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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with John Donahue, J.D. Ed.D

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.

Dr. Knight: As we begin our interview can you tell me about your educational journey and the difference that makes to you and others?

Dr. Donahue:  After I graduated from St. Xavier College in 1981, I was accepted into the electrical apprenticeship program with IBEW Local 134 in Chicago, Illinois.  Later, when I became a journeyman electrician, I decided to return to school and pursue a law degree.  I will be forever grateful to Local 134 for providing me with the opportunity to become an electrician because my job as a union electrician made it affordable for me to go night school and still be able to support my family.  My plan after graduation from law school was to work for the State’s Attorney. 

But when I graduated, Local 134 asked me to consider working in the electrical construction industry as the Director of the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute to help resolve some long simmering legal matters, and to rebuild the Institute as the premier program in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union.  I accepted the offer, and I have been in that position for 25 years. 

After a few years in the position, I realized that I needed to return to school to become an educator.  I earned a doctorate in education that helped me enhance our programs and establish cooperative agreements with City Colleges of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology.  My educational journey is unusual for a construction worker.  But, I always encourage our members to continue their education, not only as an investment in themselves, but also to give something back to the union and help improve the industry for all Local 134 members.

Dr. Knight: You have a sense of Catholic leadership that warrants knowledge of your journey.  What was the major factor on your Christian journey so far?

Dr. Donahue:  From a young age, I was taught by my parents that I should always try to be better in everything I do.  I don’t think they realized it but they were paraphrasing St. Augustine when he said, “We are pilgrims, people on the road, not residents.  We should therefore feel unsatisfied with what we are, if we want to arrive at that which we aspire.  If we think we have gone far enough, we will not take another step.  Let us continue, therefore, going forward, walking toward the goal“ (Sermon 169, 18).  The belief of never being satisfied with yourself is embedded in the spirit of Catholic teaching, so even though my parents weren’t philosophers or theologians, they passed that spirit on to me.  Now, as I near retirement from the electrical industry, I know that there will be a new calling for me to pursue to help improve the lives of others in some way.

Dr. Knight: When I worked with you, you were rebuilding the apprenticeship program.  What led you to know that was the direction you should take?

Dr. Donahue: When I was offered the job, many people advised me to refuse the offer.  I knew it would be a lot of work, but, I was not afraid of the challenge.  I knew that to rebuild the institution, and I needed professional educators to help me.  I turned to the teaching college that I attended to assist me in the quest to recreate the program.  There were three professors who came to my assistance, and you were one of them.  You have stuck with me the longest.  So, you can be equally proud of our accomplishments.

Dr. Knight: How do your family and friends play a part in encouraging you in your work?

Dr. Donahue: I have been married to my wife Eileen for 35 years.  She has been my support system through it all, without her love, her sacrifices, and her encouragement, I would never have become the person I am today.  I also have four adult children who, when they were young, always accepted the fact that if Dad wasn’t at home he was at work, or at school, or at church.  It was just what their dad did.  I am grateful that they had a mother who could help them understand why I did what I did.

Dr. Knight: Recently, you were called to be a deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. How did you discern that call?

Dr. Donahue: Well, I have to tell you that I did my best to hide from God’s call and to suppress it every time it reappeared.  But, God wouldn’t stop.  He used my family and the people in my life – including you Dr. Knight – to force me to surrender to His will.  I refer to this period in my life as a series of fortunate events.  Many things in my life came together that culminated with me attending an Augustinian retreat at the request of Fr. Tom McCarthy.  It was at the retreat that I came face to face with my dilemma.  I was sitting in church before mass looking at the altar. The altar was flanked by two banners that read, “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  It is one of the prayers of St. Augustine and it hit me right between the eyes.  It was then that I surrendered my will to God and began my journey to the diaconate.

Dr. Knight: Can anyone be a deacon? What are the characteristics that you would say need to be a good deacon?

Dr. Donahue: There are a few requirements set by the Church that a candidate must satisfy to become a deacon.  I suggest that anyone who feels the call to the diaconate meet with their pastor to discuss it.  Beyond that, I think a sincere and reflective discernment period will help someone determine if they have the right characteristics.

Dr. Knight: Could you describe the program?  How long does it take?

Dr. Donahue: The program in the Archdiocese of Chicago is offered by the Institute for Diaconal Studies at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.  The program consists of one year of aspirins to help you discern your call, followed by three years of academic formation.  The four “pillars” or dimensions of formation, human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral are explored during the three year program.  All four pillars are areas critical to the proper development of future deacons.

Dr. Knight: What kind of duties do you have as a deacon?  How would you encourage others to serve in this way?

Dr. Donahue: As a deacon, I have a three-fold ministry of Word, Liturgy, and Charity.  So, in my ministry of the Word I proclaim the Gospel, preach, and catechize the faithful.  In my ministry of the Liturgy, I assist the priest at Mass, and I preside at prayer services, communion services, baptisms, funeral services, or marriages.  And in my ministry of Charity, I serve others through the Catholic Charities programs at my parish.  Most Catholics are not aware that as lay ministers they can offer their services in many ways.  You do not have to be ordained to serve.  The Church would immediately collapse if it had to rely only on the ordained to survive!  Get involved in your parish.  Start out small – God will lead you to bigger and better ways to serve Him and his people.

Dr. Knight: You’ve had such a rich and full life, what is next on your life plan?  

Dr. Donahue: I am planning to retire in the next few years.  I am just now beginning to think about the possibilities.  Let’s wait and see what God has in store for me.

Dr. Knight: Can you think of one saying that would be the mantra for your work?

Dr. Donahue: When I think back on what I have been able to accomplish, much of it was to improve the lives of others.  I think my mantra would be, “always seek to improve the lives of others”.  But, I did not do it by myself.  I have always had a great team of leaders around me to guide me and co-workers to assist me as we all tried to work together to improve the lives of others.


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