Retired general, forever a Johnnie

Tim McHale ’77 got his military career started at SJU through his involvement in ROTC

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November 12, 2012

By Mike Killeen

When he was a freshman at Saint John's University in 1973-74, Tim McHale had some leaders who took care of him.

"Fr. Rene McGraw, Fr. Patrick McDarby in (Saint) Patrick Hall, and Mr. Stephen Humphrey were leaders who took care of the students here," McHale recalled.

It made an impression on McHale, who followed that same course of action when he became a major general in the Army.

McHale, a 1977 SJU graduate, looked back over his distinguished military career and his days as a Johnnie while attending the Homecoming football game Sept. 29 against St. Olaf. He was presented the Class of 1977 Alumni Achievement Award following the game.

"You can't sit at your desk behind a computer - you have to be engaged," McHale said. "You've got to know what the risks are that your troops are taking. You have to be out on the front line, and you have to share the same risks they do. It was fulfilling. You learn a lot when you're out there talking directly, eyeball to eyeball, with the troops - understanding the risks, dangers, the challenges, what they don't have, what they need and what you as a senior leader can give them to accomplish the mission."

From 2007-09, McHale was the theater logistician for Gen. David Petraeus during the surge in Iraq. Then, after a short stint in the United States, he redeployed to Afghanistan to be Gen. Stanley McChrystal's vice deputy for support.

Think of it this way - McHale was on the road for nearly his entire career in the military.

"One of the things we talk about all the time since 9/11 is that they hit us at home," McHale said. "We in the services said, 'We never want to have a home game again.' We're willing to play away games. We want to play on the road, if that's what it takes."

McHale was a native of Minnetonka who came to Saint John's as a hockey player.

"He was a forward, a real flashy forward," said Jerry Haugen, '76, the Johnnies' baseball coach and assistant football coach who met McHale when McHale arrived on campus. "He always had his jersey flapping in the wind. He hustled. You could tell he was a guy out there that was always giving it everything he had. Every play, every shift was full speed."

But it would be a flyer - and not a Philadelphia Flyer - that would change McHale's life.

"In the spring of my sophomore year, I went to my mailbox in Mary Commons, and inside the mailbox was a little flyer. And the flyer said, 'Sophomores: It's not too late to join ROTC. Sign up for summer camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky.' It said you'll get to learn leadership techniques, fire weapons, throw hand grenades and be able to shoot out of tanks. And, you'll get paid for it. I thought, 'Wow, what a good deal.'

"So I went to Fort Knox and summer camp, and when I came back after summer camp my junior year, I signed up for ROTC," McHale said.

"The ROTC experience was really wonderful. But I would tell you, to be honest with you, it was my whole experience here at Saint John's that made me successful in the military. The Benedictine community, taking care of others, being a soft-spoken leader, showing your actions, being a team player - that really helped," McHale said.

"I've had the opportunity to serve our country for 35 years in the Army. Every place I've been around the world, I've always bumped into a Johnnie or a Bennie. You somehow connect with them," McHale said. "I've always been impressed with Johnnies and Bennies. First of all, it's their values - the way they treat others with dignity and respect. The way they reach out to other people. Their positive, can-do attitude to get the job done. I would say it's the Benedictine background.

"No place that I've been - and I've been to a lot of schools around the world - is the community that you have here. The monks and the professors you have here wanted all of us to do well, and they spent a lot of time doing that. And, to be quite frank with you, they had to spend a lot of time with me."

One of the Johnnies he's stayed in touch with over the years is Haugen, who noted that McHale called him from Korea after the Johnnies' football team won the 2003 NCAA Division III national championship.

"We have certainly had our share of leaders (at SJU)," said Haugen, citing the business, political, judicial fields, to name just a few. "Saint John's attracts a certain quality of individual. I think Saint John's gives people the chance to come here and be a leader. Guys know they can come here and be successful, that they're going to get a chance to make gradual progressions from their freshman year to the time they graduate."

Did Haugen foresee McHale's military career? "We've laughed about that," Haugen said. "I've told him, 'There's no way I ever thought he would be a general.' "

The 2012 Homecoming game did celebrate an anniversary of sorts for McHale. Fifty years earlier, his father, Tom, Class of 1952, and mom, Patricia, CSB Class of 1952, brought their young son to his first Johnnie game.

"I'll never forget seeing the orange sign out on the highway, and taking a left, and going on the winding road that came here, and all the trees were a beautiful color," McHale recalled. "When you made the last turn, before it was blocked by Warner Palaestra, you could see the Natural Bowl (now Clemens Stadium). And, just like today, there were thousands of fans in red here. It was such a wonderful collegial attitude, that as a young boy, it made an impression on me. I knew I wanted to come to Saint John's."