Tall Tales

Sad news from Boston came yesterday: Thomas P. O'Malley, S.J., passed away on Wednesday, November 4, 2009, at the age of 79.  TPOM was a former editor of America magazine, among the many jobs he held in the Society of Jesus: He was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston College from 1973 to 1980; was president of John Carroll University in Ohio from 1980 to 1988; was the 13th president of Loyola Marymount University from 1991 to 1999; then went to Boston College, where he taught Latin and was involved with the honors program.

His obituaries will (and should) stress his many accomplishments and his famous erudition, but they will never capture the true spirit of TPOM. I have no end of stories about him, even though I knew him for only a brief moment of his own life; he was the president of Loyola Marymount University when I and many of my siblings were there as undergraduates.  He was the most accessible of presidents, always the hail-fellow-well-met, and seemed always to be talking in poetry, even when discussing the most trivial of matters.  I know this blog is not normally a place for obituaries or hagiographies, but here are some of the more humorous highlights I remember as a privilege of knowing him:


I once took a Latin class from him at LMU through the Classics Department called “Introduction to the Roman Missal.”  Even though he was the university president, he still liked to teach.  Anyway, it became clear within moments of the first class that Father President intended the class to be less of an introduction to the Roman Missal than an introduction to the “Thomas P. O’Malley Show,” starring Thomas P. O’Malley, S.J., and featuring only momentary interruptions by the viewing audience (us), and no commercial breaks (except for the occasional earthquake aftershock that made the behemoth of a man, born and bred in Boston, shriek like a schoolgirl).  The anecdotes were endless, the bursts into song regular, the off-the-cuff quotations of Homer in the original Greek charming in their inscrutability and unselfconscious frequency.  The man was literally larger than life, huge in every respect—physically, intellectually, conversationally.  He denounced us because no one had read Middlemarch; he showed up in the local pub at 6 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day; he bellowed out a baritone take on the “Dies Irae” every other week. 

One day he looked at me in class and asked, “have you been sick?”  No, I replied.  “Well,” he said, “it seems to me you’ve lost a great deal of weight.”  Well, no, Father, I answered, but I did get a haircut yesterday.  “Aha!” he bellowed.  “Would that it were so!  I should get a haircut every day!”

Before a funeral at LMU my junior year, I was desperately searching through my closet to find a solemn outfit more appropriate than my usual attire of t-shirt, shorts, and (sometimes) shoes.  When I arrived at the funeral in a dark suit, a red-eyed, obviously exhausted O’Malley turned around in the midst of a somber crowd and shouted:  “The rumpled scholar!  You’re looking uncharacteristically kempt!”

Yes, “kempt.”  It’s in the dictionary right next to “trammeled.”

At my sister’s graduation from Loyola Law School, he was waiting on the steps of the chapel at LMU before the baccalaureate mass, and approached the ushers.  “How many of those people inside,” he asked, “do you think are Catholics?”  Less than half, we guessed.  “In that case,” he replied, “I will give my redneck sermon.”  What’s that? we queried. “‘We welcome those of you not of the Roman communion, and we regret your exclusion from God’s grace’.”

When I told him once that I would be spending a month during the summer in Italy, he asked, “have you the Italian?”  No, not a word of it, I replied.  “No worry,” he said, “you have the Latin.  Just get very, very drunk and speak in the ablative.”

One Sunday he was presiding at the LMU student liturgy, and his homily took a sudden geological detour into a long and detailed explanation of the many millennia of riverbed soil that had formed the bluffs of Westchester on which LMU was built. “In other words,” TPOM continued, “Ours is a house built on sand, pace the New Testament example.”

He once called me onto the carpet my senior year, when I was working on the student newspaper, for some criticism of his administration he considered unfair.  “Profit by the words of Nietzsche, young James,” he said, “‘they vomit out their gall, and call it a newspaper.’”


Gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis.  R.I.P. Tom.


Jim Keane, S.J.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019
Psychedelics can blur the line between science and spirituality—but Christian mysticism cannot be studied.
Terrance KleinJanuary 17, 2019
The extensive New York Times series in support of legal abortion unfolds as if the last 46 years of the abortion debate following Roe v. Wade never happened and did not need to.
​Helen AlvaréJanuary 17, 2019
In 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a bitter and prolonged ethnic conflict. Harry Miller, S.J., then almost 60, was thrust into a new role as witness, advocate, intermediary and protector not only for his students but for anyone in Batticaloa who sought his help.
Jeannine GuthrieJanuary 17, 2019