By Jerry Duggan
When David Laughlin set foot on Creighton University’s campus in fall 1984, he didn’t know much about Jesuit education. He wasn’t yet familiar with Ignatian Spirituality, let alone Jesuit pedagogy. What he did have was a reverence for the school, passed down from his family.
Laughlin was raised in Omaha, close to Creighton’s campus. Neither of his parents attended college, yet they held Jesuit education in high esteem. His father attended Creighton Prep and grew up in the shadow of St. John’s Church on Creighton’s campus.
“The Jesuits were impressive to my Irish Catholic family,” Laughlin said. “The thought growing up was, if I could attend a Jesuit university, it would be a big deal.”
Laughlin graduated from Creighton in 1988 with a degree in education and German and a minor in theology. While he enjoyed his time there, he didn’t dream of pursuing a career in Jesuit secondary education, but that’s precisely what he has done, going on to lead two Jesuit high schools in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.
In his senior year at Creighton, a professor, Dr. Ed O’Connor, approached Laughlin about earning a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration. He chose to pursue this while teaching theology at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic high school in Omaha.
In 1990, he accepted a job at Creighton Preparatory School, embarking on a 31-year (and counting) career as a Jesuit educator. Over the next decade, Laughlin served in a variety of roles, teaching German and theology and serving as a campus minister, dean of student discipline and academic assistant principal.
While Laughlin was honored to serve in different roles over his tenure at Creighton Prep, what he enjoyed most was teaching.
“I still think of myself as kind of a misguided teacher at heart,” he said. “I loved engaging directly with students in the classroom, because that, to me, is where a lot of the mission is really lived out.”
By the year 2000, Laughlin was married and had four young children. He made the difficult decision to leave Omaha and move his family to Kansas City, Mo., where he served as principal of Rockhurst High School for five years.
This marked a shift in Laughlin’s day-to-day duties. Instead of spending his time in the classroom, Laughlin found himself meeting with the school’s board of trustees, coordinating efforts with the rest of the administration and being a voice for the school in the broader community.
He moved again in 2005, this time to St. Louis to serve as the first lay president in the nearly 200-year history of St. Louis University High School. In his 13 years as director of the work at SLUH, Laughlin oversaw increases in the school’s endowment and percentage of students of color and coordinated major facilities upgrades.
During this time, Laughlin also had the honor of attending international Jesuit colloquia in Boston, Brazil and Spain. He was the keynote speaker in Brazil, speaking to representatives from each of the roughly 80 provinces worldwide. His encounters convinced him that the Society of Jesus is doing the work of the Holy Spirit, with a shared vision, in every corner of the globe.
“The extent to which the Jesuit mission is shared across the globe is very inspiring to me,” he said. “In a polarized world, the Jesuits are able to stand in the middle and work with rich and poor, all ethnicities, people of a broad spectrum of political opinion, and every geography to bring people closer to Christ.”
Having served the longest term as president in SLUH’s history, in 2018 Laughlin returned to Rockhurst High, this time as president.
While Laughlin’s accomplishments are many, he’s just honored to be part of a much broader mission.
“Over the years, I’ve worked with countless people, from teachers to students to support staff to trustees and benefactors,” he said. “What impresses me about all of them is their commitment to the Jesuit mission. Everyone is equally important to the success of the mission.”
Laughlin is a believer in Jesuit education, above all, because he knows firsthand its power to change lives.
“Being a first-generation college student myself, my Jesuit education opened so many doors for me,” he said. “For me to play just a small part in opening those doors for others today is what I find most gratifying.”