Click here to see a video slideshow narrated by the author of this piece.
Beneath a ceiling of stars, a colorful wooden lizard scales the wall while an iron buzzard perched on a high ledge surveys the landscape below. The airy office, which looks more like the work of a museum curator than an interior decorator, exhibits the heavy influence of the American Southwest. Framed photographs of the Arizona desert, horseshoes, wind chimes, painted pottery, woven textiles and the ubiquitous animal skull add to the scene. Meticulously carved Hopi Indian Kachina figures—religious effigies carved from dried cottonwood root—stand watch in this quiet haven where books are read, plans are made and music is played.
As the afternoon light filters through narrow windows and illuminates a collection of decorative crosses overhead, University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., eases into a wood-framed leather chair and props up his legs to relax. Beside him lies a red lectionary, a Bible and a notepad scrawled with thoughts for his next homily. This room, both a source of relaxation and reflection, doesn’t exist in the wing of a museum or a religious sanctuary, but on the fourth floor of the Commons residence hall, where upper-class students live in community and where Graham has made his home for the past five years.
“I call it my ‘Arizona Room,’ ” he says of the Southwest-styled office in his one-bedroom apartment. “It is somewhat of a built-in vacation place where I can relax.” Graham, who once lived in the Honors House (now the Women’s Center) at the edge of Ledgewood Drive and Victory Parkway, always enjoyed living among students. When the University converted the Honors House into the base of operations for campus police, he inquired about moving to the Village apartments. “[Then vice president for student development] Ron Slepitza suggested that since we were building a new dorm, the Commons, they could build a suite for me,” Graham says.
He rides the same elevators as iPod-clad students carrying their laundry from the basement and reads the same notices posted on the bulletin board hanging on the wall across from his front door. “I think there is a benefit to the students seeing me,” he says. “Presidents are generally not very accessible to students, so it is good for them to see me.”
It’s also good for them to talk to him. On Sunday evenings, Graham hosts group dinners for his collegiate neighbors. About 15 students arrive at 5:30 p.m. and Graham offers them a quick tour of the apartment before sitting down to eat. The looks on their faces as they look around the apartment seem to confirm that the space is the most uncommon place in the Commons. He takes them through the large, open living room furnished with dark leather couches that face one another, an inconspicuously large speaker that doubles as an end table and well-polished bamboo floors.
He leads them through his heavily decorated office where he explains the spiritual significance of the Hopi Kachina dolls. “I have a good friend who lives in Arizona whom I visit,” he says. “I discovered what a special place it was and began collecting Hopi Kachina spirit figures that are important to their agricultural cycle. On one of my trips, I became familiar with one particular artist out there who has been creating the Kachinas that I have been collecting one at a time over the course of the last few years.”
In his bedroom muted colors such as beige, burnt orange and gray further illustrate the Southwestern theme. Family pictures surround tiny plastic characters from “The Wizard of Oz” on a nearby table. “The Wizard of Oz has always been an important touchstone for my family,” he says. “The figures were a gift from a parishioner shortly after a homily I gave after my ordination using the Wizard of Oz in the homily. I’ve kept them ever since.”
Afterward, they join in a communal prayer before dishing hot lasagna and salad onto their plates while Graham makes sure everyone has enough to eat. He also occasionally hosts meals for resident assistants or student government association members in his apartment as well.
“These are basically to thank them for all they do,” he says.
As they finish their meal, Graham engages them in casual conversation to get to know them a little. The conversation slowly fades and one by one the students head out the door and back to their rooms, leaving Graham free to relax. He may work on a talk or homily, maybe check his e-mail. But no work. Presidential responsibilities stay in Schmidt Hall. This is home.