Aquinas President Stands by Tradition


Some people cringe at the thought of following the rules all their lives. Others, like Thomas Aquinas College President Thomas E. Dillon, make that part of their mission.

When Dillon recently learned that the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops were requiring church-related colleges to teach Catholic theology, did he consider it outrageous? Did he fear that intellectual rigor would slacken? Not in the least. At this think-for-yourself college, the bishops’ dictum was already a done deal.

“It is a truth-in-advertising issue,” the 53-year-old Dillon said. “If colleges call themselves Catholic, they should teach Catholic theology.”


Pragmatism and honesty are part of Dillon’s stock in trade, springing from his upbringing, education, faith and loyalty to the Catholic Church.

During his 27-year affiliation with Thomas Aquinas College, as a tutor, dean and current president, Dillon has helped cement its standards and raise it to a well-regarded position among the nation’s colleges.

“Our institution offers nearly 30 years of proof that academic excellence and integrity can be maintained while remaining completely loyal to Catholic teaching,” said Dillon, who has already taken an oath of fidelity to the church’s teaching. In addition, in September faculty members who teach theology took the profession of faith that will now be required of all Catholic theology teachers.

Although Dillon was raised in a generation in which one’s search for truth often involved rebelling against rules and veering away from custom, he chose to strictly follow tradition.

Dillon, who was raised in the Bay Area in the 1950s, said he benefited from the strict moral code of his parents.

“They loved their kids and they sacrificed themselves for the good of their children,” he said. “They’re my heroes.”


A product of a Catholic school education, a stay-at-home mom and Teamster dad, Dillon was raised with three brothers and two sisters. He attended seminary during his freshman through junior years of high school. But when he determined he did not have a vocation to become a priest, he withdrew from the program, Dillon said.

During his last year of high school, Dillon met a girl on a blind date. Their sense of humor and interests matched, but he soon learned that she already had a date for the senior prom. Undaunted, Dillon delivered a dozen roses to her before her date arrived. He and Terri Corkery married three years later, when he was 21 and still in college.

At St. Mary’s College in Northern California, Dillon loved the classics.

“I’ve always had an interest in almost everything,” he said. “That appreciation continued as I went to college.”

After St. Mary’s, Dillon earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy from Notre Dame.

In 1972, he became a tutor and assistant dean at Thomas Aquinas, and in 1991 he assumed the role of president for the then 20-year-old college.

“I’ve only had one job and one wife,” Dillon said, laughing. He also has four children, three of whom are graduates of Thomas Aquinas.


Dillon’s son, Thomas, 30, an attorney in Massachusetts, said Dillon tried to instill in the family an understanding and respect for rules and laws. “They were designed to make us good and form our character,” said Dillon’s eldest son.

“We never had a stifling childhood. We were raised Catholic, but it was not a dominating raising, but teaching by example. I think what my parents did was sow the kernels for love,” he said.

Christine Ellis, Dillon’s 22-year-old daughter who is married and lives in Wisconsin, said her father believed in self-sacrifice and a good Catholic education so strongly that he sent his children to the best Catholic high schools. For her and her sister, Elizabeth, that meant attending a boarding school on the East Coast.

“It was very hard on them and very sad,” said Ellis. “We only got to see them two or three times a year. But it was the best thing for me. I’m glad they did it.”

Thomas Dillon called his father the essence of consistency and principled behavior.

“That can sound strait-laced and boring, but the man is a lot of fun,” he said. “He always took me fishing, camping and hiking. He’s a man with a sense of humor.”

Greater than his quick wit is Dillon’s magnetic attraction to spiritual matters.

Dillon, who says one goal is “to bring people to God,” sees his position as president of the 267-student Thomas Aquinas College as being a fulfillment of his desire.


And he’s proud of what he has accomplished there.

America’s Best Colleges, 1999, published by U.S. News & World Report, ranked the school as the third-best value among liberal arts colleges in the nation. And it was No. 1 for the ratio of students to teachers--classes contain 20 or fewer students. Meanwhile, National Review put it among the country’s 50 top liberal arts colleges.

Students follow the rarely used “Great Books” curriculum, which includes the writings of great thinkers such as Aristotle, St. Augustine, Shakespeare and Einstein. Commentary texts are not used in class so students will learn to question and develop their own opinions.

Classes are not taught by professors, “who profess what they believe,” but they are led by tutors who join the students in the questioning process, said Dillon, who serves as a tutor of Roman and medieval classics.

Students are required to follow a strict moral code that includes no alcohol on campus and no visits to dorms occupied by the opposite sex. Failure to obey the rules can result in expulsion.

Although Thomas Aquinas is a Catholic college, it does not receive any support from the Roman Catholic Church, said Peter DeLuca, vice president of finance and administration. Students are eligible for government grants, but the college does not receive any direct benefit. So Dillon spends much time fund-raising.

DeLuca said Dillon has raised more than $40 million for the school in less than nine years.


“On a per-student basis, that is very high, because we are a very small school,” he said. “Dr. Dillon has been exceptionally successful. It has been due to hard work and extraordinary dedication.”

In the battle to raise big bucks, Dillon is not passive.

“He’s a competitor,” said Dan Grimm, vice president for development and general counsel at Thomas Aquinas. “We are in competition for other people’s giving. When anybody else lands a big grant, he feels it.”

To raise money for the college, Dillon talks with potential donors and funding organizations.

“Dillon is incredibly passionate about education, the Catholic faith, reading great books and what that can do for your mind,” Grimm said. “He communicates that infectiously to the people he talks to. He is tireless in doing it.”

For Dillon, raising money has gone hand in hand with raising buildings. In 1978, the college moved from its temporary location in Calabasas when it received 131 acres of land outside Santa Paula, said DeLuca. The only existing structure was a hacienda-style residence.

Ronald P. McArthur, the founder of the college and its first president, gathered funds to build the infrastructure, which included a water system, sewer treatment plant, storm drains, underground utilities and roads. And he set up temporary modules for classrooms and dorms.


During Dillon’s presidency, he has outfitted the campus with a student commons building, a soon-to-be completed science building, a library with a rare-book collection and four dormitories. He expects seven additional permanent buildings to be in place within 10 years.

Other expressions of his fund-raising efforts are a not-so-permanent part of the campus.

“About 70% of our students are on financial aid,” said Dillon. If students have the ability and desire to learn, “no one is turned away because they can’t afford [the school]. We make a commitment to try to find financial aid for them.”

William Clark, former national security advisor for President Reagan and later secretary of the interior, said Dillon “is a very humble man. He is an ordinary person who has done extraordinary things.”

“He is totally dedicated to the college and to orthodoxy and tradition within the Catholic Church,” said Clark, a Paso Robles attorney who donated the ceiling from a 16th century Spanish convent to the school’s library.

Even a former student who was expelled from the school after flouting its rules was impressed by Dillon.

“One year, for work-study, I cleaned the president’s house,” said Aliyada Peerzada Franklin, who brought international attention to the school when she defied college rules by refusing to stop spending the weekends at her fiance’s apartment.


“He was always very nice and very formal with students,” Franklin said. “He always seemed to be happy. I imagine it is exhausting for a person to be happy all the time. For him to be able to pull that off is kind of outstanding.”

Another former student, John Finley, 22, who works as a recruiter for the college, said negative situations affect Dillon, but not for long.

“He might get a little panicked or snappy at the outset, but he seems to overcome that and rise to the occasion,” Finley said. “He seems to believe strongly in the power of prayer and that God has been with the school.”

Two years ago, a student hiking on the cliffs behind the campus fell and died several hours later. “Dr. Dillon was up all night with the students,” said Finley.

His involvement with the students extends into his free time, when he often plays pingpong or basketball with them. Like any true sportsman, he wants to win, said Finley, who has known the Dillon family since his childhood.

Finley said Dillon’s competitive quality sometimes carries over into the classroom when he teaches.


“He would stick to his point pretty tenaciously,” Finley said. “There are definitely a small minority of people who object to his manner in his classroom--where he would jump in with his interpretation and stick to that. He’s never afraid to give his opinion. But he would certainly not exhibit any bitterness if he was shown to be wrong.

“His devotion for the school is phenomenal,” said Finley, who frequently sees Dillon working late into the evenings.

Sometimes his responsibilities last until 2 a.m. when he attends question and answer sessions with students and visiting lecturers.

Terri, Dillon’s wife of 33 years, accepts the long hours as part of the job.

“We are both dedicated to the institution, so you work around it,” she said. “If you love and care about anything, you make adjustments. You do what’s required. You think in terms of the greater good.”