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Paying It Forward

John Luth ’74 came to Holy Cross with help from his friend and mentor, John Flavan ’53. Now Luth is carrying on the philanthropic tradition.

By Paul E. Kandarian

John Flavan ’53John Flavan ’53 is a man who believes in helping people help themselves, so reaching out to assist an impressive young employee in the early 1970s was simply second nature.

Flavan and his brother were running Noah’s Ark, an upscale St. Louis hotel and restaurant, when John Luth ’74, then a student at the University of Missouri, came looking for a job.

Luth was mature beyond his years, with already thinning hair and a substantially adult air about him. He landed a job as maître d’.

Flavan was impressed by Luth’s intellect and demeanor. Learning that he wanted to transfer to another University of Missouri branch to pursue engineering, Flavan, ever the Holy Cross recruiter, touted his old school instead.

“He took a shine to me, essentially started to promote the idea that I should think about a broader liberal arts education,” Luth says. “In spring the following year, he finally convinced me to fill out an application for Holy Cross.”

Flavan even took Luth to Worcester and hastened a meeting with Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49, though it was already past the admissions deadline.

One thing led to another, helped in no small way by Luth’s impressive straight A’s. The next year Luth found himself a Crusader, with Flavan footing part of the bill himself. Luth is one of 10 children in a family that couldn’t afford much for education.

Bottom line: Kindness begets kindness.

Flavan consistently refused Luth’s offer of repayment, so Luth and his wife recently made a gift of $500,000 to the College—around the same time that Flavan, a longtime donor himself, pledged $1 million dollars.

“I’ve always believed if you help people develop themselves, they’ll go that extra mile for you,” Flavan says. “That’s not self-serving, but indicative of what my father always believed in—helping people help themselves.”

The Flavan-Luth connection is one of ongoing friendship and doing for others when they’ve done rather well themselves. Luth, former chief financial officer for Continental Airlines, is now president and chief executive officer of The Seabury Group, LLC, in New York City, an investment banking firm. Flavan is now president of Sun Land Financial Corp. in Florida, where he regularly hosts get-togethers for groups of traveling Holy Cross people.

“John has always been a very generous contributor to Holy Cross,” says Patrick McCarthy ’63, director of alumni relations and a longtime friend of Flavan’s, with whom he has been on seven Holy Cross trips to Ireland. “He has been a cornerstone for Holy Cross wherever he is.”

Fr. Brooks says of Luth and Flavan: “They’re both very loyal alumni, deeply committed to the College and doing whatever they can do to help.”

Luth never figured to take advantage of Flavan’s beneficence; it was simply not the way he was raised.

“I have to admit, I was very resistant to John’s overture,” Luth laughs. “I came from a middle-class, blue-collar family, my father and mother were big believers that you made your own way in life. They gave each of us $200 a year for college. We learned at an early age to work nights and weekends. If you wanted a car, you bought it yourself. I started working at the local A&W at 13.”

That work ethic personified a Midwestern parochial personality, he says; of 122 students in his high school graduating class, Luth says only three went on to college east of the Mississippi. It was a stay-close-to-home mentality that Luth himself was ready to follow, if not for Flavan.

But the visit to the Holy Cross campus clinched the deal for Luth. He liked what he saw; the low faculty-to-student ratio he didn’t have at the University of Missouri, where he would sit among 400 others in a freshmen lecture hall. John also literally ran into an opportunity to play soccer, a game he loves.

“I got to Holy Cross,” he recalls, “and was jogging around campus my first day. I spotted some guys on the lower level playing soccer. I ran down and asked if I could play.”

He made the team and “that got me, playing varsity soccer for Holy Cross—it was like a dream come true.

He stayed the following year and then, he says, “the College, to its credit, gave me a partial scholarship for my junior and senior years.”

Time was pressing when Flavan met with Fr. Brooks that day for a quick, 15-minute chat. Flavan flashed Luth’s academic credentials, and Fr. Brooks liked what he saw, making a call to admissions. From then on, Luth carried the ball on his own, with Flavan downplaying much of a part in it.

“John earned it, believe me,” Flavan says.

And Flavan’s generosity extended to the automotive as well as the academic.

“John had a Pontiac GTO in those days that was his pride and joy, he just loved that car,” Flavan says. “Well, it got stolen his first semester, and he was devastated. I sent him out to get another car, a Mercury Capri, as I recall, and after I dropped him off at the dealer and went back to the restaurant, John called to say that because he was only 20, they wouldn’t let him sign for it.

“So I went back and signed for it,” Flavan says, laughing at the recollection. “But I signed it over to John when he turned 21.”

Flavan felt from the moment he met Luth that the young man was postgraduate material, so when Luth graduated Holy Cross, Flavan pushed for him to go to his postgrad school, Stanford. But Luth had other ideas.

“I wanted to go to Wharton,” Luth says. “But John tried to do the same thing for me at Stanford as he did at Holy Cross. He got letters from everyone, even Rockefeller.”

“I never applied to Stanford,” he says. “I got a full ride to Wharton.”

“Yes, I had people working on it, but he never applied,” Flavan says, laughing. “He didn’t know how to tell me he wanted to go to Wharton.”

Helping young people wasn’t limited to Luth. Flavan estimates that he helped about 30 others through college in those days, some going to restaurant and hotel colleges and, eventually, careers. But Luth did stick out, he admits.

“John was a very perceptive young man, very mature for his age,” Flavan says. “I don’t like to say I have favorites, but John is a jewel.”

Though Flavan paved the way for Luth to go to Holy Cross, it was Luth who did the work once he got there, in particular remembering one very difficult but very enlightening course.

“It was ‘Intellectual Social History of the United States,’ a two-semester course,” Luth says. “It was an astonishingly difficult course, the syllabus had 35 books. I love history, even though I was an economics major, but it was unbelievably tough and unbelievably stimulating.

“And it got me the lowest grade I ever got at Holy Cross, a B-minus the first semester, a B the second,” he says. “I put more work into that course than any other.”

He also credits Professor John F. O’Connell ’64, then head of the economics department, with instruction that had an impact on his life.

“But beyond the professors, as much as they had impact, it was the small size of classes at Holy Cross, the personal interest they took in you,” Luth says. “If you showed any interest in learning the material, the professors were prepared to take you as far as you were willing to take yourself.”

For Flavan, Holy Cross was always his first choice for college, stemming from his youth when his family would host visiting Jesuits from the school who came for advanced studies at the University of St. Louis.

“I believe a Jesuit education is the finest education going,” Flavan says. “I always wanted to go away to school and Holy Cross was my first choice.”

Other Flavan family members who are also Holy Cross alumni are nephew Mark White ’88, and cousins Andrew McNearney ’48, Tom Moloney ’55 and Mark Moloney ’73.

White opted for Holy Cross without ever seeing the place, Flavan says: “He said ‘Uncle John said it’s the place to go.’”

Flavan’s unofficial recruiting efforts are legendary at Holy Cross, McCarthy says, adding “it doesn’t matter where John is, he’s like a magnet for Holy Cross.”

As to the gifts Flavan and Luth have given the College, Pat McCarthy says “it speaks well of the institution and the love that alumni have for it—the way they can express it in the size of the gift, when they have it.”

Flavan says what his gift will be used for is as yet undecided, though he’s leaning toward scholarships in his parents’ names. Luth says his gift will establish a fund for aspiring journalists in the name of his father-in-law, Edward Avery Wyatt IV, who was editor of the Petersburg, Va., Progress-Index for 40 years.

As to his gift, Luth says it likely would not have been possible if not for Flavan.

“I tried to pay him back, but he’d say ‘whatever you want to pay me, pay the College,’” Luth says. “He made it possible for me to be in the position to make contributions to the College. He’s a tremendously generous person and a huge supporter of Holy Cross.”

Flavan says it’s just a matter of carrying through his father’s philosophy of helping others. His father was a doctor who gave as much as a third of his practice time to priests, nuns and others who couldn’t afford to pay.

“There’s nothing they can ask me (at Holy Cross) to do for them that I would not do,” Flavan says, “and that goes back to Rev. Raymond Swords, S.J., who was Father Brooks’ predecessor. They’ve done so much for me, I’ll never be able to repay them.”

Paul E. Kandarian is a free-lance journalist from Taunton, Mass.

 

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