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Leaving a Legacy for Peace and Justice

 
The Rev. Joseph Kokjohn

February 2011 | by Sarah J. Gardner


When Rev. Joseph Kokjohn passed away in May 2009, one chapter in his decades-long affiliation with St. Ambrose University came to a close. Another chapter, though, is just beginning.

In his will, Kokjohn left St. Ambrose a gift of nearly $1 million, the bulk of his estate, with which to establish the Rev. Joseph E. Kokjohn, PhD, Endowment for Catholic Peace and Justice. It is a legacy entirely in keeping both with Kokjohn's lifelong dedication to Ambrose and the university's core mission of working for social justice in the Catholic tradition.

"Father Kokjohn's generous and thoughtful legacy gift to the university is truly a gift to future generations of students who will come to St. Ambrose," says Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD, president of St. Ambrose. "The university, as a Catholic institution, holds peace and social justice as core values; so too did Father Kokjohn. His endowment enables us to realize these values and our mission more fully."

Through this endowment students at St. Ambrose who never knew Kokjohn will have the opportunity to share his commitment to peace and justice. "He gave back his life. He gave everything he earned at St. Ambrose back to St. Ambrose," says Ed Littig, PhD, vice president for advancement, describing the scope of Kokjohn's gift, the largest ever made to the university by a faculty member or priest.

A teacher of humanity

It was fall of 1946 when a young Joe Kokjohn, newly graduated from Catholic Central High School in Ft. Madison, Iowa, traveled to Davenport to attend St. Ambrose College. He would earn his bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1950, after which he left St. Ambrose to work on his master's degree in theology and study for the priesthood. Soon after being ordained in 1954, Kokjohn returned to St. Ambrose to teach, even as he completed his doctoral program in English at the University of Iowa.

St. Ambrose would remain Kokjohn's home for the better part of the next six decades. And although he would serve the university in several capacities, from registrar to vice president-even taking a four-month stint as interim president in 1973-it was his love of English and teaching, as well as his humanity, for which students most remember him.

"He was so knowledgeable about the smallest details of what we were reading. We just felt in awe of what he knew," says Ann Boege '88, who studied Shakespeare with Kokjohn. "He was very involved in making sure we understood all the layers and nuances of the plays."

Now an English teacher herself at Williams Intermediate School in Davenport, Boege says "the way I saw him is the way I try to be" in her own classroom. Kokjohn was a firm teacher and expected students to come to class prepared, she says, but his students knew he did so because he cared about their success. "It really mattered to him that we left knowing more than when we began."

Yet who could know that the challenging yet supportive learning environment Kokjohn created in his English classroom would not be the only legacy he would pass on to Ambrose students?

A lifetime of charity

During his lifetime, Kokjohn lived frugally but gave generously. For many years he paid the monthly utilities for the Catholic Worker house in Davenport, and he regularly brought soup to its kitchen to distribute to the hungry who came there.

He inspired generosity in others as well. While serving as pastor at St. Patrick's parish in Clinton, Iowa, Kokjohn convinced business leaders in that community to fund the construction of housing for the elderly. Through his fundraising efforts and careful direction, the housing units were built and continue to serve seniors today, nearly 30 years later.

He was as conscientious with his own income, setting aside nearly one-fifth of  his earnings annually while still a young priest, a practice that resulted in the $1 million gift he was able to leave the university. It has prompted the question: Given his support for other charitable causes, what ultimately inspired Kokjohn to leave the bulk of his estate to support peace and justice efforts at St. Ambrose?

Rev. Brian Miclot '70, PhD, a colleague, co-pastor and former student of Kokjohn, credits a visit to campus by Charles and Mary Ellen Wilber, who had themselves given $20,000 to St. Ambrose to fund a symposium on non-violence in the Christian tradition. The Wilbers spent an evening visiting with Kokjohn, talking together about life at St. Ambrose and the Wilbers' work at the University of Notre Dame.

As Miclot relates it, "As we were leaving Joe's room he turned to me and said, ‘I've got to make a change to my will.'"

A call to action

That change established Kokjohn's gift to the university, one that would combine perfectly his lifelong devotion to the Catholic intellectual tradition, Catholic education and St. Ambrose: Once the endowment's value reaches $1.5 million, annual earnings will be directed to supporting peace and justice programming and efforts on campus.

With such an endowment, Miclot says, students will have even more opportunities for learning about nonviolence, conflict resolution, and the Catholic tradition of "If you want peace, work for justice."

In the meantime, Aron Aji, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has appointed a committee comprised of theology, philosophy and social work faculty, all advocates for peace and justice within their own classrooms and the larger community, to help shape the future of the Kokjohn Endowment. This may involve bringing speakers and visiting scholars to campus who are committed to the ideals of social justice and the difficult work of bringing it about, or engaging students in the work of local not-for-profit organizations on issues of justice.

Such resources bring a renewed focus to an area, both academic and fundamental, in which St. Ambrose has a renowned history, Aji points out. "Father Kokjohn's gift actively and dynamically affirms our historic commitment to peace and justice," he says. A network of events and activities with a peace and justice focus already exists on campus, and Aji says the Kokjohn Endowment will help strengthen those programs and further articulate their aims.

Miclot agrees. "Stuff is already growing," he says. "We're in our third year giving an award to the student who writes the best paper on resolving a world conflict, and our fourth year giving a stipend to a professor to research nonviolence in the Christian tradition. We started a minor in peace and justice, soon it will be a major. While this fund is growing, we'll be growing, too."

Ultimately the endowment will help carry the university's legacy of peace and justice far beyond campus. St. Ambrose students, given ever greater opportunites to engage in social justice, will enter the world better prepared to act, as Kokjohn did, in service of fellow human beings.

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