Here to listen, lead, and help write our next chapter. Michael Engh, S.J., President.

In his own words

Here to listen, lead, and help write our next chapter. Michael Engh, S.J., President.
SCU President Michael Engh, S.J. / Photo by Charles Barry

On April 24, 2009, 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, from a conversation with writer Ron Hansen M.A. ’95.

SCM: Let’s start with history. What prompted your interest in the field?

Michael Engh: My grandfather on my mom’s side, Edmund Airey, was transplanted to California from New York when he was about 5 years old and was intrigued by this whole strange environment in which he lived. He became an avid reader of history, and when he was growing up in the 1910s, there were still a lot of the old-time Spanish and Mexican families around who could talk to him about what an earlier California was like. He joined the Merchant Marine and sailed the world; I remember stories of sailing to the Philippines with a tanker full of oil from California and then they scrubbed out the tanks and brought back sugar. Later he and my grandmother bought a ranch in Los Angeles County from one of the old Mexican families whose old adobe house was at the bottom of the hill. I was mesmerized by his stories from the time I was in grammar school.

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?

Engh: Yes. We’re a mix of Irish, English, French, and Norwegian. On the French side, the genealogy only goes back to the 18th century, because the revolutionaries burned tax and baptismal records, which were stored in the sacristies of churches. The Irish genealogies were wiped out because the archives were burned in the Civil War, and church records were tough to keep under the English occupation. The Norwegian records are pretty good; so are some of the English.

SCM: But I assume the Norwegians were not Catholic?
Engh: No, Grandpa Engh was the son of a minister, and like many children of ministers, had no use for religion. That’s how they grew up. His sister—my great aunt Mary—swore like a sailor. So growing up I thought this must have been an interesting family.

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Family snapshot: young Michael, the oldest of six children to Donald and Marie Therese (Alrey) Engh / Courtesy Michael Engh, S.J.

But they had enough religion early on, and when my grandfather married my grandmother, Lucette Fish, a good Irish Catholic, in San Francisco, they had to promise to raise the children as 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.


SCM: What kind of surprises have you found in historical research?
Engh: Surprises come from the human foibles that have been covered up. In history, you find a whole other dimension of the human experience—and you find, oftentimes, that the history has been sanitized or condensed. If you take the time to dig deeper, you find a lot of commonalities as you encounter people who faced crises in their lives and see how they coped with them.

SCM: Is that the source of your vocation to be a teacher?
Engh: I’d basically wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in high school. The only other thing that really attracted me was architecture. My younger brother went on to Cal Poly and trained as an architect, so it must be something in the genes.

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Jesuit vows: two years after Fr. Engh graduated from Loyola University of Los Angeles. He was ordained a priest in 1981. And he’s in the front row on the left. / Courtesy Michael Engh, S.J.

SCM: And your interest in becoming a teacher led you to the Jesuits?
Engh: Yes, it actually was one of the clinchers when I was considering what to do with my life. I was finishing college and applying for teacher prep programs or doctoral studies, and there were Jesuit scholastics at Loyola University who were completing master’s degrees in history and working as teaching assistants. My senior year, we all ended up teaching catechism at the local parish, and I got to know the guys better, and realized I could do this.

SCM: Why did you choose the University of Wisconsin for your Ph.D. studies following ordination?
Engh: For American history, it’s in the top five programs in the country. I initially wanted to go to Yale to study religious history, but I found out the professor I wanted to work with had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s and was no longer overseeing graduate students.

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?
Engh: Well, then I came back to California for two years to write the dissertation. The archives were all out here. I never thought I’d study Los Angeles, because I’m from L.A., but as I got into it, I was just at the beginning of what emerged as a tsunami of interest in the study of Los Angeles—everything from urban planning to demographics to migration to the economy of the region to the history of the region. It really burgeoned.

SCM: You started a historical society on L.A., didn’t you?
Engh: In 1991 my friend Howard Shorr and I started a research seminar on Los Angeles history at the Huntington Library. It began with eight or nine people and it grew to 75 or 80 on the mailing list, thanks to the wonders of e-mail. We could send out preliminary drafts of articles or chapters from books to other graduate students and working historians, and then we would meet and discuss the feedback. We wanted to really keep it academic, with works in progress that were aiming for publication. I handed over control of the seminar when I took my sabbatical in 2000.

The Feast of St. Cecilia: Fr. Engh, left, concelebrates Mass with Michael Kennedy, S.J., at Mission Dolores in Los Angeles, 2001./ Photo courtesy Michael Engh, S.J.


SCM: The sabbatical you refer to is the one when you stayed at Mission Dolores?

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?
Engh: Whatever they needed. Some of them were working on their vocabulary or how to create a sentence and use a word in the proper context. For other kids I taught multiplication, starting with the three-times-three tables. These are kids 15 years old. I made flash cards and performed drills. Most hadn’t had a good experience of school earlier on, and now all of a sudden they discovered, “Gee, I can do this.”

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?
Engh: I did all this in English. I celebrated Masses in the parish in Spanish. Somebody else would preach, because I didn’t trust my skills that far. In Juvenile Hall, there were 900 to 1,000 boys, and maybe you would have 25 or 30 that spoke Spanish exclusively. For me, it was like being back in a Jesuit prep school as a scholastic, but it demanded a whole different set of skills. And the clothing was different. They wore orange jumpsuits if they were violent offenders and gray sweatsuits if they were not.

Tutoring In Ecuador 2008ed
Tutoring at the Working Boys’ Center in Quito, Ecuador, May 2008 / Photo courtesy Michael Engh, S.J.

SCM: Are there any moments that particularly shaped your understanding there?

Engh: The first month I was at Mission Dolores, there was a drive-by shooting across the street from the Jesuit residence. I was standing there in the kitchen with Greg Boyle, who has worked with the Mission since 1986. He said, “Get on the floor.” We both went down, in case there were any stray bullets.

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 gunshots. 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?

Engh: Good question. My administrative experience began when they chose me to be rector of the Jesuit community at Loyola Marymount. You have 50 guys to choose from, but there are only so many that are available at the right age and have tenure. You can’t jeopardize tenure by putting somebody six years out of the loop. The job fell to me through a process of elimination. And then I was asked to be interim dean of Bellarmine College. There they had the whole college of liberal arts to choose from, but I had that rector experience. I’d supervised an infirmary and kitchen staff, and had been six years on the board of trustees at that point, so I had an understanding of the internal operations of Loyola Marymount. And I hadn’t bankrupted the Jesuit community when I was rector.

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?

Engh: I had to as dean. I published my last book chapter within the last 12 months, and I have two talks I gave that could be worked up into essays, but such things require concentrated blocks of time. I don’t have that right now. Fundraising is a bottomless pit for time; you can never do enough. There’s always one more person to call, one more letter to write, one more meeting to hold. Because we were in a campaign down there, I wanted to see the college keep up, so I really had to put writing aside. I did bring a fair amount of my research notes with me to Santa Clara. But much of what I’d collected over the years I gave to the library archives at LMU.

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Baseball is his game: A lifetime Dodgers fan, Fr. Engh also likes a good Dorothy Sayers mystery. On his nightstand now: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. / Photo by Charles Barry

SCM: What are some of the things you’ve observed about Santa Clara, particularly in the last few months?
Engh: The University has had a strong academic standing for a good period of time, and strong finances with a large alumni base. The ethos as a Jesuit institution is clearly articulated here. There’s a very strong social justice orientation, and it has come from the president. Paul Locatelli has embraced the faith that does justice; he’s gone to El Salvador many times and begun a partnership with the Casa de la Solidaridad at the Universidad Centroamericana. Something like the Casa is transformative for students who go there.

SCM: Have you thought of any initiatives you’d like to bring to Santa Clara?
Engh: I first want to do some deep listening here. I really have to understand some of the challenges that we face. I identified some of them when I was interviewing for the job, but added to those concerns is the financial situation in the United States. My No. 1 priority right now is finances. I have a deep concern for students who have financial need because of loss of the family’s equity in their home, the loss of a job, whatever it is.

That’s a very strong interest of mine: How are we meeting the needs of these students, how are we assisting their families? In particular, how do we assist students who are the first in their families to attend college?

SCM: Are you going to live in the Jesuit community?
Engh: I have moved in; I am unpacked. They had one room open, so it’s the one I got. I lived in Nobili Hall often as a scholastic and as a young priest, when I was visiting here. Nobili was well built, but it was built for a different kind of life, with the long corridors. It was built for the years of the Grand Silence: After dinner, there was no talking in the halls.

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?

Engh: A variety of things, and no one dominates. I love to read. And I enjoyed Exiles very much, by the way.

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.

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