With sorrow and tenderness, the passing of Dr. John Donovan, the emeritus professor and former chair of the philosophy department who spent the last decade of his life sharing in the sufferings of Christ, was announced in March. Donovan served Mount St. Mary’s for over two decades, holding various integral positions, including the director of the university’s Honors Program, chair of the faculty, department chair, chair of the Faculty Governance Committee, and a plethora of other positions that aided the Mount in reaching its Catholic and academic potential. Although he wore many hats well, it has been witnessed that he always held the same goal no matter the position: to institute a robust Catholic philosophical identity within the Mount’s comprehensive and interdisciplinary core curriculum.
When Donovan entered the Mount family in the 80s, he was a guiding force in ensuring a proper restructuring of the core academic program. He desired to reformulate this platform with particular cross department themes with the goal of shaping young people intellectually so they may live by a morality centered on the unity of the truth ordered toward God. Donovan was able to ask the vital question of how philosophy fits into a Mount experience, ultimately encouraging students to seek the truth in thought and logic in accordance with faith. This vocation of boosting the Mount’s Catholic liberal arts character is reminiscent of a simplicity of the past that has now since grown into something new. For many, Donovan is a reminder of what the Mount used to be; for them, he embodied the old spirit of the Mount that was forcefully focused on comprehensively shaping the minds of students to recognize the true, good, and beautiful within the Catholic liberal arts tradition. Dr. Thane Naberhaus, the current chair of the philosophy department, described Donovan’s foundational roots in the Mount community: “Mount St. Mary’s was a special place, and it still is, and John was one of those people that made it special… [John] was intimately involved, to an astonishing degree, in the creation of the Mount St. Mary’s that I came to know and deeply love and appreciate when I first came here.”
Donovan served as chair of the philosophy department for about five years and, during that time, oversaw the formation of the Master of Arts in Philosophical Studies (MAPS) program, which provides “an opportunity for advanced study of philosophy, emphasizing both the history of philosophy and major topical areas, with attention to how these inform and are informed by the Catholic intellectual tradition.” Additionally, in his time as chair, Donovan was a mentor to many of the faculty. Notably, both Dr. Joshua Hochschild and Dr. Michael Miller say he was an advisor on their paths toward tenure and attaining the next step on their respective intellectual journeys. Hochschild said, “John was an insistent force in my success as a teacher and a scholar…He always told me to find my own voice and find the way that works for me with my personality and style… [John] knew that we could be better and challenged and wanted us to grow in the best way.” Miller likewise stated, “He was able to say that formation was important, but he was an encouraging and calming voice in the scary waters of achieving tenure.” In this sense, Donovan was a supportive leader, one who was willing to see the best in others and help them cultivate their own uniqueness for not only the betterment of their academic progression but also for the greater Mount community.
It should be no surprise to know that Donovan encouraged the intellectual stimulation of all his students so that they may tackle philosophical and ethical issues with a sense of purpose and sincerity. This trait is an aspiration for many of the Mount’s current faculty, who remember Donovan’s involved teaching methods, such as Dr. Richard Buck: “I still see him as a model. I hope to become the kind of teacher that he was, exhibiting a kind of passion, care, and concern, holding students to high standards. His spirit will live on within the lives that he has touched.” Another testimony from Buck brings to light his genuine and heartfelt teaching style: “He would challenge as a teacher, but he cared for the students and wanted to let them know that they were good people; he saw the good within them.” Donovan is remembered for his exuberant passion witnessed not only in his teaching, which he especially expressed when conversing about his favorite philosophers, but also within academic discourse and conversations with others. Donovan led and participated in a number of research projects among faculty during summers, along with a variety of productive discussions across departments. He is described as being slightly formal in his approach but overwhelmingly personable and easy to talk with, making for the perfect conversation partner, especially when discussing what is best for those in the Mount community.
There is no doubt that Donovan was a foundational centerpiece in the Mount’s academic community; his service is a witness to this fact. When Donovan first arrived at Mount St. Mary’s, he had a plant brought into his office, which he kept until his last day. As time passed, Donovan continued his zealous work, and so did his plant, which found its way to grow up his walls and around the room. Dr. Miller remembers this plant and its grandeur, an emblem in itself of Donovan’s legacy: “It was peaceful just like him. Calming and impressive, it left its physical presence, as demonstrated in John’s eternal impact. He grew into the Mount as the plant grew into the walls.” Donovan was remembered similarly by so many, as Dr. Sarah Scott, the current director of the Honors Program, said, “He was a kind, wise soul with a gentle wisdom.”
Donovan was a constant reminder for many about how to live like Christ with a serene and kindly countenance, fully demonstrating an intense desire for the fulfillment of an authentic Catholic liberal arts education. As Naberhaus recalled, “he was humble and had such an impressive mind.” Dr. William Collinge echoed the words of the 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus when asked to remember Dr. John Donovan’s legacy as a servant on Mary’s Mountain: “A part of him always remained above.” While here at the Mount, a part of Dr. John Donovan always remained above; he was always focused on preserving the truth for the sake of the good. Now, a part of Dr. Donovan remains with us at this university, reminding us always of what it means to represent a genuinely Catholic liberal arts education.