As president of Christian Brothers University, I welcome a lot of students to campus who came here from another place, who have left their hometown — and their friends and family — to attend our university. In my previous position as CEO of St. Francis Hospital, I welcomed a lot of doctors and healthcare workers who had moved here from other places to further their careers. Thus, I have become familiar with the questions — and sometimes trepidations — about living in Memphis and wondering if the reason they’re moving here is worth it and if they can be happy living here.
As a transplant myself, I think I may be the perfect person to answer those questions.
My wife Erin is from Southern California, and I’m from Indiana, originally. We met in New York City, lived in Southern California for quite a while, and had never lived in the South — unless you consider Houston to be in the South, which I don’t. And we never thought we wanted to live in the South. You know, we had that stereotypical image of the South — it’s backward, it’s consumed by racial issues. Where I grew up, I think there was an opinion that we didn’t have racial issues like they had in the South. But we did, we just swept them under the rug. I’ve since discovered that’s one of the great things about living here — we are able to have open and honest discussions about race. We are actively working to address issues of poverty, inequality, and inclusion.
At first, moving to Memphis was an adjustment. You know, it was like, “Where did we move to?”
But, after a year, we realized that we had absolutely fallen in love with Memphis. One of the biggest reasons is our faith. As a Catholic not from the south, I always saw the “bible belt” as a protestant phenomenon. But I quickly recognized that people of all faiths tend to practice their faith – attend their church, synagog, mosque, or temple. In my experience, people generally form their lasting relationships in those communities. And for my family, that was very much the case. I mean, most of our friends are from the parish that we started attending, where our kids went to school. That was one of the big reasons we fell in love with Memphis. People readily talk about their faith here. Some of that may have been because I was working at a hospital that was formerly faith-based and now in a Lasallian University. Yet I hadn’t really experienced that elsewhere. People here genuinely share their faith.
One of the other things that I think impressed us is manners, the cordiality and civility of the people here. Usually, we tend to discount or not recognize how much manners impact us and how we relate to each other and treat each other. But here, it was this steady stream of “yes, ma’am; no, ma’am; can I help you with that?” It of changes the tone. It’s just that people here genuinely care about each other. People will go out of their way for a stranger, for anybody, to help them if they can.
It’s one of the things I would tell new doctors at St. Francis Hospital. You know, Memphis is, in my view, a real place. It’s got problems, it’s got real problems, but it’s also a real place. It’s not Disneyland. It also has people working on those problems day-in-and-day-out. Whether it’s part of their job or not. If you want to be somewhere where you can really make a difference, there’s no place you could go that’s better than Memphis to make a difference in people’s lives. Yes, there are real problems, but people here know that, and they want to work on it, and they volunteer to give their time and their money, and they use their real lives to fix that.
According to a study from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Memphis ranks as one of the most charitable cities in the United States. Many people point to Memphis’ being a Southern city rooted in church philanthropy as an influence in its charitable giving, and I’m sure that’s a big part of it. But I also think that seeing all the good that it has done for our city spurs folks to continue giving. It’s a virtuous cycle – we give, we see the results and we give more. It’s truly something to be proud of.
It’s hard to describe. You just fall in love with this city. You fall in love with the culture, the music, the people. Not to mention the Grizzlies and Gibson’s Donuts. Along with it, you also fall in love with all the bumps and warts and bruises. Just as all our experiences in life – good, bad, or whatever – they all contributed to who we are. Amazingly, people even love us for all that we are.
During our first year in Memphis, our son John was a first-year student at CBHS – Christian Brothers High School. Out of the blue, another company offered me a job in San Jose. So, I came home and said “OK, we can go back home to California. What do you guys want to do?” And John, right off the bat, says “I don’t want to leave. I want to graduate as a “Brother’s Boy”.
Yes, it says something about the Christian Brothers and the educational experience they created that students who attend CBU overwhelmingly stay in Memphis after graduation — even the ones who came here from somewhere else. It says something about the Lasallian mission that taught them to care for others and to work hard to improve the community they’re living in at the same time they’re working hard to succeed in their college courses.
But it also says something about Memphis. It’s a place where you can learn and live and work and fall in love. It’s a place where you can make a life at the same time that you’re making a difference.
Saint John Baptist de La Salle, pray for us. Live Jesus in our hearts, forever.