President Shea: rural N.D. roots
In significant ways, University of Mary President Monsignor James Shea is a product of rural North Dakota. Shea’s priestly formation and higher education achievements have taken him around the world, but he still prizes his roots.
“I grew up in KEM Electric territory,” Shea says. He is oldest of eight children in a family that farmed two miles north of Hazelton, served by KEM Electric Cooperative, Linton. Of the eight siblings, only one—the youngest—is a girl.
“We milked cows and had small grains and made hay, which was my favorite job. I liked every part of it: the mowing, the raking and the baling. But, picking rocks and shoveling grain—I had more ambiguous feelings about those. It was a terrific way to grow up.”
Shea says his early years were spent experiencing and helping his family work through the farm economy difficulties commonplace at the time. He remembers his dad working on power line construction crews, in addition to operating the farm, during his youth. “I remember working hard and remember the hardships we faced,” he notes.
Shea says his pathway to the religious life and educational leadership started with those early experiences. “To grow up on a farm, to grow up in a strong, faith-based family, in a small community— that had a deep effect on me,” Shea says. He is grateful he was shaped by a circle of his parents, teachers and coaches, who wanted good and right things for their children. “They were dedicated to the prospect that my brothers and I, my friends and schoolmates had a bright future and could have a much brighter future if we received certain values.”
Shea says he developed his keen interest in the world from his North Dakota farm home base.
“I would spend hours on a tractor, and have the opportunity to think about things pretty deeply,” Shea says.
He says a World Book Encyclopedia in his childhood home provided him with late-night revelations about marvelous faraway places and intriguing lives.
“There was a wide world that was beyond my physical grasp, but it was something I could delve into. Rural North Dakota gave me the space in order for that to happen,” Shea says.
Now, as president of UMary, Shea is building on this appreciation of the world beyond the physical confines of the Bismarck campus. Collaborating with key supporters and partners was a vital operating mode established by the founding Benedictine Sisters in 1959. It is a mode the university continues today.
As the sisters started this college, “they couldn’t rely only on their religious community, or on their Catholic community,” Shea says. “They needed collaborators from throughout this community and throughout this region—men and women of good will who would help them in their great project. That spirit continues today.”
Currently, U-Mary, with host institutions, operates satellite campuses inAlexandria, Minn.; Billings, Mont.; Tempe, Ariz.; Kansas City, Mo.; Fort Riley, Kan., and Rome, Italy. U-Mary also has branches in downtown Bismarck and Fargo.
Recently, Shea and UMary announced a new collaboration with Dickinson State University, to provide master’s degrees to complement DSU programs in counseling, business, health studies and education.