Ave Maria: The school that changed Stephen’s life
Ave Maria University
By Julie Rattey
*Based on the story of Stephen Henley
The call came on a weekday in October, as Stephen and his girlfriend were on their way to Starbucks near their campus of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida. Stephen, 18, broke off his conversation with Krista to pick up his cell. It was his platoon sergeant from the Marines.
“We’re being activated November 30,” he said.
Stephen’s stomach lurched. He’d had an excused absence from drill in September; clearly, he’d missed the news of their deployment. After a few minutes, the call was over, and Stephen and Krista were sitting in the Starbucks parking lot, their playful talk from a few minutes before transformed into thick silence.
“What was that about?” Krista asked. Her voice was vulnerable around the edges.
“I’m getting deployed,” Stephen said. His eyes, avoiding Krista’s, fell on a group of laughing students exiting the coffee shop, but his mind hardly registered their existence. This is what I always wanted, isn’t it? he thought. Experience and adventure halfway across the world?
Now he wasn’t so sure. He and Krista were no longer freshmen struggling with their relationship, their finances, and their academics at AMU. They were committed now — to the school and to each other. As of this fall, Stephen was receiving a scholarship established for Marines at AMU — a scholarship partly created with him in mind — that made it possible for him to stay at AMU and receive the Catholic education he wanted.
Stephen had had his heart set on AMU ever since he’d heard the school’s founder, pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, give a speech about his experiences as a Marine and a Catholic. Stephen, who was a Catholic from a military family, and who had signed up for the Marine Corps at age 17, had immediately felt a connection to Monaghan, and to the vision of the school. AMU, he felt, was where he belonged. He felt that even more so now that he and Krista were serious. He hoped to marry her someday, have kids. Now the idea of leaving school, of leaving her, felt like a punch in the stomach. What if he never came home?
Stephen stole a glance at Krista in the passenger seat. Her face was blank with shock.
“For how long?” she asked finally.
Stephen paused. “A year.”
“Where?” Krista’s voice wavered.
“I don’t know yet. Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Krista’s face crumpled as she tried to fight off tears.
“Come on,” Stephen said gently, taking her hand. “Let’s go inside and talk.”
Stephen’s thoughts were sober as he returned to his barracks in Ramadi, west of Baghdad. He began hauling off his heavy gear and wiping away the sweat that had plastered his hair to his forehead in the July heat. Today he and his fellow Marines had met with enemy fire while patrolling the Euphrates River. No one had been killed, but there had been casualties. Being inches away from death was something he still hadn’t gotten used to. He wondered if he ever would.
He tried to distract himself with thoughts of Krista — of the night he brought her to the beach near Naples Pier, of how he’d knelt down in the dark with a ring and asked her to be his wife, of how she’d jumped up and down and yelled with excitement. But other, more painful images inserted themselves: Krista with tears streaming down her face after his going-away ceremony. Krista clinging to him as they said goodbye. What if this was it? he wondered. What if he never saw her again?
“Stephen! Heads up!”
Stephen turned as a fellow Marine tossed him a cardboard box. “How many friends you got at that Catholic school, man? That’s the second package this week!”
Trying to shake off his dark thoughts, Stephen turned the box to see the return address — this one belonged to friends from AMU — and felt the beginnings of a smile despite himself. He pulled out his pocketknife and began to slice through cardboard and tape. This was just what he needed. Packages from home were like hopeful messages from another planet, one that was blissfully far away from the dust and danger of Iraq. Reaching into the box, his smile broadening with each thoughtful gift and note he removed, his heart began to unclench and his anxieties to fade away. He thought of the cool, air-conditioned classrooms at AMU, his friendly teachers, his colleagues at his AMU security job. He thought of the scholarship that had made it possible for him to stay at AMU. He thought of taking walks on the beach with Krista after class, of the salt spray on her brown hair.
Stephen pressed a hand to his chest and felt the scapular his dad had passed on to him beneath his shirt. He pulled out his CD player and started his mother’s Rosary CD, the one he’d listened to every day of his tour in Iraq. With the prayers in his ears, Krista on his mind, and the box between his hands, Stephen closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Things were going to be all right.
Stephen watched Krista walk down the aisle in her white wedding dress and felt his heart fill with gratitude he had lived to see this day. Once he had returned from Iraq safely, one of the first decisions he and Krista made was to move up their wedding date. Having seen his life flash before his eyes, he didn’t want to waste any time moving on with the rest of it. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he had told Krista, “and the sooner the better.”
Now here they were, surrounded by people from the place that had helped foster their love: Ave Maria University. There on the altar as the main celebrant was Father Bob Garrity, the AMU chaplain who had counseled them through their engagement and walked them through pre-Cana. There in the wedding party were his and Krista’s closest AMU friends. Other friends from AMU looked happily on from the pews as Krista approach him from the back of the church. And then, he thought, it was thanks to the AMU Marine Corps Scholarship that he and Krista were able to wed today at all. Without that financial help, they would have had to postpone their wedding until after graduation. And Stephen didn’t want to wait another minute to begin his new life with Krista — a life which, he thought joyfully as he looked into Krista’s eyes, was just about to begin. CD
Stephen’s story, continued
Stephen and Krista were married on June 2, 2007 in Jacksonville, Florida. The following May, Krista gave birth to their daughter, Ava, and a son Seamus was born July 26, 2010. Both Stephen and Krista graduated from Ave Maria University. Krista now works in the town of Ave Maria as a teacher at the Montessori School, while Stephen works at AMU as coordinator of security services. In addition to his security duties, Stephen takes part in fundraising events for the scholarship and mentors other AMU military.
“I feel extremely indebted to Ave Maria University, and especially to Tom Monaghan,” says Stephen, “because without the scholarship I would not have been able to stay at Ave Maria University.”
“Ave Maria University has changed my life dramatically,” he adds. “I work full-time for the university now, we live in (the town of) Ave Maria, I’ve received my bachelor of arts in politics, I’ve met so many people and created so many friendships here that are going to last a lifetime, and I can’t imagine having done it all anywhere else.”
Help from Ave Maria University
Ave Maria University was founded by Thomas S. Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, as an institution designed to be faithful to the Magisterium and produce faithful educators, leaders, and mentors. The school opened its doors in August 2003.
The AMU Marine Corps Scholarship program was established in 2005 to assist current and former Marines interested in an AMU education, and is now eligible to post-9/11 combat veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. For more information, visit avemaria.edu or call 877-283-8648.