Highlights In History: Saint Leo's Alma Mater
The creation of Saint Leo's new alma mater by one of our own faculty, the role a former college president played in composing the original version's lyrics, and his influence on the current song.
This is the sixth in a series of feature stories, profiles, and anecdotes recounting the significance of important events in the history of Saint Leo University, which is currently commemorating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1889.
By Kim Payne, University Communications
Old Traditions Become New
Saint Leo we salute traditions new and old,
which guide us as we grow in body, heart and soul.
When Dr. Kurt Van Wilt, English professor in the School of Arts & Sciences at Saint Leo University, was first approached about creating a new alma mater, he wished to honor his good friend and mentor, Dr. Anthony W. Zaitz, former professor of English and chairman of the Division of Language and Literature. Dr. Zaitz, who would later become president of Saint Leo College for two years (1968-1970), was the joint composer of the original Saint Leo Alma Mater, which was written in 1967.
The Original Alma Mater
In April 1967, the college’s development and public relations department requested that he write an official college song for the upcoming commencement of the charter class. Dr. Zaitz and his colleague Joseph Salvatore, music instructor and a musician specializing in the trumpet, completed the task in about a half hour. “I wrote the words. Salvatore put the chords and structure,” he remembered. “Sometimes you can just sit down and it comes out complete. And that’s how this was born,” he recalled.
The New Alma Mater
The genesis of the new alma mater began in the summer of 1999. Dr. Wilt collaborated on the project with Jeffrey R. Smith who wrote the music. In writing the new alma mater, Dr. Wilt wanted to “follow in his footsteps” by establishing continuity with Dr. Zaitz’ original version.
With that primary objective in mind, Dr. Wilt was presented with a list of guidelines to consider while writing the song. They included: keep it simple and enthusiastic, make it memorable and singable, and, most importantly, describe who we are and who we want to be.
In addition to the original parameters, Dr. Wilt had a personal list of items he hoped to accomplish to make the song more memorable. They were: mention Saint Leo’s core values and traditions, honor our Benedictine heritage, describe the institution, reflect on then and now, create a spiral effect, and incorporate the students.
His Philosophy and Approach
Like any good English professor, Dr. Wilt strategized on the approach of how to write the alma mater. This, of course, involved creating an outline. He inventoried a list of possible words – along with synonyms. To help paint a portrait of Saint Leo, he also wanted to utilize alliteration, couplets, slant rhyme, end rhyme, and internal rhyme. Examples: The first verse uses the phrase, “Saint Leo we salute,” and in the third verse: “Joyfully and Destiny, Unique and United.”
Dr. Wilt’s philosophy on the challenges associated with writing legacy lyrics: “You build on it each day. You wake up and read it the next day, see what needs to be changes, move forward, and persevere.”
He wanted each line of the song to summarize a complete statement about Saint Leo.
Saint Leo we salute traditions, new and old, which guide us as we grow in body, heart and soul.
The opening verse reassesses who we were and who we have become. This philosophical, retrospective statement harkened to the origins of the school in the 1890s.
Everywhere we flourish sustained by our ideal of challenging our minds to make our vision real.
Encapsulating the new education centers and Center for Online learning, the university was making a conscious effort to move forward. The line also captured the intellectual, spiritual, and creative components. “By using your mind, emotionally, passionately, and physically, you visualize your future and plan what to do next to help accomplish it,” said Dr. Wilt.
Joyfully, we gather, our destinies to seek, partners in harmony united yet unique.
In this section, the student element is emphasized. Dr. Wilt hoped to create a traditional Greek sense of the importance of education. He thought of Saint Leo University’s teachers, administrators, staff, and students as organs of one body.
Excellence in word and deed, we’ve made our final quest.
One of Dr. Wilt’s muses for the new alma mater was Joseph Campbell, an American psychologist and mythological researcher, whose famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, espouses that almost every hero-quest confronts several basic stages. He refers to this common structure as “the monomyth.” Everyone must go through this hero’s journey to evolve into something greater. There was a conscious effort to progress in heroism.
We care for all creation, with compassion and respect.
The closing line returns to our original mission and core values of what makes us who we are today as an institution of higher learning and a university community.
When asked what he thought about the alma mater still being used today, a decade and a half years after its introduction, Wilt remarked: “I like that; even more so as time passes. I think it serves its purpose.” When asked where the inspiration for his profound words came from, Dr. Wilt stated: “The deep sense of appreciation that I have for Saint Leo, and the ability I have been given to grow.”
Read Previous Issues:
The President And The Abbott
A Strong Sports Tradition For Eight Decades
The Many Names Of Saint Leo
When Did The Benedictine Sisters Arrive?
How Did The Benedictine Monks Arrive In Florida?
Do you have any ideas for future issues of Highlights in History?
Kim Payne joined Saint Leo’s University Communications office in 2013 as the staff writer and media coordinator. A 30-year professional communicator, he has worked in environments ranging from corporate to health care to advertising agencies and non-profits. Outside the office, he and his wife, Sue, enjoy playing golf and are huge hockey fans. You can reach Kim in UC at 352-588-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Alexandria Blaha, a third-year communication management and multimedia management major, contributed to this story. She conducted an interview with Dr. Wilt in June and that information was the basis for this article. Information was also excerpted from Pioneer College: The Centennial History of Saint Leo College, Saint Leo Abbey, and Holy Name Priory by James J. Horgan (Saint Leo Press, 1989).
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