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Carrying the Creighton Banner

May 26, 2022
5 min Read
by Molly Garriott
Tom Purcell carrying Creighton banner at commencement.

Tom Purcell III, PhD, BSBA’72, JD’77, CPA, reflects on his years at Creighton, an association spanning high school, undergraduate and professional degrees and a long, formative career as an accounting professor.

You could say Thomas Purcell III, PhD, BSBA’72, JD’77, CPA, professor of accounting at Creighton’s Heider College of Business, is a bit of an outlier.

And here’s why: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee remains on the job 4.1 years. Purcell skews the median. Considerably. He is celebrating his 43rd year as a tenured member of the accounting faculty but has been connected to Creighton for 54 years.

The first time Purcell ever set foot on campus was in 1963 when, even before he started school at Creighton Prep, he moved his cousin into Deglman Hall. He then sampled Creighton’s social scene, helping this same cousin photograph numerous Creighton dances. During high school, he spent time in Creighton’s library, researching and preparing for speech and debate competitions.

So, when it was time to pick a college for himself, becoming a Bluejay was a natural choice. He majored in accounting, graduating in 1972, and attended graduate school in Missouri for one year before entering Creighton’s School of Law in the fall of 1973.

Before his first semester of law school, Purcell happened upon his former accounting professor and advisor, Bill Heaston, who asked if he’d be interested in teaching a few undergraduate accounting courses. After some negotiation with the law school dean, Purcell agreed to teach four courses a semester as an accounting instructor while continuing as a part-time law student.

Being responsible for disseminating information to students gave him a new appreciation for the instruction he received from his Creighton accounting professors. “You never really know something until you have to teach it,” Purcell says.

The last two years of law school saw Purcell leave teaching to work part time at a Big 8 CPA firm, which he joined full-time after graduation in 1977. Two years into his career, Creighton approached him to join the faculty full time. He admits he had been drawn to teaching after his earlier two years and decided to take the chance on a career change. And he’s been an integral part of the Heider College of Business ever since.

To Purcell, a Creighton education is an awakening. It results in not just a better living but an understanding of what to do with this living once it is attained. It’s reflective, not merely reflexive.

“We have a challenging mission and identity, and people understand it in many different ways. But the most gratifying thing for me is that we try to put it into action, and we feel badly if we don’t do as well as we thought we would, and we try again, and again,” he says. “On our normal days as university, we provide a quality education and help students grow. But on our best days, we light fires in students that enable them to change the world.”

“It’s been a privilege to be a small part of Creighton’s history. I’ve tried to do what I thought was right in fulfilling the University’s mission,” Purcell continues. “My fundamental responsibility to my students has been to challenge them to think critically while we cover course material and inculcate appreciation for what we do because we are Creighton.

“It’s the way I was taught, our unique ethos of education, of being part of a greater understanding, something greater than ourselves, and it’s our Ignatian spirituality. It’s a privilege to be called to serve in this capacity. I am especially excited that we have hired two of my former students – Dr. Maggie Knight and Dr. Don Lux – as accounting professors. Dr. John Begley was the first graduate of our college in 1924, and he taught me in 1971. To have Maggie and Don continue the tradition that is our Creighton accounting program is very special.”

Representing Tri Sigma sorority, Mary Ann Kurth walks to the stage with her partner Tom Purcell of the Christian Life Community. (from 1969 Creighton Yearbook)

Through the Years

Highlights of his undergraduate experience include shaking Bobby Kennedy’s hand in front of what is now known as Creighton Hall as the presidential hopeful drove down California Street (yes, the campus’ central artery used to be open to vehicular traffic) just weeks before he was assassinated in California.

Grabbing a burger and fries at Beal’s on the corner of 24th and California Streets.

Dating a girl from Gallagher Hall (RIP) and then moving his son into the same dorm decades later.

Playing pinball in the lower Brandeis student center, and also sitting there the night of the first draft lottery and having his birthday selected as No. 9.

And then there’s building a “horrifically ugly” Homecoming Queen float in 1968 that, in addition to being an eyesore, also stalled the parade through the center of campus. Turns out, it was too tall for the electric wires spanning California Street. The poor queen had to temporarily be “dethroned” to remove the offending pagoda roof from the flatbed so the parade could continue.

Tom Purcell profile photo
Purcell majored in accounting, graduating in 1972, and attended graduate school in Missouri for one year before entering Creighton’s School of Law in the fall of 1973.

Professor and Mentor

As a professor, he cherishes the connections he makes with his students who he says are forever 22 years old in his mind. As if making up for the fact that he could not attend his own graduation (he was serving in the Army Reserves), Purcell has only missed one commencement – during the pandemic – in all his years of teaching. He often plays what he calls “traffic cop,” helping the graduates line up. Some years, like this May, he carries the Heider College of Business banner in the procession.

“It’s the last chance to be there in a special way for them,” Purcell says.

There is a saying that the Jesuits will ruin you for life. If that is the case, Purcell has welcomed the ruination. And he is happy to carry the torch and “ruin” his students. “My take on that saying is that the Jesuits create a questioning, passionate, inquisitive, insightful person who is unwilling to encounter injustice without looking for a response that reduces or eliminates it,” he says.

The last 43 years have not been a job; they’ve been a vocation. He has remained, all these years, because he feels that God has called him to be here. Quite simply, Creighton is home.

“I belong here,” Purcell says.