Visitors from Minn. get surprise visit from Obama

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 Barack Obama.

The Rev. Robert Koopman of St. John’s University and MaryAnn Baenninger of the College of St. Benedict were having lunch in the White House mess with Denis McDonough, the St. John’s alumnus and chief of staff of the National Security Council, and Jim Dwyer of the St. John’s development office, when McDonough dropped the bombshell: They were all going to be meeting the commander-in-chief.

“He said we better hurry because we have an appointment with the president,” Baenninger said after she and Koopman 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 St. 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 were in Washington for the annual meeting of private Catholic college presidents. McDonough, a 1992 St. 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 Affairs and Civic Engagement at St. 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 St. John’s.