The Rev. Joseph A. O’Hare, who as the longest-serving president of Fordham University transformed it into a national institution and applied the moral rectitude of his clerical collar to civic reform in New York City, died on Sunday in the Bronx. He was 89.
His nephew William Scesney said he died from complications of liver cancer at Murray-Weigel Hall, a Jesuit retirement home and infirmary on the Fordham campus.
A plain-spoken priest, Father O’Hare created a core curriculum at Fordham; integrated the campuses at Rose Hill in the Bronx and Lincoln Center in Manhattan; and increased the Jesuit-run university’s endowment more than sevenfold.
He oversaw the construction of a $54 million neo-Gothic research library and transformed Fordham into a residential university by building four dormitories (including one now named O’Hare Hall) in the Bronx and a 20-story residence in Manhattan to house another 3,500 students.
Father O’Hare, who served from 1984 to 2003, was Fordham’s 31st president. He was also the only one born in the Bronx since the university was founded in 1841.
His priestly status proved an asset for the mayors who recruited him to civic service.
He served on two commissions to revise the New York City Charter; a panel to expunge politics from mayoral appointments; and, most notably, the city’s pioneering Campaign Finance Board, created in 1988 in the wake of municipal corruption scandals. Appointed the board’s first chairman by Mayor Edward I. Koch to oversee the city’s innovative program of public-campaign financing for municipal offices, he also served under three of Mr. Koch’s successors before retiring in 2003.
“Joe O’Hare’s unquestioned integrity, gravitas, nonpartisanship, intelligence, wit and, yes, the fact that he was a Jesuit priest, commanded instant respect for the board in an arena fraught with political challenges,” Nicole Gordon, the board’s longtime executive director, said in an email.
Father O’Hare publicly rebuffed challenges from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s administration, Ms. Gordon said, and “set the standard for fair and impartial implementation of reform in government.”
As Fordham’s president, and as the only educator to serve as chairman of both the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Father O’Hare found himself, more often than he liked, refereeing rifts in the church over dogma and academic freedom, differences between American bishops and the Vatican, and ideological conflicts among an increasingly diverse student body about issues like abortion and gay rights.
While acknowledging his own orthodox moral position, he tolerated a decision by the student government to recognize groups that discussed or promoted an “enlightened understanding” of both those issues.
Similarly, he defended the right of American bishops to denounce abortion, just as they did racial injustice or the nuclear arms race.
“It is neither anti‐Catholic nor un-American to argue against the bishops in this debate,” he wrote of abortion in a New York Times Op-Ed article in 1976, “but to question their right to be heard is a persistent form of bigotry.”
Still, he said he bristled when some Catholic politicians who dissented from doctrine were threatened with excommunication.
“It’s unfortunate for the bishops to equate pro-choice with pro-abortion,” he told The New York Times in 1990. “That’s too broad a label to apply to Catholic politicians.”
That same year, he expressed relief when Pope John Paul II issued a document on education that urged Catholic universities to maintain their fidelity to Catholic education, but that also recognized the legitimacy of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and the latitude to hire non-Catholic faculty. (In 1984, the Fordham faculty included 70 Jesuits; today, about 24 Jesuits are teachers and administrators.)
In a meeting with Vatican officials, Father O’Hare said, Catholic educators stated “loud and clear that universities all around the world were concerned about not having universal prescriptions from Rome.”
Father O’Hare melded amiability with common sense.
“Joe combined Jesuit humanism with Bronx street smarts,” the author Peter Quinn, a Fordham graduate, said in an email. “He was a serious intellectual who refused to take himself too seriously. He never lost his New York accent or his Irish sense of humor. He knew how to laugh and how to lead.”
Father O’Hare’s common-sense approach became apparent to the public in his role on the finance board under Mr. Koch; David N. Dinkins, who was fined by the board for excessive spending and, at the end of his mayoralty, fired him; Mr. Giuliani, who reinstated him, but was later also fined; and Michael R. Bloomberg.
“In a city of legendary Irish pols,” Mr. Bloomberg said of Father O’Hare this week, “one of the very best never ran for office — but he left a mark on politics like no other.”
Rectitude, however, did not necessarily denote reticence.
At a finance board meeting in 2001, the irascible political consultant Hank Morris insisted that he could volunteer his services to his friend Alan G. Hevesi, who was running for mayor, and that therefore the monetary value of those services should not be covered by the legal cap on campaign spending. A verbal tussle at a public hearing culminated in Mr. Morris’s threat to take the case to court. Father O’Hare was unfazed.
“So sue me,” he retorted. “Go ahead.” Mr. Hevesi eventually paid for Mr. Morris’s services.
Jack Newfield, writing in The New York Post, characterized Father O’Hare as “the conscience of campaign finance reform and walking gravitas.”
Joseph Aloysius O’Hare Jr. was born on Feb. 12, 1931, in the West Bronx, a grandson of Irish immigrants. His father was a member of the New York City Police Department’s mounted patrol. (His maternal grandfather, also a police officer, was shot dead in 1904 during the burglary of a Manhattan bakery.) His mother, Marie (Enright) O’Hare, was a public-school teacher and guidance counselor. He had a brother, Gerard, and a sister, Marie O’Hare Scesney, who both died before him.
“His native New York gave him a directness, a maturity and a no-nonsense wisdom,” the Rev. J. Donald Monan, a former president of Boston College, said.
After graduating from Regis High School in Manhattan, Father O’Hare joined the Society of Jesus at 17.
‘’When I decided I wanted to be a Jesuit, the models that attracted me the most were the labor priests, like Father John Corridan,” he told The Times in 1998, referring to the crusader against corruption on whom Karl Malden’s character in the movie “On the Waterfront” was loosely based. “It’s not an otherworldly kind of spirituality — it’s the kind very geared to involvement in the present time.’‘
In 1954 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Berchmans College in Cebu City, the Philippines, where he had been assigned by the Jesuits. He received a master’s degree from the college the next year. He taught at Ateneo de Manila University, a Jesuit school there.
Father O’Hare also received licentiate degrees in philosophy and theology from Woodstock College in Maryland. In 1968 he received a doctorate in philosophy from Fordham.
From 1975 until he became president of Fordham, he was the editor in chief of America, the influential Jesuit magazine. (He returned there as associate editor after leaving Fordham and also briefly served as president of Regis.)
Inheriting an 85-acre campus in the Bronx, a borough that was then synonymous with crime and poverty, Father O’Hare added 1.1 million square feet of academic and residential space in the Bronx and Manhattan and merged Fordham with Marymount College, a traditionally Catholic women’s institution in Tarrytown, N.Y., in 2002.
He wooed the Rev. Avery Dulles, an eminent theologian, to a new professorship in religion and society in the theology department. In February 2001, Pope John Paul II named Father Dulles a cardinal — a rare appointment for a theologian and cleric who was not a bishop.
Before Father O’Hare became president, 70 percent or more of Fordham’s students were commuters; when he left, 70 percent lived on campus. As recently as the 1970s, as many as 85 percent of the students came from New York City or nearby suburbs. Today, about 60 percent are from out of state.
“Father O’Hare leaves behind a record of expansion and building that any of his predecessors might envy,” said Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, emeritus professor of church history at Fordham and author of “Fordham, a History of the Jesuit University of New York: 1841-2003” (2016).
As Father O’Hare saw it, building for succeeding generations was integral to his conception of belief.
“You can betray your faith, religious faith, personal faith, academic faith,” he once said, “by trying to hold on to some frozen moment of the past. You have to keep your faith alive by bringing it forward into the future.”
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