An Idea Man

A Tribute to Thomas Levergood
Thomas Levergood

Thomas Levergood, the executive director and cofounder of the Lumen Christi Institute, passed away on August 6 after a brief battle with cancer. The following tribute is adapted from remarks given at Levergood’s wake by the theologian Bernard McGinn.

Like everyone else, I was not only deeply saddened, but truly shocked by the suddenness of Thomas’s death. Some few short weeks before we had been talking about his plans for the upcoming year at Lumen Christi; then word reached us that he had had a serious operation and was recuperating. I was able to see him several times in the weeks that followed, and my wife Pat and I also had a visit when he was in rehabilitation. The last time I saw him was at the University of Chicago Medical Center the Sunday before his passing. It seems to me almost incomprehensible that I will no longer run into him on the streets near Gavin House as he strolls along puffing on his pipe with his dog, the faithful Bossuet, by his side.

Thomas took at least one course with me during his time as a student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought between 1991 and 1996. Where I really got to know him, however, was through the foundation and development of the Lumen Christi Institute beginning in about 1996 or 1997. Thomas liked to blame me for the existence of Lumen Christi, but that is at best only half right. It is true that in the mid-1990s, the then-chaplain of Calvert House, Fr. Willard Jabusch, got a bee in his bonnet about creating a Catholic Studies program at the University of Chicago. He asked me what I thought, and I know he also consulted with several other Catholic faculty. I did my best to discourage the idea. Whatever one may think of such programs, I argued that the University of Chicago was not a good venue for such an initiative. However, I was fully supportive of the idea that more needed to be done on campus to highlight and disseminate the riches of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual heritage, so I suggested to Fr. Jabusch that perhaps some kind of center or institute might be established that would bring noted Catholic scholars to the university community for lectures, programs, and even courses. I believe similar views were also expressed by David Tracy, Jean-Luc Marion, and other faculty whom Fr. Jabusch consulted.  

Paul J. Griffiths, who was at that time on the Divinity School faculty, also agreed, and he took on much of the delicate role of helping create and advise the nascent Lumen Christi Institute, an intellectual entity that was at the university, but not of the university, in the sense that it was fully independent, although designed to collaborate with the University programs when this was possible. I describe this task as a delicate one, which it was, because there were some at the university who were suspicious of Lumen Christi and its intentions.

Right from the start, Griffiths turned to Thomas Levergood to do much of the fundraising, organizing, and planning for the institute, so it was quite fitting that during the formative years between 1997 and 1999 Thomas bore the title of “founder and associate director.” To be sure, the institute would never have become such a great success story without the signal efforts of many, especially the members of the board of trustees, as well as those of us who served on the Academic Advisory Committee. But Thomas Levergood was the major engine that powered the whole effort. From 1999 to the present he served as the executive director while Lumen Christi continued to grow and flourish, emerging as a major voice in contemporary Catholic intellectual life. Its success can be measured in many ways, not least in the effect its programs have had on the current generation of Catholic students, scholars, and leaders.

He was a great optimist, someone who conveyed a sense of benevolent conviction about the future that dragged along even pessimists like me.

My purpose here is not to try to survey the history of Lumen Christi and the great debt it owes to Thomas Levergood, but to offer some reflections on Thomas the person. Of course, it is not fully possible to separate Thomas the person from Thomas the leader of the institute. This is the case, I believe, because Thomas looked on his work for the Lumen Christi Institute not as a job, but as a vocation in the old sense of a calling from God. As some of you may know, after his conversion to Catholicism Thomas several times experimented with the possibility of living a religious life. But he learned that religious life was not his vocation. I do not know when he may have come to see his work at Lumen Christi as a real vocation, but this is how I always perceived the dedication and single-mindedness he brought to all he did for Lumen Christi. When someone gives his all for a cause I think we are dealing with a vocation, especially when the cause is fundamentally religious.

The work of directing the institute called on many of the talents that Thomas possessed in an unusual degree. Of course, it demanded organizational skill—the ability to get things done. Thomas was, indeed, an organizer, especially in the early days of Lumen Christi, when there was a smaller staff. Nonetheless, I don’t think that the ability to organize was the greatest asset that Thomas brought to his unusual vocation. I would say that two qualities of Thomas that were far more important were, first, his talent as what we might call a “networker” and, second, a kind of visionary quality, an uncanny ability to discern issues, questions, and themes that intelligent Catholics needed to address. These issues were myriad, ranging across many disciplines: history, philosophy, theology, ethics, public policy, cultural issues, and so on. Thomas had some knowledge of many of these disciplines, not as an expert, but as a visionary “idea-man” who could spot things that needed to be addressed, whether in lectures, courses, conferences, panels, or whatever. Let me say a bit more about these two aspects of Thomas’s character.   

I have described Thomas as a “networker,” by which I mean someone who knows lots of people, who know other people, who know other people, so that a kind of network of human potential and interaction is established that can greatly assist in fostering the success of complex programs and initiatives. Successful networking demands not only accessibility and friendliness, but also skill at putting people at ease—talents that Thomas had in abundance. He could get things done because he knew the people who could do them, and he had the ability to convince those people to take up the task, even when they were perhaps initially hesitant. I think this is one of the sources of his noted success as a fundraiser, as well as his ability to find out what was going on in the often opaque circles of clerical politics. He did, I must say, often take delight in conveying to me tasty bits of clerical gossip.

I have used the word “visionary.” What I mean is a kind of discernment, a special insight into trends and issues in Catholic thought that need greater visibility, re-affirmation, and even reconsideration. Thomas had this ability to a truly remarkable degree. How often over the years I would get a call from him, outlining his plans for coming programs for Lumen Christi and asking me what I thought about them and who might be good people to contact to help in their implementation. Sometimes I was initially surprised by some of these endeavors, but on thinking about them, I almost always agreed that “this is, indeed, a good idea.” Often, of course, Thomas asked me to get involved and I think I almost always said yes with the conviction that I would be helping to spread Catholic wisdom in the academy and in the Church. It was also very hard to say no to Thomas. He was a great optimist, someone who conveyed a sense of benevolent conviction about the future that dragged along even pessimists like me.

I had a few personal talks with Thomas over the years, including one after his operation, when he spoke directly and candidly about the death he knew was approaching. Naturally, I can’t talk about these conversations in detail or with specificity. But there are two things that I believe I can say something about. Thomas, as I knew him, always displayed a sense of imperturbability and equanimity. He was not easily upset. This surface sense of untroubled calm, however, coexisted with some real interior trials, sufferings, and even crosses that he rarely talked about. Fortitude is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and I think that Thomas had a great measure of the gift of fortitude that enabled him carry on his work in what must have often been trying moments. The last thing I would like to mention is Thomas’s conversion, which he once told me about. I do not mean his conversion to Catholicism, but the prior conversion that eventually led him to Catholicism. This first conversion was his turning to God. He described it as a sudden awareness that descended on him out of the blue while he was walking down a street in New York one day. This awareness, he told me, was the conviction that “it was all true,” and that therefore God was the most important thing in his life. As he recounted the story, I was reminded of the famous account of C. S. Lewis in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of his own unlikely and unexpected conversion, the sudden influx of grace that happened to him while seated on a bus in Oxford. Grace comes when least expected.

We are all deeply saddened by the loss of this dear man and good friend. But we are not without hope, as Paul tells us. From that perspective it seems to me very fitting that Thomas died on the Feast of the Transfiguration, the day that reminds us that we too are being transformed from glory to glory after the image of Jesus. Thomas’s transformation is now complete, so that despite our sorrow we can rejoice with him, as he hears said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Bernard McGinn is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies at the University of Chicago.

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