If you’d have told the Jim Bassett who arrived at Saint John’s University as a freshman in the early 1950s that he’d go on to become one of the school’s most ardent supporters, he’d likely have thought you were crazy.
That’s because the Bemidji native’s initial impressions of the place were … well … not exactly positive.
“I didn’t enjoy being there,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Part of the reason was that I lived on the fourth floor of Benet Hall and my room was one of the closest to those bells (of the old Abbey Church, now known as the Great Hall). They’d ring every morning at 5:30 a.m. and it felt like my bed was shaking.
“The monk on my floor had been a lawyer before he joined the monastery. He was a pretty hard-nosed guy. He wanted everyone to follow the letter of the law. We had to be at our desks to study every night at 7:30. And we had to be up for Mass in the morning. If we weren’t, he’d shake us until we were.
“So I only lasted two years before leaving.”
But he eventually returned, graduating in 1958, then going on to establish a lengthy track record of service and philanthropy toward the school. That support is a big part of why he has been named this year’s recipient of the Fr. Walter Reger Distinguished Alumnus Award – the highest honor bestowed by the SJU Alumni Association for service to alma mater.
The award is named in honor of Fr. Walter Reger, OSB. A priest, professor, prefect, dean and friend, he was the driving force behind the SJU Alumni Association for years. Bassett too was a member of the SJU Alumni Association board, even serving as board president in 1994-95.
Bassett will receive the award as part of Saint John’s Day ceremonies on the SJU campus on April 19.
“I can’t think of anybody better to get this honor,” said legendary former SJU basketball coach Jim Smith, who has become a close friend of Bassett’s over the years. “He’s been such a loyal SJU booster. Anytime help was needed, he’s been there to provide it.
“He’s a great example of what a Johnnie should be. He’s humble, has a great sense of humor and he’s so much fun to be around."
Bassett’s humility was evident in his reaction to being informed he’d been named this year’s award winner.
“Honestly, it came as a shock,” he said. “I can think of 50 people off the top of my head, maybe 100 even, who deserve to get this before I do. There are so many great Johnnies out there."
That undersells the support Bassett has provided over the years, especially to Smith and the SJU basketball program. He and his wife Mary – who passed away in 2019 - sent six of their sons to SJU (and their two daughters to the College of Saint Benedict). Four of them got involved with the basketball program.
His oldest son Tony was a statistician, brothers Kevin, Larry and Daniel all played, while younger brother Luke helped coach the Johnnies’ junior varsity.
Larry, a 1992 graduate, earned All-MIAC honors, scored over 1,000 points in his collegiate career and still holds the program’s record for most 3-pointers in a single game (11 vs. Macalester in February of 1992).
Jim and Mary accompanied the team on several overseas trips and have been generous with their financial support.
Bassett has even made it possible for that support to continue well into the future by establishing an estate plan that includes a dedicated gift to the Jim Smith Endowed Basketball Leadership Program Fund – an endowment established to assist Johnnie basketball by providing budget enhancement funding to ensure the program remains at a competitive level in the MIAC and nationally in NCAA Division III.
“The whole family has been so supportive,” Smith said. “You couldn’t ask for anything more. They’ve been amazing.”
After leaving SJU following his sophomore year, Bassett worked on an ore boat on the Great Lakes. A stint at the University of Vienna followed, as did a semester at St. Thomas. But those places didn’t take either, and he was back on the ore boat in August of 1957 when he realized that if he returned to SJU, he could complete work on his degree in a year.
He did that. But he said his ties to the school really began to strengthen when his son Tony attended one of Smith’s summer basketball camps.
“He loved it, and after he decided to go there, his brothers followed,” Bassett said. “And we just started to get more and more involved.”
That involvement helped facilitate what he calls a “180-degree turn” from his first opinions about life in Collegeville.
“Over the years, I’ve matured enough to realize that Saint John’s is a very special place,” he said. “When I was a young kid, I had no idea what anything meant. But now I’ve spent enough time around the campus and the people up there to know it’s a place where special things happen.
“There’s no other place like it.”