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The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

From clown to priesthood: A unique calling

Often found dressed as “Tumbleweed the Clown” in a blue-and-white plaid shirt, white painted face and red nose, Naus would make balloons animals and tell jokes to the Marquette community. Photo courtesy of Marquette University Archives

A community clown by day and campus priest by night, Rev. John Naus S.J., former associate professor of philosophy at Marquette, was not afraid to let his humor and faith intertwine.

Often found dressed as “Tumbleweed the Clown” in a blue-and-white plaid shirt, white painted face and red nose, Naus would make balloons animals and tell jokes to the Marquette community. Naus passed away in 2013 at the age of 89, but his legacy has lived on.

Naus was a prime example of someone filled with good stories. But members of the Marquette community have followed very different paths in order to live out their own vocations.

Rev. Ryan Duns S.J., assistant professor of theology, studied chemistry and theology at John Carroll University as an aspiring doctor, but that all changed at the Mass of the Holy Spirit at the university in 2003. 

“I was at mass with a good friend of mine, and in the homily, the priests’ line was ‘In life, it is better to burn out than to rust out,’” Duns said. “(The priest) developed that thought and then said, ‘Many of you pray and ask what God wants from me. That’s the wrong question … Ask instead what God wants for me.'” 

At the intersection of where you get excited and terrified, Duns said that’s where God is speaking to you. 

“I’m not one for crying, but I had this sudden wave of emotion. I turned and said (to my friend) ‘I want to be a Jesuit,’” Duns said. 

Duns said his friend then turned to back him and said he had been waiting for Duns to realize that for the past two years. 

“There were people who saw it in me, but I didn’t see it quite yet,” he said.

Duns began a new route to becoming a Jesuit priest through seminary school and now teaches philosophy and theology at Marquette.

“I love the big questions and I love the details, and so philosophy and theology allow me to do both,” Duns said. “I can pose what I think are really interesting questions. ‘What does it mean to exist? Is there meaning and value in life? Is there a bigger dimension to my life?’ Those questions get me out of bed.” 

He said he hopes to convey to students a sense of joy about learning and about life, regardless of their faith background.

“I hope, in many ways, to help enkindle their own curiosity — in some cases, a new sense of faith,” Duns said. “Kids who are born into a tradition where they feel forced to go to church or Sunday school, or maybe not born into any tradition at all, suddenly find that we are asking questions that ring within their hearts.”

Hannah Kroll, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, said she was drawn to the Jesuit education that Marquette offers. She also appreciated how Marquette focuses on career support for students of all majors.

“I hope to build on the things I have learned throughout my time at Marquette,” Kroll said in an email. “I think that the Jesuit commitment to social justice connects into my hope that my work will help me create positive change in this world.”

Duns said that by expending and pouring yourself out into your vocation, many students become recharged and feel most alive.

“We don’t want to teach students who just end up an accountant, or end up a teacher, end up a desk receptionist. At our best, we are educating students to choose who they will be,” Duns said. “For me, there’s no greater mission than integrating your head, your heart, your hands and feet and put them to the service of something beyond yourself.”

Rev. Nathaniel Romano S.J. graduated from Marquette in 2003. He is now a law professor and Jesuit priest at Marquette.

“(Becoming a priest) was something that I had thought of when I was growing up and when I was (at Marquette),” Romano said. “As I started working, one of the things that kept coming back to me when I was praying or being reflective was this deep desire to do more.”

While he loved the work he was able to do for his clients as a lawyer, Romano said there was often a limit.

“The desire to be of service, the desire to give myself to the community really came back,” Romano said. “I would wonder, ‘How can I give more of myself … How can I do that while also maintaining the healthy boundaries that a lawyer should maintain?'”

Now, Romano teaches one course a semester at Marquette University’s Law School and works full time in Marquette’s Campus Ministry.

Romano said one of his favorite parts about being a priest and professor is guiding students’ journeys as they navigate life both in and out of the classroom.

Duns said he enjoys going on walks with students as they go through their college years.

He said there was one girl who used to fight her interest in theology.

“I asked ‘Who here resents having to take a theology class?’ and I thought she was going to dislocate her shoulder, her hand went up so fast,” Duns said. “She fought with me every day. And then one day, all of a sudden, it was like she wasn’t trying to show me that I was wrong, but that she was trying to prove she wasn’t interested.”

Duns said that girl took one more theology course to prove she did not enjoy it, but is now double majoring in biomedical sciences and theology at Marquette.

He also recalled another boy who lost his father suddenly during his sophomore year.

“You can’t take away someone’s pain, but you can be a companion and walk with them and let them know that they’re not alone,” Duns said. “I’m glad that he saw love through the acts people showed him.”

But these walks with students can also be taken figuratively. Duns said walking alongside someone and spreading joy is often the most important thing we can do for others. It’s what Naus strived to do throughout his life as well.

After expressing his love of clowns since he was a child, some residents of Schroeder Hall where Naus lived and served as a chaplain for 28 years took it upon themselves to buy a clown suit and design accessories for him in the 1970s. He eventually took these new lessons to perform as Tumbleweed at children’s hospitals and nursing homes.

But the laughter didn’t stop once he entered the church or classroom. Even after suffering a stroke in 2004 and being confined to a wheelchair to get around, Naus continued making balloons in between his ethics lectures, sending thousands of Christmas cards to students in July — summer was the only time of the year he was not teaching — and learning to do new tricks with his wheelchair.

He is also remembered by some students for tossing Hershey’s Kisses into the congregation from the altar, doing the “Wisconsin Handshake” — his own version of a handshake that resembled milking a cow — and teasing new students by saying he weighed 64 pounds when he was born.

“The best thing we have is our stories. That’s who we are,” Duns said. “At the end of the day, you can have all the diplomas and a big bank account, but if you don’t have a good story for it … it’s not really worth all that much.”

This story was written by Skyler Chun. She can be reached at [email protected]

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