The Rev. James Lavin nurtured generations of students with peanut butter and prayer.
Bill Roddy came to St. Paul as a college student in 1975, fresh off the streets of inner-city Chicago. "I was overwhelmed, struggling, up against academic demands that were more than I had ever imagined," Roddy, now of Eden Prairie, said Monday. "All I could think was, 'Man, this is gonna be tough.'"
Among those who helped him adjust was the Rev. James Lavin, a teacher and counselor at what was then the College of St. Thomas. Beloved by students for his wisdom, wit and peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich buffets, he was a godsend for a kid like Roddy.
"He would make you toe the line, but was always supportive," Roddy said. "And he always made sure we had snacks. It was something very simple, but just knowing that while we were studying, we could count on something to eat -- it made us feel like we were going to our uncle's or cousin's."
Even more important, Roddy said, were Lavin's encouraging words: "Over and over he said to me, 'You can't give up! You can't quit! Hang in there!'"
On Monday, Roddy was among those remembering Lavin, who lived most of his life as a joyful ambassador-in-residence for his beloved University of St. Thomas. Lavin died of congestive heart failure Monday morning at the Little Sisters of the Poor residence in St. Paul. He was 93.
"Monsignor Lavin was one of the most beloved figures in the history of St. Thomas," St. Thomas' president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, said in a statement sent from Poland, where he is traveling.
"His paramount concern was always purely and simply for the welfare of students," Dease wrote. "They always knew that they could come to him with problems large and small, and he provided common-sense counsel in a soft-spoken but firm voice. We shall not soon forget him."
Lavin was born in Aurora, on Minnesota's Iron Range, in 1918; five days after his birth, his mother died of influenza. During the Depression, his father moved the family to Minneapolis.
He graduated from DeLaSalle High School in 1936, then arrived at St. Thomas to major in English and minor in Latin and Greek, graduating in 1940 with a desire to become a priest. He attended St. Paul Seminary and was ordained on Aug. 18, 1945.
Soon he began teaching religion at St. Thomas, moving not into a priests' residence but back into Ireland Hall, where over the years he shared thousands of PBJ sandwiches ("Lavinburgers") and encouraging words with appreciative Tommies.
Lavin eventually earned a master's degree in counseling and in 1967 moved from teaching to counseling. He officially retired in 1988 -- and went right to work for the Alumni Association.
Whatever his official role, Lavin, widely called "Scooter" for his sprightly gait, was most of all mentor to generations of students, many alumni said. He fed them, prayed with them, counseled them, chased girls out of their rooms, bailed them out of jail and gave them $20 bills when they most needed them and hadn't even asked.
When not boosting St. Thomas, he enjoyed snow-shoeing, hiking and even mountain climbing; he had reached summits of peaks in Colorado and British Columbia.
Lavin's lessons linger
As for Roddy?
He not only made it, graduating in 1979 with a business degree after living for four years on campus, but he thrived. He and his wife, Gail, now run the Osiris Organization, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.
In 2006, St. Thomas honored Roddy with its Humanitarian of the Year award during an event where he had a long talk with Lavin. "He remembered me perfectly, just as he remembered all the kids through the years," Roddy said.
"He said, 'I am so proud of you, of what you've done with your life. What you're doing with young people, that's just what we were trying to teach you when you were young -- that you have no idea of the impact you can have out in the world, if you try.'
"I realized he was right," Roddy said.
Lavin is survived by two nieces and four nephews.
Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at O’Halloran and Murphy Funeral Home, 575 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul.
Funeral services will be held at 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290