The Groves of Academe

Bob Voboril honored by Newman U — Retiring Superintendent of Catholic Schools Bob Voboril receives congratulations from Newman University President Noreen Carrocci Saturday, May 12, at a graduation ceremony held at Central Community Church in Wichita. Voboril was awarded a degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. An honorary degree is awarded each year by NU to notable and accomplished members of the extended Newman community whose life and work reflect exemplary dedication to one of the university’s four core values: Catholic Identity, Culture of Service, Academic Excellence and Global Perspective. (Courtesy photo)

By Bob Voboril
Around 387 B.C. Plato gathered a group of scholars in a grove of olive trees and began an academy, a place for discourse about both eternal verities and the great questions of the day. Ever since, the term Groves of Academe has symbolized the highest purpose of teaching and learning, that is, to search for truth and teach it relentlessly.
On February 26, Dr. Noreen Carrocci, President of Newman University, called and asked me to accept an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at Spring Commencement on May 12. No one with my background could ever expect to achieve such distinction. Grandpa Voboril was blind. Grandpa Steyer, an immigrant, spent the last twenty-five years of his life in a mental institution. My father never finished high school and opposed his children attending college. I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and I worked full-time to pay for it. I ran a bindery, edited a newspaper, flipped burgers, twirled pizzas, scooped ice cream, kept parish books, and wrote newspaper columns. On my daily one dollar food budget I would eat two orders of onion rings and one Coke. In graduate school I upgraded to one Swanson chicken TV dinner and one Coke per day.
I am not sure what diocesan authorities saw in my teaching in those early 70’s. I was a (very) long-haired rebel who didn’t know the school’s rules, played touch football or went bowling with my students every Thursday, never put up bulletin boards, and left my desk a mess every night. All I had going for me was that I was idealistic, I cared about kids, and I never gave up.
Maybe because I was so difficult to handle, I was made a principal at age 25 in a school that was slated to close. I was principal, secretary, taught Grades 7 and 8, coached the basketball team, and ran around like my hair was on fire. I kept the school open five years and then decided to leave education when the school closed to provide for my new wife and daughter.
God had other plans. I agreed to interview for one job as a favor to my mother. There were 19 interviewees. I walked out of the interview half way through, and four days later I was offered the job. When I resigned ten years later, enrollment had increased from 181 to 450, I wrote a newspaper column and we had built four additions. I also had four more children.
I had never been a scholar (not smart enough) or a theologian (not interested enough), but more of a practitioner. I figure out a vision and a mission, convince others to own it, and work together to accomplish it. So in 1990 when the University of Nebraska in Omaha invited me to take one class and write a dissertation to be in their first doctoral cohort, I turned them down. With a sixth child on the way and a salary of $26,000, I thought I had spent enough of my family’s time and money. I made that decision knowing that I was kissing a doctorate away for good.
Instead, I became a principal of a small rural high school. Three years later there was a two line advertisement for a superintendent in Wichita. I doubted anyone would hire a principal of a school with 57 students to be their superintendent. When I found out who the other finalists were, I told Pam, “At least we get one free night in a motel.” All eight of us slept in one motel room just in case. The rest of my story you have read about in The Catholic Advance for the last twenty-five years.
So this honor by Newman University is very special to a kid from Wahoo, Nebraska who has always seen himself as lucky to have a job. All the while, though, that kid hoped for acceptance by the academic community, especially in Wichita with its great Catholic university and its two other excellent colleges. He hoped, too, that something of his reverence for Catholic schools, his passion for excellence, and his commitment to each principal and teacher would come through in what he said and did.
For me, then, this admission to the Groves of Academe is the capstone to a long working career in Catholic education. I am humble and am grateful.