Thomas Dillon dies at 62; president of Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas Dillon dies at 62; president of Thomas Aquinas College
Thomas Dillon, on the Santa Paula campus, passionately defended the college's strict adherence to Catholic teaching. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Thomas Dillon, the president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula who during an 18-year tenure passionately defended its strict adherence to Catholic teaching and devotion to a curriculum emphasizing the "great books" of Western civilization, died Wednesday in a car accident in Ireland. He was 62.

According to a college spokeswoman, Dillon was in Limerick, Ireland, to attend a meeting of the International Council of Universities of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was accompanied by his wife, Terri, who was hospitalized with minor injuries.

Dillon joined the faculty in 1972, a year after the college was founded. After serving as assistant dean for student affairs and academic dean, he was named president in 1991.

Over the next two decades he raised $100 million for the college and oversaw its rise to one of the country's top-ranked liberal arts institutions. Under his leadership, enrollment tripled to its current size of 350 students and nine campus buildings were added, including a science hall, five dormitories and a library with a wood ceiling salvaged from a 17th century Spanish convent.

In March he presided over the opening of the college's most ornate structure, a 15,000-square-foot, $23-million chapel modeled after classical Spanish and Italian churches and basilicas. Last fall, he and a group of college trustees took the chapel's cornerstone to the Vatican, where it was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Of all the campus buildings whose construction he oversaw, "the chapel was the dearest to his heart. He was involved in every facet of the project," said Anne Forsyth, director of college relations.

Dillon was prominent in national higher education circles, particularly after a controversy erupted in the early 1990s over the school's review by a regional accreditation agency.

Unlike nearly every other liberal arts college in the country, Thomas Aquinas awards degrees based on the study of the so-called great books by Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Herodotus, Euclid and other classical thinkers. All students read the original texts and engage in Socratic discussions about them with their professors, who are called tutors. There are no textbooks and no lectures, no majors or minors.

In 1993, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, a private organization that certifies the quality of 150 higher education institutions in California, Hawaii and Guam, proposed new guidelines stressing multiculturalism as a way to enhance educational quality. Dillon rejected the guidelines as political correctness and led a charge against them that eventually was joined by the presidents of Stanford, USC and Caltech.

"We coordinated that out of Tom's office," said Richard Ferrier, a historian of science who was then the college's accreditation liaison officer. "Tom was just tough as nails on that."

Dillon viewed the accreditation guidelines as a threat to institutional autonomy. "If they mean we ought to include an author because of the gender, or because of the skin color, that's not appropriate for this curriculum. We read them because of what they have to say about reality," he told The Times in 1994.

Thomas Aquinas' accreditation was renewed and the college remains a member in good standing of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges. But Dillon went on to help found a national accrediting organization, the American Academy for Liberal Education, which has certified mainly small, religiously affiliated colleges.

Dillon, who would have turned 63 today, was born in Daly City, Calif., on April 18, 1946, and grew up in the Bay Area. He earned a liberal arts degree from St. Mary's College of California and master's and doctoral degrees in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Thomas of Massachusetts and Daniel of Santa Paula; two daughters, Christine Ellis of Fillmore and Maria Forte of Santa Paula; and 15 grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.