What subjects were you tutoring—reading and writing?
But one thing about the juvenile justice system is that they tend to move the boys quickly and without much forewarning. So I could be working with a boy for three months and then I’d come in one day and they’d say, “He’s gone, he was shipped out,” or, “His sentencing came, and he’s in Tehachapi now, the state prison.”
SCM: Did you do all the tutoring in English, or in Spanish as well?
SCM: Are there any moments that particularly shaped your understanding there?
A week later, we had the local Jesuit Volunteer Corps members come for a backyard barbecue in the afternoon—and there was another drive-by shooting at a gas station kitty-cornered from the Jesuit residence. The gas station had become the object of contention between two gangs. I kept thinking: Gas pumps, bullets—what stops the bullets? But Greg Boyle said the gang members are terrible shots; it’s the stray bullets that are damaging.
A couple months after I’d moved to the Mission, I was washing the car in the backyard, and I heard gun shots. Down the block, behind the parish, there had been a drive-by. There is public housing on one side and private homes on the other side of the street. A little girl named Stephanie Raigosa was playing in front of her house, and she was hit by a stray bullet. One of the gang members across the street was also hit by the other gang driving by.
That was when Mike Kennedy, the pastor, came home. He said, “I’ve got to go down and see this family. Their daughter was just killed.” I’d heard the shots. I’d never heard bullets fly that killed somebody. But this was becoming part of my world.
An artist there, Michael Walker, went into Stephanie’s classroom and through art therapy helped the children deal with the loss of this little girl. Michael took their various drawings and he made silk-screen T-shirts. It is common in this barrio to make T-shirts and sell them to help raise money for the funeral. Often they have car washes or bake sales to help the family pay for those expenses.
When I was dean at Loyola Marymount, I had one of the silk-screened T-shirts framed in my office, hanging over my desk. On it was a picture of Stephanie that the artist had done and all these things the students had written: “Goodbye, Stephanie,” or “We will miss you,” or “Good luck in Heaven.” That’s part of what I kept with me to remind me of that other world.
I also had a photograph taken of the Juvenile Hall when they were reenacting Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance. They did a little dramatization; one guy had to dress up in a blue veil, because there were no women there. The chaplain invited in a group of the mothers for Mass, and the boys did the dramatization. Mike Kennedy had worked with these boys in his meditation group and they wrote essays on “How my Mother’s Love Shows Me the Love of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
These guys were reading their essays, and their moms were there—and it was a pretty emotional moment. Then the mothers were asked if they wanted to say anything. But they were all too emotional. One lady took the mic, though, and she said, “Mijo, I remember the day you were born.” And she just talked about the joy in her heart when he was born.
That’s the same thing my own mother says on my birthday: “I remember the day you were born.” That hit hard: the reminder of the interconnectedness and common experience of the human family.
I kept a journal while I was there, and I wrote a piece for America magazine about the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and my experiences in the prison and in the parish.
SCM: How did it happen that you became an administrator as a Jesuit? Was there encouragement from a superior who recognized that you had a talent in that area?
I had built new Jesuit living quarters and had started the Center for Ignatian Spirituality on campus and got that endowed. When the position opened here, I wasn’t thinking, "Well, someday, yes, I want to be a president." I didn’t have that as a career trajectory or I would have started a lot earlier, because the learning curve, at age 59, is steep.
The province hadn’t asked me to consider going into administration. The Jesuits are a major organization, but we don’t systematically train leadership for the next generation. There’s an awful lot of reliance on the Holy Spirit in correctly identifying people for job openings.
SCM: Are you going to have to give up your historical research as president?
SCM: What are some of the things you’ve observed about Santa Clara, particularly in the last few months?
SCM: Have you thought of any initiatives you’d like to bring to Santa Clara?
SCM: Are you going to live in the Jesuit community?
The new Jesuit residence here is built around patios. It’s designed for hospitality, to bring people in.
SCM: What are your hobbies? How are you going to unwind after the day?
I like hiking, but not scaling mountains. I love music, so I get away to some kind of a concert or performance regularly. I enjoy art museums as well.
So those are the kind of things I do, regular exercise with it. Paul Locatelli was trying to convince me I should work out on the elliptical gizmo, but the exercise bike is just fine for the moment. When I’m on an exercise bike, I can read—and that’s how I keep up with my history journals, just prop them up and pedal my way through an article.
There’s lots to explore here. It’s really nice to be able to look out from Walsh and see the hills at the end of the street and then hear the trains go by. It evokes another era.
Ron Hansen is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., professor of arts and humanities at SCU and the literary editor of this magazine. His most recent novel is Exiles.