By Thomas A. Hein ’99
Rev. Joseph A. O’Hare, SJ ’48, a transformative leader of Jesuit institutions who served as the twentieth president of Regis High School, died on March 29 at the age of 89.
I was first introduced to Fr. O’Hare during my senior year at Regis. Regians of a certain era will remember the late Art teacher PK Steers, who offered a senior architecture elective each year. Despite his busy schedule, Fr. O’Hare made time to volunteer as a “client” for the class, and I had the good fortune of serving as his “architect.” While my own family roots had long-established a connection to Fordham, it was through my senior-year interactions with Fr. O’Hare that I was certain Fordham was the right undergraduate home for me.
What followed was a friendship fostered during my four years at Rose Hill that continued for decades long after I graduated. Fr. O’Hare possessed a gravitas and presence that could feel imposing, but had a charm that could instantly put you at ease. Making deep, personal connections with people came naturally to him. As longtime Regis faculty member Frank Walsh put it, “There was such humility and unbounded graciousness about the man, not to mention the kind of gently inspiring leadership that made you want to walk through walls for him even though he never asked for or expected such.”
When my wife, Bridgid, and I married at the Fordham University Church in 2006, Fr. O’Hare celebrated the Mass and delivered a homily I can still remember to this day. Referencing the 1985 film Places in the Heart, he remarked: “I never saw the film, and I can’t say I’m a particular fan of Sally Field. But the title has always stuck with me, because there are places in the heart: physical places that are tied up with so many memories that they are a center of who we are, what we remember, and what we hope for. And this church is, for many people, one of those places in the heart, and so it’s with a great sense of the power of memory and faith that is behind this moment today.”
As for so many of its loyal graduates, Regis was unquestionably one of those places in the heart for Fr. O’Hare.
Joseph Aloysius O’Hare was born in the Tremont section of the Bronx in 1931. He was one of three children to first-generation Irish Americans, raised by a mother who served as a school teacher and a father who served as a New York City mounted police officer. He played JV basketball at Regis when the ’48 varsity team captured the national schoolboy championship. Bernie Tracey ’51 recalls that by the time he graduated Regis in 1948, Joe O’Hare’s reputation was well known throughout the school: “He was a great debater, a wonderfully cast Laertes in the December 1947 production of Hamlet, and one of the most popular Regians at the dances.”
Following his graduation from Regis, Joe O’Hare entered the Jesuits and trained for the priesthood while teaching in the Philippines. He was ordained a priest in the Fordham University Church in 1961. In 1975 he was named editor of America Magazine, a position he would hold for nine years. In a recently published reflection, Matt Malone, SJ, the current editor of America, remembered O’Hare’s quick, nimble mind. “He was predictably insightful, warm and friendly, a world-class raconteur with a spellbinding Irish charm.” Retired faculty member Dr. John Tricamo recalls that though his speaking skills were impressive, “it didn’t approach the respect I had for him as a writer. Over the years I’ve often commented that I know of no Jesuit who, writing regularly (as editor of America) and in such varied contexts, was his equal.”
In 1984, Fr. O’Hare was named Fordham University’s 31st President, succeeding Rev. James C. Finlay, SJ, a fellow Regian from the class of 1940. Once described as “the president who shaped the face of Fordham,” Fr. O’Hare is the longest-serving president in Fordham’s history, having held the position for 19 years. His legacy endures to this day. Rev. Joseph M. McShane, SJ ’67, Fordham’s current president (through whom a 48-year streak of a Regian running “the Jesuit University of New York” continues), recently recalled that Fr. O’Hare “placed all of his considerable intellect, integrity, and vision in service of the University, and in doing so transformed Fordham into a powerhouse of Jesuit education.”
Despite his many accolades, achievements, and accomplishments over an illustrious career, including his appointment as a founding chair of New York City’s Campaign Finance Board, Regians may remember Fr. O’Hare most fondly for his service to alma mater Regis as president during the 2004-2005 academic year. Early on in his one-year tenure he wrote how he treasured the chance to recover his Regis roots a mere sixty years after first entering the school as a freshman. Later that spring he admitted that part of the fun was the lack of pressure to earn a transition to a sophomore year. It was a particular treat for him to serve as president the year the varsity basketball team won the New York State Federation Championship. He cheered on the team in the CHSAA championship game played in the Rose Hill Gymnasium, the same place where Fr. O’Hare sat as a regular at so many Fordham basketball games: always at center court, halfway up the chairbacks in “his seat.”
In his later years, I visited Fr. O’Hare from time to time at Murray-Weigel Hall, the Jesuit retirement community on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus, but never as often as I wished I had. On Good Friday last year, I visited with my two eldest children. Fr. O’Hare talked affectionately to my son, Tommy, about the Yankees and the Bronx, and insisted to my daughter, Grace, that she was “destined for Hollywood.” Like so many Fr. O’Hare memories, the memory of that afternoon now occupies a treasured place in my heart.
When I learned of Fr. O’Hare’s passing, I again recalled his homily at my wedding and reflected on how he is uniquely tied to so many people, places, and memories that are dear to my heart, including and especially those at 55 East 84th Street and 441 East Fordham Road. As Bernie Tracey ’51 confided during a recent conversation, “I feel that my contact with Father O’Hare was one of the great blessings in my life.” That sentiment is equally true for me, and I suspect countless more in the Regis community and beyond would agree.
Thanks to the power of memory and faith, the blessings bestowed upon those of us fortunate enough to have known Fr. O’Hare endure.