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Xavier Magazine | March 25, 2017

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Caroline Purtell

Before former University President James E. Hoff, S.J., took over the presidency in 1991, he turned down a chance to interview for the job three times. Historically, his hesitancy wasn’t unusual. More than 150 years earlier, John Elet, S.J., petitioned his religious superiors to work as a missionary among indigenous tribes. However, they thought his leadership skills better suited for academics and, consequently, appointed him to lead the University. Both men changed the University in dramatic and remarkable ways. Thirty-two other Jesuit presidents have also shaped the University, each in his own unique way while facing his own unique challenges. Here are some of their stories.

The Mob Squad

During his five-year tenure, Maurice Oakley, S.J., the University’s sixth president, focused on repairing buildings affected by factory pollution and general decay. To construct the new college parish, workers demolished the old church building section by section.

Work began in March 1860 and continued until a wall suddenly collapsed, killing 13 workmen. “A large crowd gathered at the scene of the accident and the anti-Catholic forces in the city used this as an excuse to blame the president of St. Xavier College for the tragedy,” writes Lee Bennish, S.J., author of Continuity and Change: Xavier University 1831-1981. The onlookers soon turned into a mob and proceeded to the college where the police and the mayor eventually calmed them.

An Unwelcome Visitor

Irish-born Thomas O’Neil, S.J., the ninth University president, had two close calls during 1870. First, he negotiated the acquisition of a 43-acre Kentucky farm along the banks of the Ohio River as a vacation home for religious faculty. The purchase also included an 11-room house, stable, wagon and a horse named Bob. After the spring semester ended, several faculty members withdrew to the property—just in time. A cholera outbreak struck Cincinnati, killing scores of people, but not reaching the Jesuits across the river.

The second—and more imminent—incident occurred one day in November after classes had been dismissed. A crazed man ran into the building shouting for the treasurer. One of the Jesuits tried reasoning with the man, who seemed to think that the school housed hidden gold chalices and other treasures. Suddenly the man dashed up the stairs. “That moment out sprang the Rector, Fr. O’Neil, and pounced on the man halfway up, catching him by the arms,” an eyewitness recalled. “But though pinned, the madman drew knives from under his sleeves slashing our brave Rector on both arms.”

Two religious brothers, along with some students, dragged the man out onto the porch and hailed a fireman who took him to jail. At his trial, the man was declared insane based on testimonies from O’Neil and another Jesuit.

Silent Bells

John Coghlan, S.J., the 14th president, came to Xavier with a lot of parish missionary experience and, therefore, wanted to further develop St. Xavier Church. Shortly after his arrival in 1881, he commissioned a set of bells for the church tower, which was installed the week before Easter Sunday. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in the church three days before the celebration. Despite the close proximity of the fire station—across the street—the ceiling and rafters collapsed and only the walls and foundation survived. The blistering heat of the fire also melted the newly installed church bells.

Bricks and Mortar

The appointment of alumnus Hubert Brockman, S.J., as president in 1923 marked two major achievements for the University. First, he took a rough, 26-acre campus in North Avondale and transformed it into a modern college campus. This bricks-and-mortar period ultimately produced Elet Hall, the Schmidt Library Building, Schmidt Fieldhouse, the Albers Biology Building and the football stadium.

Secondly, Brockman assembled a package of materials that he sent to the Jesuit Superior General in 1927 with the goal of changing the name of St. Xavier College to Xavier University. Unfortunately, less than a year after Archbishop McNicholas gave his approval to the name change, Brockman contracted pneumonia and died.

Wartime Leader

Celestin Steiner, S.J., took over as Xavier’s 27th president in 1940, shortly before the U.S. entered World War II. To aid wartime efforts, Steiner instituted an accelerated program that allowed students to graduate before age 22 so they could serve in America’s defenses. As a result of the war, however, the University was faced with a significant drop in enrollment, and with less than 100 students remaining, Steiner contacted military officials to offer Xavier as a training site. Soon, the campus echoed with the marching of more than 1,800 cadets from the Air Force’s 30th College Training Detachment.

The post-war years witnessed a spike in enrollment—from 85 in 1945 to 1,500 in 1946—due to the G.I. bill and Xavier’s reputation for civic responsibility. Steiner not only saved the school from closure, but oversaw the development of a graduate division and the undergraduate honors A.B. program. He also formed the first lay advisory board consisting of nine prominent local businessmen that would parallel the all-Jesuit board of trustees.

“But the members of the Lay Advisory Board were not the only source of advice to Father Steiner,” Bennish writes. “The president installed a suggestion box in Albers Hall, as an invitation to students who might wish to express their opinions.”

A Mighty Tenure

Paul O’Connor, S.J., a former Navy chaplain who witnessed the end of World War II with the Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945, served as Xavier’s 29th president from 1955-1972. In his 17-year tenure—the longest of any Xavier president—monumental changes occurred from shifting social structures both political and spiritual. Under O’Connor’s direction, Xavier moved from a tranquil campus in the 1950s to a hotbed of activity in the 1960s. Women and black students began enrolling in traditionally white male-dominated classes, and, by the end of 1969, ROTC was no longer mandatory.

O’Connor successfully led the University through these varying decades, and while he sometimes met resistance, students couldn’t help but respect his decision-making and passion for Xavier.

Growth of a University

When James E. Hoff, S.J., took office in 1991, he became a catalyst for a school that had become admittedly stagnant in the late 1980s. In his nine-plus years at Xavier, the 33rd Jesuit president orchestrated an era of growth and change unmatched in the University’s history.

During his tenure, Hoff strengthened the curriculum, bolstered the endowment, created a national alumni association, envisioned a nationally recognized basketball program and oversaw the renovation and revitalization of campus, including the Cintas Center, Gallagher Student Center and new housing complexes.

Most important, however, Hoff achieved these goals without compromising the Catholic, Jesuit mission of the University. His vision statement—“to prepare students intellectually, spiritually and morally to take their places in a rapidly changing global society and to work for the betterment of society”—is now a University mantra. His revival of the Jesuit mission links past to present and lays the groundwork for another 175 years.

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