Legate Dennis Golden gave up an NFL career to become a leader in Catholic education . . . .
Legate Dennis Golden was en route to a tryout with the New York Giants when a spontaneous stop at his alma mater turned into a major career detour.
“Let me give you another alternative,” the vice president of student aairs at the College of the Holy Cross told the aspiring pro football player who had dropped by the Worcester, Mass., campus to visit a priest. “We have an opening for assistant to the dean of men. It’s your job if you want it.”
For most 24-year-olds with aspirations of playing professional sports, the decision between earning $7,200 a year at Holy Cross and thousands more in the National Football League would have been a snap in the direction of the Giants. But Golden decided to consider the school’s offer.
The next day, he called Giants Coach Andy Robustelli and declined what would be his last chance to play professional football. Golden thus embarked on a career in higher education that culminated in the presidency of Fontbonne University in St. Louis. Forty years later, he has no regrets, knowing he made his choice because of a calling rooted deeply in the Catholic faith he embraced as an adolescent.
“For a guy to give up his lifelong dream because he thought God was calling him in a different direction takes a very deep spiritual life — and Dennis would be the first to tell you it was the greatest decision he ever made,” said Steve Notestine, president of Legatus’ St. Louis Chapter.
Born to a Russian-Jewish father and Irish-Italian mother, Golden, a charter member of the St. Louis Chapter, never saw the inside of a church until he was in the sixth grade. Around that time he started going to Bible classes at a neighborhood Protestant church and later received Bible lessons while playing basketball for a Protestant church team. When Golden’s mother learned he was interested in the Bible, she took him to a priest and said, “I want my son to become Catholic.”
After receiving Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation, Golden was soon playing basketball for a Catholic Youth Organization team and going to Catholic religious education classes, which were offered on “release time” from his public school. At his mother’s urging, Golden enrolled in Holy Cross High School in Flushing, N.Y., and went on to the College of the Holy Cross where he played football, facing opponents from Boston College, Penn State and Syracuse University.
Golden’s first shot at pro ball came in his senior year when he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. However, as he considered all he had been given, Golden told Legatus magazine that he opted to do something for his country. Instead of going to training camp after graduation, he took a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Later, Golden’s desire to play professional football was rekindled, and he signed a contract with the then-Boston Patriots, playing one preseason before being cut in 1966. Next came the tryout with the Giants and the offer from Holy Cross.
After accepting the Holy Cross job, Golden said he felt peaceful, largely because he had given the offer so much thought and prayer.
“I was trying to understand what great people like Ignatius had gone through in terms of a transformation,” he explained. “I’m not putting myself in that category, but this said to me that what really matters is helping people. It was a struggle because I was ready to play and when you’re an athlete and you know you’re ready, you want to play.”
Golden spent three years at Holy Cross and then moved on to become dean of students and vice president at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, vice president for student life at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and vice president for student affairs at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
During studies for a master’s degree in guidance and counseling, Golden had begun to think about becoming a college president. The idea solidified when he sought a doctorate in higher education administration.
In 1995, he became president of Fontbonne at the age of 52. Golden said when people ask why it took him so long, he explains that it was because he enjoyed what he was doing. “I loved working with students at the ground level, trying to get them to see their potential.”
Now 71 and on the cusp of a retirement planned for 2014, Golden can look back on a distinguished tenure as a college president. Under his leadership, Fontbonne has grown in enrollment and standing. The former all-women’s college is now a co-ed university with 2,100 students and its president is known for strengthening the school’s Catholic identity and increasing the diversity of its student body.
“He’s done a masterful job of trying to keep the university Catholic,” said Monsignor Joseph Pins, chaplain of Legatus’ St. Louis Chapter.
Saint Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson told Legatus magazine that Golden has dedicated his life to quality education and has fostered diversity without compromising his faith or conscience. “He is a man of great faith who has challenged those on the fringe.”
Monsignor Pins said his respect for Golden ratcheted up several years ago when he invited him to address a businessmen’s prayer breakfast.
“He talked about his daily prayer,” Monsignor Pins recalled. “At the conclusion of his talk, he pulled out a brown paper bag and it was filled with those little finger ring rosaries. He had one for everybody in the whole room and I thought afterwards: Here was someone who was an impressive speaker to start with, but he was really challenging them to pray every day.”
Golden said the rosary has been part of his life since high school and that it’s not unusual for him to hand out finger rosaries. “I carry one in my pocket and say the rosary different times, in traffic jams or whenever, because I think that is part of living your faith — not just when you go to church on Sunday.”
Besides rosaries, Golden has been known to give out cards that say EIWP-GP, which means: “Everything is working perfectly — God’s plan.”
Golden first heard the expression from a friend and since has sought to live its meaning by turning everything over to God, whether it’s campus beautification or fundraising.
He has had to do that in his personal life as well, particularly when his wife Monica was diagnosed with breast cancer three-and-a-half years ago. Golden said seeing his wife go through treatment renewed his desire to spend more time with her and their family. The Goldens have nine grandchildren from their daughter and two sons.
As Legates for 17 years, Golden said he and Monica believe in the essence of being ambassadors for Christ in their work and family environments. And he views a Catholic college presidency as a sacred trust.
“It’s not a job, but a calling — 24/7. The important question is not what I do, but why I do it. That’s where Legatus enters in. I have a perfect opportunity to be an ambassador for Christ.”
JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.