Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Who is Norbert?

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St. Norbert.


There is a St. Norbert College.

It is located on the west bank of the Fox River.

The college has been there since 1898.

How many thousands of students has St. Norbert College produced?

How big a footprint has the college left in 121 years?

For every living person in the greater Green Bay area, St. Norbert College has always been there.

In ways, the college has woven the fabric of what is life in De Pere, with threads spreading beyond.

The name is spoken often. St. Norbert this, St. Norbert that. St. Norbert this, that and the other thing.

Wait a sec… Who is Norbert?

A flesh and blood human being, said Thomas Kunkel, who has more than a passing interest.

Kunkel wrote a book on Norbert, a dynamo 800-something years ago.

The path to that book is out of the ordinary: Newspapers to journalism dean at a university to president of a college to now, writing in retirement (a contradiction in terms).

From 2008 to 2017, Kunkel was president of St. Norbert College.

During that time, he wrote a book on Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker magazine. Again, out of the ordinary: College president writes book during an active tenure. Huff puff.

When Kunkel retired, he said he was going to write a book on Norbert. He has. Again, out of the ordinary: Writer writes book on namesake of college that he once led.

This piece will be out of the ordinary, too. Details are in Kunkel’s book, “Man of Fire: The Life and Spirit of Norbert of Xanten” (St. Norbert College bookstore and Amazon). A few questions and Kunkel’s extended responses are here.

Q. Is there any person or persona comparable to Norbert today in personality or scope of knowledge, scope of ambition?

A. One of the things that struck me going deeper and deeper into Norbert and who he was as a person is of course, we all look at things through the prism of our own experiences and our own times he seemed to have the personality of an entrepreneur.

So I didn’t think of him so much in terms of a religious rebel, say, like a Luther type, although obviously he shares a lot in common with a lot of the great reformers in the church St. Francis and so on. I think of Norbert in terms of his personality and what kind of a person he was as someone who was incredibly single minded, not bound by necessarily tradition, somebody who was just intensely focused on what was in front of him and always looking kind of to the next thing.

Rather than think of him in terms of just a religious figure per se or a saintly figure, to me he’s got a personality of somebody like maybe Steve Jobs would have had somebody who was very creative, very impulsive, very single minded. Norbert was somebody who, as I said elsewhere, was far more likely to ask forgiveness than permission, somebody who, if a door opens, he was going to walk through it. Ha (he chuckled). The world’s full of people who see a door open and, wonder, ‘Why is the door opening?’ And then there are a certain small number of people who will just go, ‘Well, let’s go see,’ and walk right through the door.

Even though he’s 900 years old or more, Norbert struck me as having a very modern sensibility actually.

Q. In De Pere, Norbert’s name lasts. Is there any other carry-through from him on campus his way of thinking, his philosophy, any ideas that ripple because of his name?

A. I think a lot of people before I got to St. Norbert College and certainly in my time and afterward have worked really hard to make sure that people understand what the Norbertine philosophy is, what the Norbertine values are.

You’ve heard all the time this notion of communal this very deep-seated sense of community and responsibility to one another, this notion of radical hospitality, this idea that you have an apostolic expectation/responsibility to serve your fellow man and woman.

We know that when we talk to our students and quiz them on it, and you talk to them 10 years after they graduate, they have a very, very strong sense of those values that they can articulate them and they will tell you that they have tried to live their lives by this. But I think one of the things they would also admit to is that, even in their four years at St. Norbert College, they probably weren’t exposed much to Norbert the man. What they’re mostly dealing with are history and values. They do have a sense of how the Norbertine order was transported to Wisconsin, and the first place that gave rise to the college and the St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere and so on.

One of the things that we’re hoping the book will help rectify is to really make anyone at the college anyone who just cares about the Norbertine order in general to give them a really strong sense of who this guy was. He was a flesh and blood human being with incredible accomplishments and great frailties and flaws. Just like the rest of us, he made mistakes that he overcame and so on and so forth. And he had doubts.

Part of what I was trying to do with the book is not resurrect him in a sense but just try to remind people that before there was ever a college or there was the abbey or before there was even the Norbertine order, there was Norbert the guy, the man, and he really lived and he really did do a lot of remarkable things and actually founding the order was only one of them.

Q. Were you able to sit down with Norbert, what would you most want him to tell you?

A. There are several mysteries that continue about his life. I think one of the most interesting was this question of, when he was named the archbishop of Magdenburg in basically the last chapter of his very eventful life, it was kind of cast, as these things often were, as sort of an act of providence, like the planets coming together. And, well, what was he going to do?

He was just sort of swept up with the currents of the time.

In truth, as I sort of hint in my book, it’s probably much more likely that when he was in Rome right before that appointment, it’s more than likely that in meeting with the pope of the time it was probably settled that he would become the archbishop of Magdenburg. He would become this important figure next to the holy Roman emperor.

This was a period when the alliance between the holy Roman emperor and the pope was the most important political relationship in Europe. So it was extremely important to the pope who was going to take over this archbishopric and become the emperor’s kind of right hand in how it should be somebody who the pope would be able to trust and so on and so forth.

If I had a chance to sit down with Norbert, probably the first question I would ask him is, What was the real story there? Was this something that was agreed upon, and then the rest of the trappings of the story were just kind of cooked up as the pretext for something that had already been decided?

Q. You led into my next question. Fact verses fiction verses myth verses puffery… How can you sort that all out from 900 years ago?

I have to say there’s no way to know for sure when you’re on completely firm ground, but you can have a pretty good idea.

I really want to give credit to an incredible scholar in Belgium at Postel Abbey I mention in the book. His name is Wilifried Grauwen, and he is an elderly gentleman. I don’t even know if he is still active in his scholarship. He is a Norbertine priest, and he has devoted his entire life to relentlessly and methodically trying to run down everything he could about the life of Norbert, and he did that as a trained historian. He was going to the documents. So he would find things that mentioned Norbert or that Norbert had signed, and these would lead to clues about dates and places where Norbert must have been and relationships that he had.

It’s largely because of work of people like Father Grauwen that I felt fairly confident about sorting out a lot of the myth from the truth about Norbert. And then we’re not sure to say.

A good example is the so-called conversion experience that Norbert had in 1115. The story is, the legend is, that he was riding on his horse in a woods on a nice day and a sudden violent storm blew up and a lightning bolt hit and knocked him from his horse and knocked him unconscious. As he was coming to, he was hearing the voice of God. Well, of course, there’s literally no way to know what really transpired, or if something like that happened at all. But there’s no question from the available evidence that Norbert was going through a very real, deep period of discernment during this time and that something must have happened that catalyzed that discernment and caused him to go ahead and make the decision which he did about changing his life and devoting his life to God’s service. So on the one hand, the myth continues to be the case about being thrown from the horse. Did it happen? It could well have happened. The Catholic church is full of stories, like St. Paul, of conversion experiences like that. But what we are fairly confident in knowing and saying is that he did definitely have a conversion in his life and something momentous must have happened to be the final trigger.

All you can do is go to the sources and try to draw your own conclusions and then just be honest with the reader about what you know for sure, what you don’t at all and what you think likely happened and just be honest about it.

Q. Newspaper person and historian… What from journalism did you most draw on for your book?

A. It’s funny. I kind of had this interesting conversion myself, no pun intended.

I was in journalism for a long time, and I started my journey out of journalism in a sense and became a free-lance writer and started writing books. Because I was writing non-fiction books, my journalism experience was exactly what I needed to be able to pursue books, even though I had written books prior to that, I had deep experience in writing and telling people stories and interviewing and the like. So that gives you great confidence to kind of make that transition.

Whenever you are doing biography, as I have done a couple times, you are of necessity kind of delving into history. So while I’ve never been really a trained historian, my journalistic background suited me well to write a version of Norbert’s story that not only was concise and accurate but a little more accessible in terms of its narrative.

It is true that much of what has been written about in the past was academic, and, of course, a lot of it has been translated, so what’s come down to us, while valuable, is fairly stilted. I hoped this rectifies that somewhat so it can be a book, whether you’re a faculty member or a trustee or a new student, you can pick it up and without too much difficulty get a strong sense of who he was. But to answer your question, even though I’m not formally trained as a historian, I think historians and journalists are kind of kissing cousins.

One of the things that writing books does that I really enjoy is once you amass as many facts as you can, and you have a stronger sense of historical context, even if you don’t know for sure what happened, it’s okay to give people your educated best guess. I think it’s not only okay, it’s one of the things that people are counting on you, and I think people understand that certainly things that happened a millennium ago, you’re never going to know absolutely what happened, but coming along on the ride they expect you to use your best judgment to tell them what you think happened. And that’s kind of fun.

Addendum: Kunkel said he and his wife, Deb, are enjoying their grown children and five grandchildren. He said, I would like to keep writing. I’m trying to decide what to work on. I’m actually playing with the idea of trying my hand at fiction. I think it would be fun. I have no idea I’d be any good at it.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My seven books are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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