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Hippies. Religion. Jeopardy! One Retiring Professor Has Seen it All

Arriving in San Francisco in 1965, Donald Burgo, a 21-year-old Catholic kid from New Bedford, Mass., by way of Honolulu — his Navy officer father was stationed at Pearl Harbor — found himself in the middle of the counter culture and enjoying it.

CM_BurgoHeadShot: Donald Burgo
Dr. Donald Burgo

A self-described “square who wore a tie, while others wore tie-dye,” Burgo oddly enough earned extra money hanging concert posters for upcoming psychedelic bands at the now historic Fillmore Auditorium, which hosted the likes of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors.

“One of the stupidest things I ever did was to throw those posters away — they’d be worth something today,” Burgo laments from his office at Fontbonne University, where he’s currently the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought and professor of religion and philosophy. He will retire in May after 37 years of service to the university.

While earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of San Francisco, Burgo soaked up the scene around him. “I can’t think of a more exciting place to have lived at that time,” Burgo says. One day, he found himself chatting up a young lady in Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of hippy culture, who turned out to be Grace Slick, the legendary lead singer of Jefferson Airplane. “I had no idea who she was until a friend told me,” he recalls.

But it wasn’t all jazz fests, sunny days and rock stars for Burgo. A serious student who considered entering the priesthood, he left the west coast for Chicago to earn a master’s degree from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where he later received a doctorate in theology and literature. Burgo was at the university during a time he describes as an “age of giants.” Author Saul Bellow and economist Milton Friedman were on the university faculty, and philosopher Paul Ricoeur, historian Mircea Eleade and theologian David Tracy taught at the Divinity School.

“I was one of the first Catholics in the Divinity School,” Burgo recalls. “It was very rigorous, but an amazing experience.” Against a backdrop of race riots, the protest at the 1968 Democratic convention and Martin Luther King Jr.’s
marches for civil rights, Burgo was again thrown into the mix of major social and political events while in school. “It felt like the cutting edge of the universe,” he says.

As the 1960s drew to a close, Burgo graduated and followed his lifelong dream of teaching. On an April day in 1971, after Fontbonne called the Divinity School looking for fresh graduates, Burgo interviewed in St. Louis and was hired two days later.

“I had never really taught before, so I prepared eight to 10 hours for each class — and apparently they were too hard,” he laughs. “My students quickly reminded me that they weren’t theology graduate students.” Soon after starting at Fontbonne, Burgo’s department was downsized, leaving him as the lone full-time faculty member teaching religion and philosophy. “I remained a department of one for 25 years,” he says. “Until the 1980s, I taught every traditional-aged student who took a religion course.”

Despite the long hours, Burgo enjoyed the lively academic atmosphere at Fontbonne. “There were a lot of sisters around then, and lay and religious all got along very well,” he says. “I have always loved teaching at Fontbonne.” Burgo likens classes to plays with new characters and plots each time. “Teaching allows you to read, think and interact — it’s always different and exciting.”

He added some more excitement to his life when he won on “Jeopardy!” five times during its second season in 1986. “It was a great experience and I earned enough money to buy my condominium,” says Burgo, who called the game show on a whim. “A lot of Fontbonne people watched it, and for years I would be approached by people on the street, in the grocery store and at airports.”

Burgo leaves a long legacy of academic achievement at Fontbonne. He has earned three separate awards for excellence in teaching and has served on numerous university committees. As Fontbonne’s first-ever endowed chair, Burgo played an interdisciplinary role in enriching the intellectual climate of the university, as well as helping to strengthen its Catholic identity.

As he prepares to retire, Burgo looks to Hindu tradition to illustrate how he knows the time is right. “The Hindu way is that when a person sees his grandchildren — or in my case my sibling’s grandchildren — and notices that he has started graying, he should begin to retreat and turn things over to the next generation,” he says. With more time on his hands, Burgo plans to read more, travel the world and start sorting the 12,000 books in his apartment.

He offers one final explanation of how he knows the time is right to retire. “The students get younger and younger — and I keep getting older and older!”