Great Books, Great Gym

December 8, 2017 | By Anne Kniggendorf (SF97)

Matt Bartels (SF97) plays soccer in Santa Fe.

Three years after Matt Bartels (SF97) graduated from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, a 26,000-square-foot student activity center was constructed. Bartels was just on campus for his 20th homecoming in September and paid his second visit to the SAC at that time.

Though he’s seen it and been inside, it’s hard for him to fully comprehend what the SAC has added to campus life; all he really knows is that there’s a dojo and an intramural basketball team.

Although it’s nearing the end of its second decade, many alumni would be surprised to learn how much the center has contributed to the vibrancy of student life on campus.

The college used to sell T-shirts proclaiming: “Great Books, No Gym.” They were great conversation starters off campus and always worn with an ironic sort of pride.

But when construction of the SAC was completed in 2000, those shirts were replaced with “Great Books, New Gym” T-shirts as well as a big banner over the SAC’s front door announcing the same.

When Bartels was a student and needed to de-stress, he hiked Atalaya or Monte Sol, or checked out equipment for snowboarding, kayaking, or hiking from the Student Activities Office. His interpretation of those original shirts was not a plea for a gym, but rather: “Gym? Gym? We don’t need no stinking gym!”

Mary Anne Burke, student activities fitness and wellness coordinator, shows off her “Great Books, Great Gym” T-shirt.

Today’s students see it differently. For senior Devin Ketch, it’s hard to imagine life without the SAC. “It would definitely be hard since we live on the edge of a national forest, not in the middle of town. I suppose (not having a gym) would focus us more on the nature about us.”

Since he began as a January Freshman almost three years ago, Ketch has taken full advantage of what the SAC has to offer. He is an assistant archery coach of the St. John’s archery team and regularly attends archery, aikido, and karate classes.

The aikido class is one of approximately 40 semester course offerings and is taught by a local sensei who also has a studio in town. Astounding news to old guard Johnnies: if Ketch wishes to attend an aikido session off campus, he simply checks out one of four vehicles from the SAC.

Not only are vehicles available to students who have passed a security check, but the SAC also has loaner bicycles and a full bike shop with someone on hand who teaches bike repair.

Mary Anne Burke is in her fourth year as the student activities fitness and wellness coordinator. She keeps an eye out for what students are interested in both on and off campus.

“When I see that it’s very much a real and tangible club with a lot of interest I look to find them funding within my budget,” Burke says.

Bella Bjornstad (SF19) works on a bike in the Student Activity Center.

For instance, students had decided they wanted a hand tool woodshop and found an instructor for themselves. The club had about 35 participants who were sharing the cost of the instructor. When she learned what they were doing, she stepped in and took over the payments.

Similarly, a group of students was interested in studying ballet, but the SAC doesn’t have a well-suited studio space. The students had taken the initiative to find a studio in town and secure a tuition rate of half off the regular price. They appealed to the Polity for half of the money and Burke made up the rest.

Most of the courses offered have come up organically as ballet and wood shop did. The entire campus population, as well as alumni, are invited to participate in any activities.

Burke, a certified personal trainer, also teaches a class called the Warrior Women Workout (née Wonder Woman Workout) that not only students, but many faculty and staff members enjoy. She formed it several years ago, partially in response to a course called Iron Bookworm that tutor Krishnan Venkatesh teaches. It mostly draws male participants.

“Iron Bookworm has this mystique that it practically kills you and if you survive, woo!” Burke says. “Warrior Women is really designed to be very welcoming and where anyone can come and modify and participate.”

She proudly reports that an alumna who tried both classes says that Warrior Women is much harder than Iron Bookworm.

Devin Ketch (SF18), left, attends akido classes at the SAC in Santa Fe.

However, just as in the classroom, the point of the SAC isn’t competition but greater understanding of the text, self, and others. Burke says that the more people make healthy lifestyle choices, the better the whole campus feels.

Ketch agrees. “It’s so nice to have someplace on campus to go where you don’t necessarily bring the books with you, but you still have a very deep learning experience that’s more about you as a person—it’s nice to be able to live out those parts of the human being that complements the education here.”

Burke adds that not all students are interested in the SAC. “But for the ones who are … I just see kids who are living a super healthy balanced life.”

To support a more robust student life experience on both campuses, go to and select the Student Life Fund.