Before the familiar voice of Alan Sivell at the iWireless Center there as the husky voice of Don Moeller reading the names of graduates one by one as they took those careful, deserved steps across the lawn and under the oaks.
“The oaks symbolize the strength of the institution,” Moeller said.
Those sturdy trees we Bees walk under every day in the front lawn of Ambrose Hall used to hold every graduation ceremony until 2001 when the university outgrew the grove. However, on April 23, those 54 Quercus macrocarpa were named Moeller Grove in appreciation for Moeller’s many roles at St. Ambrose.
“It’s been very humbling and somewhat embarrassing,” Moeller said. “I’m very grateful. It’s the biggest honor to be nominated by the faculty. Whatever I did here was never about me, it was about the students. My job was to get the faculty to care as much as they could about the students and to do as great of a job developing themselves so they could have that to give to the students.”
Moeller started his 33 years at Ambrose in 1969 as a theology professor, after nine years in the priesthood, and quickly rose up the ladder. In 1973 he was named dean of what was then St. Ambrose College and became vice president of academic affairs in 1975.
“This place is a Catholic college in the intellectual tradition,” Moeller said. “I hired faculty who foster that intellectual tradition and even though they might not have been Catholic they wanted to be in an atmosphere that was religious…even if they were Buddhist.”
After 28 graduations, in the usually sunny mini-forest, the oaks became a tall part of his life as did the students.
“It [Ambrose] exists for the students,” Moeller said. “It is they who are the primary concern of everybody.”
While he was here, he planted the seeding of the master’s of business administration, which celebrated its 35th year in March, and watched it grow all the way to a doctoral program. He helped start the occupational therapy and physical therapy programs.
From his time at Thomas Moore College in Kentucky, he learned how to run an administration and grow enrollment with new nighttime classes. Moeller brought these skills to Ambrose and flourished.
“Those new enrollments funded the college because it kept us from letting faculty go,” Moeller said. “It was mostly the growth in the business area.”
With the dream of himself and Jim Mullins, whom he calls, “a major giant of this institution,” the Ambrose that was grew into the Ambrose we love to know now. Faculty always being there for us, a sense of community anywhere we go on and off campus, and that faith carrying us through it all.
“It was never, take us as Catholic or leave us,” Moeller said. “It was always the strong heritage of intellectual tradition. To me that meant, that God is truth and we are open to truth and it can never conflict. Ultimately, truth, whether science finds it or religion finds it, can’t be in conflict.”
Eventually as the trees grew so did the university and it was necessary to move to a place that could accommodate the growing university, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.
“I’ll tell you that was one of my most painful decisions,” Moeller said. “Everybody wanted to be under the trees, but we had simply grown too big. My last year as dean, provost, whatever I was, was the first year we were at the Mark. It worked, but it was painful.”
The trees even grew love. Moeller honored a woman by the name of Jerri at a graduation he presided, “that’s Jerri over there,” pointing across the table. She would become his second wife and one of his biggest supporters. In their winter home of Arizona, they plan and help service and faith-based projects, keeping the Ambrosian traditions alive.
“We went through some hard times here, but I hope those trees will still be there and will celebrate the academic strength of Ambrose,” Moeller said.