February 15, 2010

Visitors from Minnesota get surprise visit from Obama

February 4, 2010, 9:54 am by Albert Eisele

Proving once again the adage that it’s not what you know but who you know in Washington, the presidents of two Minnesota private colleges got an unexpected surprise Wednesday when they were ushered into the Oval Office to meet President Obama.

The Rev. Robert Koopmann of Saint John’s University and MaryAnn Baenninger of the College of Saint Benedict were having lunch in the White House Mess with Denis McDonough, the Saint John’s alumnus and chief of staff of the National Security Council, and Jim Dwyer of the Saint John’s University development office, when McDonough informed them they were going to meet Obama.

“He said we better hurry because we have an appointment with the president,” Baenninger said after she and Fr. Koopmann spent about five minutes with the president, who posed for photographs with them while Vice President Biden cooled his heels outside the Oval Office.

“He was very personable and friendly, and talked about the importance of higher education,” said Baenninger, who has headed the Catholic women’s college since 2004. “And he was taller than I expected.”

Fr. Koopmann, the Benedictine priest who became Saint John’s 12th president last July after the death of his predecessor, Br. Dietrich Reinhart, said Obama praised McDonough as “one of the good choices I made.” And he noted that Obama put his arm around him as they posed for photographs.

Koopmann and Baenninger, who were in Washington for the annual meeting of private Catholic college presidents, were accompanied at the White House meeting by Dwyer.

McDonough, a 1992 Saint John’s graduate from Stillwater, was scheduled to join Fr. Koopmann and Baenninger at an evening reception on Capitol Hill for alumnae of the two colleges, but had to cancel because of a last-minute meeting of the National Security Council.

Matt Lindstrom, who heads the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at Saint John’s, announced the creation of a Washington Fellows program for students of the two colleges, which is named after former Republican Sen. David Durenberger, an alumnus of Saint John’s University.