Hilary Thimmesh arrived at St. John’s University in 1945 as a student but made the campus his longtime home as a monk, teacher, university president and mentor to generations of students.
“This was all a calling to him, not a job,” said Richard Ice, who is the provost, overseeing academics. “He was truly a Benedictine monk — focused on community, focused on hospitality, and learned.”
Thimmesh died Aug. 11 at the St. John’s Abbey. He was 91.
Born Donald Merlin Thimmesh in 1928, he was the oldest of seven children who grew up on a farm in Osakis, Minn. At St. John’s, he ditched his initial plans to go into journalism and took his parish priest’s suggestion to enter the novitiate at the abbey, taking the name of Hilary.
After getting a master’s degree and a doctorate, he started teaching English courses to students at St. John’s and the College of St. Benedict (the two schools started allowing students to enroll in classes on both campuses in the 1960s). Known as “Father Hilary,” he was a curious, soft-spoken, gentle man and an engaging teacher who would often get teary-eyed as he read Shakespeare and Chaucer aloud to the class, Ice said.
“He was a leader almost from the get-go,” added Abbot John Klassen, who called Thimmesh a mentor.
Thimmesh rose to the position of dean and then the rank of prior in the Abbey by 1980 before taking over as the 10th president of St. John’s two years later.
For nine years, Thimmesh led the university, overseeing renovations and construction of new buildings and helping create a master plan for the campus in Collegeville. Ice said he was a humble, quiet leader who was pivotal in helping bring St. Ben’s and St. John’s together with the same curriculum requirements for the first time.
“That was foundational to what we’ve become today,” Ice said. “He was an unassuming and unpretentious person but one with purpose.”
Even Thimmesh’s brother was surprised by his simple office as president.
“He never talked like he was superior to anybody,” said Ronald Thimmesh of Monticello, adding that Hilary was proud to be from a farm and lived with “simple elegance.”
Thimmesh resumed teaching after the presidency. He also edited a sesquicentennial volume of the school and wrote a book about Marcel Breuer, who designed the campus’ iconic church, “Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir.”
Besides reading and architecture, Thimmesh loved the outdoors, gardening, classical music and playing racquetball. For much of his career, he lived in residential halls as a faculty resident where he would welcome and mentor freshmen, requiring 20-minute interviews of each student.
“I think it points to the real granular, pastoral dimension of his character,” Klassen said.
It was a role Thimmesh relished for 65 years, an unusually long tenure as a faculty resident.
“It showed he believed the campus should be student-centered before that term became in vogue,” Ice said. “He thought it was important to mentor students and to support their development at St. John’s intellectually and socially.”
Thimmesh continued to live in St. Thomas Hall, a freshman dorm, until he retired in May.
“Every year, he’d always say ‘This it the best class I’ve had,’ ” said Tom Joyce, a friend who first met Thimmesh as a student before graduating in 1960 from St. John’s and who was on the board of regents that hired Thimmesh as president. “He had a really gentle but sharp sense of humor.”
In addition to his brother, survivors include his sisters, Carolyn Thimmesh of Osakis and Margaret McWilliams of Grand Junction, Colo. Services have been held.