Recruiting tip from bishop leads student to SJU

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November 4, 2013

By Mike Killeen

Michael Balko with Bishop Donald Kettler.

If you ask Michael Balko why he chose to attend Saint John's University, he might say "spiritual intervention."

That's what happens when you get input on where to attend college from a bishop in your home diocese.

But in a unique case of déjà vu, Bishop Donald Kettler is following Balko to central Minnesota. Kettler, who spoke fondly of his alma mater to Balko, has been named bishop of the St. Cloud Diocese. He will be installed as bishop of the diocese on Thursday, Nov. 7, at St. Mary's Cathedral, St. Cloud.

"I think he (Kettler) is following me," said a smiling Balko, a first-year student from Fairbanks, Alaska. "It was definitely a surprise."

Like many students, Balko was trying to decide on a college during his junior year at Monroe Catholic High School in Fairbanks. He was looking into attending Gonzaga University, Boston College, Notre Dame or SJU - the latter based on a recommendation from the school's religion teacher.

Then, he decided to ask one more person - Kettler, who is a 1966 graduate of Saint John's University and a 1970 graduate of Saint John's School of Theology•Seminary. Balko's mother, Kathleen Kohler-Balko, is the religion coordinator for Catholic schools in the diocese, and Kettler had helped Michael Balko with his Eagle Scout project.

"I was kind of looking at colleges, and so I was wondering where he (Kettler) had gone to college. And he said, 'Saint John's,' " Balko said. "I said, 'I think my religion teacher said something about Saint John's.' So, Bishop Kettler told me all about it. He said it was a great place.

"I kind of really look up to him and admire him, so I decided to do a little research and check it out," Balko said. "As I looked into Saint John's, we kind of talked more about it, when we saw each other. The talk was focused on SJU, how he enjoyed it, how it worked out for him, that sort of thing.

"He said SJU really helped him not only grow spiritually, but he said the social aspect of it was also great. You meet these wonderful people, and he also said great things about the campus.

"Between him and my religion teacher, I would have never heard of Saint John's. It wouldn't even have been on my radar for colleges that I would take a look at."

Balko visited SJU during his senior year and left the campus impressed.

"He (Kettler) was real excited to know that Saint John's was on my list," Balko said. "When I was able to come down, he wanted to talk about it - 'Did you like the campus?' and that kind of thing."

When Balko ultimately decided on SJU, he alerted the bishop to his decision.

"He said, 'Go Johnnies.' He added, 'You're going to fit in and it's going to be awesome.' "

Balko, who is majoring in elementary education at SJU, said he was surprised that Kettler is coming to St. Cloud.

"I got a phone call from my mom (Sept. 20) and she said, 'The bishop is being moved.' And I said, 'That's too bad.' And she said, 'Guess where he's going?' I didn't know - Rome? I asked if it was in the United States, and she kind of giggled. I was like, 'He's coming here?' I didn't see that coming. It's crazy.

"He's incredible. He's definitely well-spoken. When he says stuff, it's well thought out. He's very down to earth, very real, very understanding. But, on the same side of that, he also doesn't really slip with the standings and teachings of the Catholic Church," Balko said.