I remember well that day in April 1982 ... the day God decided to bring the Awakening retreat program to Texas A&M University. It was a first class rotten day ... the kind of day you wish you could rewind and start over again. What I didn't know at the time was that the events that transpired that day were the first steps in a journey that would culminate in Aggie Awakening #1 eighteen months hence.
First, a little bit of background. I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, 400 miles east of College Station. I wound up going to Texas A&M for three reasons. First, TAMU had a meteorology program; second, it was one of the closest universities that had one; and third, it was cheap. I knew little else about Texas A&M when I transferred in as a sophomore Meteorology major in September 1979.
Needless to say, I was in for a major culture shock. Not only did I have to adjust to leaving home, I had to adjust to a Texas and Aggie subculture unlike any I had experienced before. A funny thing happened, though...I found a home at St. Mary's Catholic Church. This was the first group of people outside of my family who accepted me for who I was...where I made friends I still have today.
I became quite active at St. Mary's over the next several years, participating in a variety of ministries, retreats, and committees. At that time, student participation at St. Mary's was growing by leaps and bounds under the auspices of Fr. Bill Brooks and Fr. Al Palermo. The few small groups that existed in 1978 metamorphosed into an array of organizations and activities utilizing the talents of several thousand students and collectively known as the TAMU Catholic Student Association.
Bear with me, the following information is relevant. While attending TAMU, I still went home during the summers and worked to save money for school. In the summer of 1981, I worked as a summer student intern for the National Weather Service in Slidell, within commuting distance of home. They liked me and invited me back the following summer. The State of Louisiana also offered considerable financial assistance in the form of paying my out-of-state tuition at TAMU, since meteorology was not offered at any university in Louisiana at that time.
Before that fateful day in April 1982, life was rolling along as smoothly as it could for a college student one car repair away from being broke. However, three things happened that day: first, I found out that my summer job with the National Weather Service fell through; second, due to a clerical error on the part of TAMU, my out-of-state tuition money was never requested from Louisiana, and TAMU threatened to kick me out of school if I didn't pay it; third, our phone was disconnected while I was trying to find out what happened with my summer job (turns out that the phone company misrouted our bill payments). I got so upset that I went to a neighbor's phone and called Mom collect. Yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Eventually, the problems with the phone company and TAMU were resolved, although the solution to the TAMU problem wasn't exactly legal. I think the statute of limitations has expired on that one, though. That left the little problem of the summer job, which was a bit tougher to solve. I finally found out that my job in Slidell was not offered that summer and the NWS figured I was not interested in working anywhere else, so they dropped me from consideration. All other available jobs were filled. I informed them that I was still interested so I could keep my foot in the door in case something strange happened.
Something strange did happen. A summer position with the NWS became available in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (80 miles northwest of New Orleans), after the original candidate turned it down. I got the offer and took it immediately.
It only took a few trips to Baton Rouge for me to realize that I could not commute that distance and I wound up finding a cheap place to live there...with two female graduate students (that's another story). As was the case with College Station, I didn't know anyone there and wound up spending a good number of my after work hours at the LSU Catholic Student Center. There, for the second time in my life, I found a very accepting community that welcomed me into their ranks.
It wasn't long after I started going to the LSU CSC that I was informed that I would make a retreat they had scheduled in July. It was not an option, I was going. It was called the Awakening retreat, and this was their 34th one. I had been on many Newman retreats at St. Mary's, and this sounded like it would be similar to those. No problem, I thought, maybe I could tell them about some of the neat things we were doing at TAMU. However, I was destined to be the student, not the teacher, and that this weekend would change my life forever.
The weekend itself was great, but the experience did not hit me like a ton of bricks, not the way I've seen it affect so many others. What did impress me, however, was the community that had developed there as a result of the retreat program. At this time, the St. Mary's community was experiencing growing pains and was not as open as it was when I first joined. I thought the Awakening retreat program might be a good thing for St. Mary's and by the end of the summer, I was laying out plans for bringing the Awakening retreat program to Texas A&M.
I began my 5th year of college in September 1982. By this time, I figured that the Awakening retreat could be executed within the framework of the already established Newman retreats. I presented this plan to the Newman officers for that year and also talked to other students about the program. The reception from the officers was one of mild interest. They told me they would discuss it.
A few days later, I asked one of the officers how things were coining along. She told me that they talked to Fr. Bill about it and he had nixed it outright. They didn't know why. I tracked down Fr. Bill to find out, and wound up getting an unexpected and thorough tongue lashing. Among other things, he accused me of being homesick and wanting to bring a piece of home to A&M...which is a kind of a strange thing to say to a guy who had left home four years earlier! The main reason for his opposition, however, was the whole idea of bringing in people from the outside to help start the program. He felt that everything should be done from within our community.
I gave up. I planned to graduate the following May and go on to Colorado State for graduate school, so I figured that the Awakening program just wasn't meant to be, at least not at A&M. No mention of it was made during the next month or so, but several students as well as the priests remembered my initial enthusiasm for the retreat.
Before I move on, I want to present a more positive image of Fr. Bill. He had a temper that would go off occasionally, but he was a builder. The St. Mary's Newman Association consisted of 15 people and a keg when he arrived. The only reason the Awakening retreat program could be considered for A&M was because of the organization that he and Fr. Al had already put in place.
About this time, God switched to Plan B. The game wasn't over yet, not by a long shot. I hate to think that God works this way, but several Austin diocesan priests died within the next month. This led to a shuffling of pastoral assignments. Fr. Bill was transferred to Lockhart, TX, and Fr. Leon Strieder, who looked like he should have been selling schnitzel in New Braunfels, arrived at St. Mary's from Taylor. His first day here, a large group of students gathered in and around his office. When I got within earshot, I asked him what he thought about retreat programs like Search and Awakening. His response was favorable.
The door had been reopened. Still, I took no action. Aggie Awakening was a dead issue, and I was looking forward to graduating and getting on with my life. I think this got God upset and he was forced to switch to Plan C. God always has another plan.
One Friday night in November, I was in my dorm room preparing to go out and be secular. The phone rang. It was Fr. Al. The conversation started something like this:
Fr. Al: Jay, where can I find out more about this Awakening retreat?
I eventually managed to pick up my jaw, which was down around my ankles, and gave him the name and phone number for the pastor at the LSU CSC. A few days later, he called again. I was then informed that Don Bagert and Diana Horadam were signed up to go to LSU Awakening #37 in January, 1983, and I was signed up to staff.
What happened? I had no idea. It turned out that Fr. Al ran into a Jesuit priest at some priest convention. This Jesuit (Fr. Al had a fondness for Jesuits) told him about a co-ed college retreat program based on the Cursillo movement. Fr. Al knew about this movement and was quite interested. The only problem was that the Jesuit couldn't remember the name of the program. Fr. Al remembered my failed campaign and asked if it was the Awakening retreat. The Jesuit said it was. Fr. Al called me as soon as he got home.
Plan C started off pretty well. All three of us made the 7 hour drive to Baton Rouge that January and Don and Diana were impressed...especially Don. We reported back to Fr. Al. Ten months remained until Aggie Awakening #1.
Don, Diana, and I effectively became the core committee for planning AA #1. We didn't have any organization or titles, we were just committed to making Aggie Awakening a reality. We felt that this would be a great thing for A&M. We had our conflicts, of course, the natural result of three headstrong and opinionated people working closely together for ten months. We occasionally butted heads with the priests as well. Still, we persevered.
The first order of business was finding a place and setting a date. We inspected Camp Kappe near Navasota and figured that, while it wasn't perfect, it would be possible to hold the retreat there. We reserved the facility for October 14-16, 1983. At this time, it looked like I would be leaving before the retreat happened.
The second order of business was getting more Aggies over to LSU to attend their retreat so they could staff ours. LSU graciously opened 15 slots at LSU Awakening #38 and, after a lot of wrangling on our part, we filled them with what turned out to be an exceptional group of Aggies. Don, Diana, and I staffed, and the 15 went as retreaters. The 15 were:
Andy Allen Selina Mendieta Gabriel Solarzano Mary Ellen Boyle Betsy Meyer Carmen Torrez Mary Ann DiDomenico Steve Mueller Susan Withey Paula Fronk John Pavlicek Steve Wong Adrian Leal Becky Rhubottorn Greg Zouzalik
I spent most of the retreat doing behind the scenes work, but when I returned to the group before the final Mass and saw how high all those Aggies were flying, I knew that nothing was going to stop us now. Aggie Awakening was really going to become a reality!
But, back to work...decisions had to made. Diana was hand picked to be the rector, but who would be the coordinator? It boiled down to Don or myself. After considerable reflection and prayer, the proper role for me became obvious, and it wasn't coordinator. Don had independently reached the same conclusion and he became the coordinator. Good thing, too...he wound up doing a great job...much better than I could have done. I wound up giving one of the talks on the retreat and chairing the committee that did the considerable background work to support the talk and the activities that followed it. It wound up being the best place for me since only Don and I knew how to do all the background work.
But wait a second, I was supposed to be out of here by then! I was, but I was rejected for graduate school at Colorado State. My only hope was to get an assistantship for graduate school at A&M. I graduated in May 1983, and got a job delivering pizza while I bided my time...and worked on the retreat.
The following summer, the LSU folks gave us 20 Aggie slots for LSU Awakening #39. We could only fill 16 of them, and those people were:
Alejandro Arguello Kris Hagel Greg Novinski Deborah Danzeiser Steve Hill Gloria Ramirez Tim Ellis Jeff Jetton Eddie Stoker David Engel Jari McGee Jennifer Yezak Alicia Ferret Claire Mueller Brenda Zouzalik Kelly Gimberg
We now had 34 Aggies available to staff Aggie Awakening #1, assuming all of the above could do it. Several from the LSU #39 group wound up dropping out. As for me, my assistantship came through and I wound up staying at A&M until December 1985.
Retreat planning hit a fever pitch when school resumed the following fall and didn't let up until the retreat was over. Many of us were participating in planning and prayer retreats nearly every other weekend. It certainly took a toll on me...I nearly flunked one course because of it. Still, it was one of the most exhilarating and spiritual experiences of my life. It felt great knowing that this was exactly what God wanted to happen and I, along with a lot of other people, were making His plan a reality.
It sounds like a utopian experience, but don't be fooled. We were all hopelessly human. There were conflicts, competitions, and yes, even some lies and underhandedness. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but there were times when I wondered how such ugly things could occur within something so wonderful. Reality is messy. We all had the same goal, however, and while it wasn't pretty sometimes, we kept on tripping and lurching toward that goal.
Speakers were selected, tables were organized, table partners determined, staff heads and staffers were selected, individual tasks assigned,...the to do list went on forever, it seemed.
One of the biggest problems we faced was getting enough experienced Awakeners to staff AA #1. Several of our folks had dropped out and we were down to less than 30 available staffers. I wound up calling just about every existing Awakening community in Louisiana trying to find people. In the end, our group was supplemented by several adult leaders (including cook-for-the-masses Bill Scott), a bevy of LSU Awakeners who drove up to help us out, and several folks who had made Awakenings and lived in the neighborhood.
Awakening originated sometime in the 70s at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. From there, communities developed across Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Now the first Awakening community in Texas was about to be established.
Finally, the big weekend arrived. Aggie Awakening #1 commenced on Friday, October l4th, 1983. We had 60 slots total, of which only 50 could be filled. One could have signed up for AA #1 at the site and attended!
For me, the weekend was a blur. I remember saying over and over again that I couldn't believe this was actually happening. I remember most of my talk even though I was running on fumes at the time. I remember that I, along with Kelly Gimberg, was the table staff for Table #1. I also remember that things ran remarkably smoothly, especially for a first Awakening. The only major problem arose when the retreat was over and it was time to clean up. We didn't have that effort organized.
One thing for sure, it was a success. A resounding success. The best retreat I was associated with, although I admit I'm biased. Over 90% of the retreaters on AA #1 signed up to staff AA #2 the following January, and we never needed outside staffers again.
I wound up on Cook Staff for AA #2, which was also a resounding success. This time, we had a full house of 60 retreaters. I did Music Staff on #3 (We developed all the hand motions for the "Horse and Rider" song), and the remaining staffs by AA #6. By this time, it was quite apparent that Awakening was turning into something far bigger than any of us old-timers had dared to hope for. Don and I thought the interest in Awakening would die down a bit after AA #3. Were we ever wrong! It just kept growing. Satellite communities were popping up, the first being a high school Awakening program in Weatherford, TX, organized by Andy Allen. Our first college satellite community was established at Stephen F. Austin October 4-6, 1985. By this time, I had staffed the first eight Aggie Awakenings and was about ready to move on. There was, however, one last thing I wanted to do, and that was to head the Music Staff. I got to do that on SFA #1, and that became my swan song.
I left College Station in December 1986. Aggie Awakening was still changing and growing, becoming something far different than what we had started. I didn't think I would ever see it this way, but the change was good. AA is still alive and kicking almost 12 years later, and AA #50 [was] held in July 1997.
Ever since Awakening, I have tried to faithfully follow the road God pointed out to me, and this road has led me to Colorado, Alaska, and now, California. Like everyone else, I look back on the mistakes, the might-have-beens, the if nots ... but I also look back on Awakening. It is so fulfilling to be able to say that I was involved in something so surpassingly and undoubtedly good...something that has changed so many lives for the better. I, along with so many other people who have contributed to the Awakening, can point to it and say "There is something that has made the world a better place, and I helped make it happen."