St. John's alum and former Obama staffer reflects on White House years

For Denis McDonough, returning to St. John’s University is bittersweet.

He played safety for legendary football coach John Gagliardi and his visit coincides with the funeral for the man who taught him about respect and competition during his four years at SJU.

"It’s good to be able to take a few minutes out of everyday life to celebrate one man's remarkable life," said McDonough.

After St. John’s, McDonough spent eight years in the White House as President Barack Obama's deputy national security advisor and then as his chief of staff.

He says one of the most memorable moments was being in the situation room watching the U.S. Navy SEALs carry out the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden - a moment captured in an iconic photograph.

"I wished that the American people could see what we were witnessing, which was a group of men and women who had been working for years to carry out that operation," said McDonough.

McDonough says helping the country rebound from the great recession is one of his proudest accomplishments while in office. 

He says he still keeps in touch with his former boss both in person and through texts about everything from their families to the NFL.

"We spent a lot of time together,” said McDonough. “His youngest is the same age as my oldest. He's been a helpful person to provide parenting tips and especially now as we do things like check out colleges."

McDonough says Minnesota has a long history of producing national leaders from Eugene McCarthy to Hubert Humphrey and he would like to see more Minnesotans follow in their footsteps.

"Uncle Sam needs them, but we need more common sense Minnesotans like Amy and Tina and others out in Washington, so we can get beyond the partisanship and get some things done,” he said. “That's the tradition I'm proud of and would like to see more."

These days, McDonough teaches a class at Notre Dame and works with the Markle Foundation. He says its mission is to help the 70 percent of Americans without a college degree get the skills they need pursue the American Dream.