The following comes from a March 3 Cardinal Newman Society article by Justin Petrisek:
When four friends came together in the late 1960s, they had a daring idea: to create a new liberal arts college from scratch that would respond to the growing problems and waning fidelity in Catholic colleges following the Second Vatican Council. The result was Thomas Aquinas College, an “antidote” for the crises of the 1960s and 1970s in Catholic higher education, current president Dr. Michael McLean told The Cardinal Newman Society.
Today, the College is thriving with more than 360 students on a beautiful campus in Santa Paula, California. Propelled by the original curriculum, method and vision set down by the founders, it continues to provide a traditional liberal arts education that utilizes the great books of Western Civilization and Socratic discussion rather than textbooks and lectures.
“At the same time, we seek to cultivate in students a deep and lasting love for the Church — her teachings, sacraments, traditions and devotions,” McLean said. “To that end, we are helping students acquire an understanding of the natural world, of the good life for man and of God, who reveals Himself through His Son, our Savior.”
Even the famous actor Sir Anthony Hopkins could not help but notice the remarkable work happening at the College when he stumbled upon it while driving past one afternoon in 2012.
“I’ve never seen such a beautiful place in my life,” Hopkins said when speaking to students at the College about the importance of the humanities. “It’s amazing. It’s like Shangri-La. I feel very privileged to be in such a place.”
And no one feels more privileged than the four men who helped to start the College: the late Dr. Ronald McArthur, the late Marc Berquist, Peter DeLuca and Dr. John Neumayr.
The four men met at St. Mary’s College, Moraga, near Oakland, Calif., in the 1960s. McArthur, Berquist and Neumayr were philosophy professors at St. Mary’s and DeLuca was one of McArthur’s former students.
“It was about the time when the Great Books movement was starting and we spent a lot of time talking about Catholic education and where it was going wrong,” Neumayr, who retired at the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, told the Newman Society.
“We hoped to spring the living, intellectual tradition of the Church into the future,” fellow-founder DeLuca, who still serves as the College’s vice president for finance and administration and continues to teach, told the Newman Society. Led by McArthur, who would become the College’s first president, the four men started to turn their vision of Thomas Aquinas College into a reality.
The first class of freshmen, which enrolled on September 11, 1971, totaled only 33 students. Classes began three days later.
“Ignorance has its virtues. We knew nothing about how hard it would be. We were swimming upstream right from the beginning,” Neumayr recalled. “But we were convinced that students needed and wanted this kind of education. There was always a lot of hope.”
“We were a group of penniless professors,” DeLuca told the Newman Society. So to attempt founding a Catholic liberal arts college when all others were falling away was unprecedented.
During the first 20 years, the College was strapped with many financial struggles and bordered on bankruptcy, but donors came, even appearing out of thin air. “We were getting these kind of mysterious God-sent gifts as we went along,” Neumayr recalled.
The College also needed professors, and convincing them to give up positions at established institutions was doubly difficult, DeLuca said. But teachers came, inspired by the College’s vision for education.
Finally, the College needed students. While it started with only 33, the College grew to more than 100 students within the first six years. After launching its Summer Great Books Program for high school students, it reached its capacity of 350 students.
Over the years, Thomas Aquinas College has seen hundreds and thousands of students pass through its program. It has seen the likes of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and many other notable figures and leaders in Church and society. But through it all, the College saw God’s guiding hand, truly a story of divine providence.
“When we started, we didn’t even have a location,” Neumayr said. “We were just some guys with an idea. Now it looks like an institution that’s been around for a hundred years. In the end, you really just have to say it’s been God’s work, and he’s been very generous to us.”