For 43 years, Tom Columbus ’66 called Ohio’s University of Dayton his professional home. And, for many of those years, his columns as the editor of the University of Dayton Quarterly and University of Dayton Magazine have been absorbed into the hearts and minds of his readers. Writing what he calls “the stuff of everyday life and eternity, of sadness and of joy,” Columbus, who was an English major at Holy Cross, writes with a stripped-down humaneness and shared spiritual insights that resonate with his readers. Amazing Grace: Hopes and Memories is a collection of his essays and columns. Proceeds from the sale of the book support the Benjamin Taylor Columbus Scholarship Fund at the University of Dayton in memory of the author’s son, who died suddenly in 1996 at age 15. Holy Cross Magazine asked Columbus to discuss the book, his career and what makes a great writer.
Q How did the idea for this book come about?
A It was a retirement present from my colleagues, including my bosses—Michelle Tedford, who oversees our publications effort, and Teri Rizvi, the director of the department. Particular credit for making it a reality goes to Matt Dewald, who succeeded me as editor of the magazine. That the scholarship fund exists is the result of Teri Rizvi having the foresight to help establish it soon after my son Ben died.
Q Is it possible to pick your favorite column?
A No, but the first has a special place in my life. We had hired a designer to design the publication but didn’t have enough money to pay for much more than a cover and feature spreads. “What goes on Page 2?” I asked. Someone replied, “You’re the editor. Write a column.” I had no idea what I would do with it. Then a Marianist priest, who had long served as president of the University, died. At his well-attended funeral, the congregation, including row upon row of black-robed clerics, sang “Amazing Grace.” That sent shivers down my spine; I had something to write about until I retired. And probably after.
Q Which columns garnered the most reaction from your readers?
A The most intense to write were about Ben’s death, our family, our grandchildren coming to know the complexity of the world about them. Some of those were painful to write—but they are ones that people often remember and comment on, not that their pain was eased but that the words reinforced the readers’ sense of shared community—with their family, their school, their church—and their awareness of the reality of grace.
Q What advice do you have for college students who want to make their living as writers?
A Don’t give up your day job. I may be old, but so much of public discourse now seems to just be people screaming at each other, venting their feelings and not really communicating. But many people really do read. Young alumni of Dayton spend at least as much time reading the magazine as older alumni do. And, though large newsmagazines and newspapers are struggling, niche magazines are growing. So there’s hope, and I’d advise young people to take writing seriously … and don’t scream.
Q The University of Dayton is a Marianist institution. How does that compare to your own experiences at a Jesuit college?
A From the day I set foot on Mount St. James, I was not a stranger, I was part of a community. Dayton is much the same. Marianists differ from other orders in what they call “mixed composition”; they have a fairly equal number of priests and brothers. In fact, they all refer to each other as brothers. And, of course, the Marianists have a strong Marian devotion; the University of Dayton’s Marian Library holds the largest and most comprehensive collection in the world of works related to Mary. But the similarities of the schools and the orders are strong—particularly their commitment to social justice.
Q We have to ask: How is retirement treating you? What are you up these days?
A I’m retired but working at UD part time, as in less than half time. … There’s a line in a Jimmy Buffett song: “I’m no St. Ignatius, but again I’m no bar fly.” I have a theory, however, that—with self-discipline, good balance and a little luck—one could be could be a bit of both. So, I’m hoping to spend some time in unhurried travel to meet people, to eat and drink with them and to watch God’s grace flow through them. And, if I have energy left, I’ll try to write some of that down.
Books featured in Holy Cross Magazine are often available for sale at the Holy Cross Bookstore. Stop by the store at the Hogan Campus Center or browse selections online at bookstore.holycross.edu