An Interview with Kofi Annan

Ceil Maus-Conn

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Outside St. John’s Preparatory School, right next to the flagpole where the stars and stripes of the US fly, the light blue flag of the United Nation proudly hangs. This flag’s origin stems in an unlikely connection between a Catholic priest from North Dakota and a Ghana-born world leader.
Many people in our St. John’s community know Father Gordon Tavis, former headmaster of the
prep school and integral part of the monastic and university community. Many people worldwide are familiar with the name Kofi Annan, who served as General Secretary of the United Nations in addition to winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, along with many other accomplishments. The story of this flag begins in the hallowed halls of MIT, where our very own Father Gordon was taking part in a prestigious fellowship- the very same one that Kofi Annan was participating in. The Sloan Fellowship, founded in 1955, is meant to accelerate high potential middle managers into a higher position of leadership. Father Gordon was the Business Manager of St. John’s- which, at the time, included programing the finances for the monastery, prep school,
​and the university. However, both men’s lives started far away from this world of business and prestige.
Father Gordon was born in a small rural town in North Dakota called Mandan. Intelligent and
eager, he graduated from high school at 16 before enlisting in the naval air force. However, it was a poor time to be in the naval program, and Father Gordon caught the tail end of the war along with a surplus of other naval air force hopefuls. He was bounced from place to place, ranging from the middle of a cornfield in Iowa to further places such as California and Hawaii, all before the age of 21. Soon after this, the war ended, and Father Gordon, living back in his hometown and  bagging groceries, felt the call to priesthood. Thus, he ended up at St. John’s University. Walking onto campus, he said, was like “coming home”. Father Gordon, after being ordained, taught college courses, was a Prep school prefect, and eventually became the Business Manager of St. John’s. This, of course, lead to his acceptance into the Sloan Fellowship.
Kofi Annan, on the other hand, grew up in a village in Ghana. He was born into an aristocratic
family, and studied economics at a public university before accepting a grant that allowed him to finish his degree at Macalester College in St. Paul. His subsequent work lead to his acceptance into the MIT fellowship.
These two managements students got to know each other among their small class of about 40.
However, Father Gordon got to know Kofi particularly well due to Annan’s need of transportation and Fr. Gordon’s yellow 1971 Ford pinto. Living relatively close, Father Gordon gave Annan rides to many different social gatherings and parties throughout their year at MIT. Father Gordon describes Annan as charismatic and gregarious, a person so completely confident in himself and his ability to communicate with others. Fr. Gordon said this drew people, including himself, to Annan, who had a way of making people instantly feel like they were long time acquaintances. Of course, Father Gordon himself is a delightful person to talk to, as I had the pleasure of doing, and I’m sure his sharp mind and humble kindness drew Annan to himself.
Even years later, the two remained in touch, and when Annan was in Minnesota visiting his alma
mater Macalester, he called up Father Gordon. The two got together, and as Father Gordon was telling about the diversity of students who attended the Prep School, Annan suggested the raising of the United Nations flag. The flag was then raised, and flies proudly today to remind us that no matter where we come from, we are all united in a common humanity.