Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., former editor of America and president of Fordham, dies at 89
Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., who served America as its editor in chief from 1975 to 1984 and transformed Fordham University as its president, died March 29 at Murray-Weigel Hall in the Bronx, N.Y. He was 89. His death was confirmed by Joseph M. McShane, S.J., current president of Fordham.
Like the column he wrote for many years as the editor in chief of America—and for which he received four Catholic Press Association awards—Father O’Hare was a man “of many things.”
His 19-year tenure as president of Fordham University was a record; he collected 10 honorary degrees along the way. But before he became a well-known Jesuit priest and distinguished academic, he was a hard-working public servant. His dedication to the city of his birth was reflected in the tasks he willingly undertook to improve its civic life.
Matt Malone, S.J., the current editor in chief of America Media, remembered Father O’Hare as a “towering figure in the history of America magazine…insightful, warm and friendly, a world-class raconteur with a spellbinding Irish charm.”
He was recalled with fondness by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a statement released by Fordham University. “Father Joseph A. O’Hare was one of my heroes,” she said. Justice Sotomayor served on the New York City Campaign Finance Board with Father O’Hare, who recommended her, under Mayor Edward I. Koch.
“Brilliant, witty, kind, gentle but firm, Father O’Hare lived his life caring and giving to so many. The nation, the City of New York and the Bronx have lost a great man,” she said. “I have lost a friend I greatly admired but whose principles continue to guide my life.”
Matt Malone, S.J., remembered Father O’Hare as a “towering figure in the history of America magazine…insightful, warm and friendly, a world-class raconteur with a spellbinding Irish charm.”
“Despite his lofty pedigree as a widely respected intellectual, institutional chief executive and civic leader in New York City campaign [finance] reform, he humbly and graciously welcomed me as a new Fordham Jesuit,” remembered John Cecero, S.J., the provincial of the Jesuits USA Northeast Province, in an email to America.
“Joe led with insight, wit and uncompromising loyalty to the Society of Jesus and our mission in higher education, and I will always be grateful for the inspiration that he imparted to me and to so many other Jesuits and lay colleagues at Fordham University.”
Father O’Hare was Bronx-born and Bronx-bred. Born in the midst of the Great Depression on Feb. 12, 1931, his father was a mounted police officer in the New York Police Department. He graduated from St. Margaret Mary Parish School in the Bronx and from there attended Regis High School in Manhattan, where he graduated in 1948.
Father O’Hare entered the Jesuit order in 1948 after high school, one of four Regis graduates that year to enter the Society of Jesus (another, George McCauley, lived in the same apartment building as the O’Hares), and would be ordained in 1961 in Fordham University Church. Before ordination, he taught in the Philippines at the Ateneo de Manila. That experience broadened his worldview and would be of value later in life.
Father O’Hare would have a longstanding association with the Philippines; he taught there from 1955 to 1958 and then from 1967 to 1972. In retirement, he was among the guests honoring Cardinal Tagle in March 2014 at Fordham University.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J: “A visionary leader, a peerless raconteur, a born diplomat and a compassionate pastor, Father O’Hare led the university with great heart during a period that had more than its share of challenges.”
“He had this tremendous ability to relate to people,” said John F. Keenan, a federal judge for the Southern District of New York and a friend of Father O’Hare at Regis High School. “He was one of the most engaging, witty men I’ve ever known.”
“[Mayor Ed] Koch thought the world of him,” said Judge Keenan. “He knew everybody, and he knew how to lead and how to talk to the average guy in the street, as well as the intelligentsia.” Judge Keenan found out just how many people Father O’Hare knew when he was assigned a high-profile trial in 1988.
“I tried the Imelda Marcos case, together with [co-defendant] Adnan Khashoggi,” said Judge Keenan. “Before the trial...[Father O’Hare] called me to say, ‘John, I’m not going to be talking with you for a while because I knew Mrs. Marcos pretty well. I used to play the piano for her over in the Philippines when I was a scholastic.’”
Father O’Hare received a doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University in 1968. In 1972 he began his association with America magazine.
After three years as an associate editor, he served as editor in chief from 1975 to 1984 and also served as superior of the America House Jesuit community. After his editorship, he began his long tenure as Fordham University’s president, where he was noted for improving campus life and greatly increasing enrollment.
In February 1990, O’Hare was among a group of Jesuits who led a delegation to the University of Central America in El Salvador following the murder of six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter on Nov. 16, 1989 in one of the final outrages of the nation’s long civil war. At a memorial Mass a week after the murders, he called for a national examination of conscience regarding the role of the United States in El Salvador. “After 10 years of evasions and equivocations, a tissue of ambiguities, the assassinations of Nov. 16 pose, with brutal clarity, the question that continues to haunt the policy of the United States toward El Salvador: Can we hand weapons to butchers and remain unstained by the blood of their innocent victims?”
“He transformed Fordham. He gave the whole university confidence and prepared it for the 21st century.”
“A visionary leader, a peerless raconteur, a born diplomat and a compassionate pastor, [Father O’Hare] led the university with great heart during a period that had more than its share of challenges,” Joseph M. McShane, S.J., the current president of Fordham University, said. Father McShane recalled that Father O’Hare, with “more than a modicum of Bronx grit,” did not shy away from those challenges; for example, he raised $150 million during Fordham’s sesquicentennial campaign in 1991.
He “deepened the university’s commitment to his native borough, broadened its admissions outreach, strengthened our already-strong graduate schools, developed the Lincoln Center campus and encouraged the deans to invest boldly in their faculties,” Father McShane said.
“I always thought of [Father O’Hare] as a chess player,” Robert R. Grimes, S.J., dean emeritus of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, recalled in an email. Father Grimes worked with Father O’Hare for 11 years at Fordham. Father O’Hare “was always thinking ahead, considering the possibilities and searching for opportunities. When something new was called for, he was always ready,” said Father Grimes.
“He transformed Fordham. He gave the whole university confidence and prepared it for the 21st century.”
His leadership at Fordham helped the university weather more than just fiscal storms. A week after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, he told the university community: “Our immediate response as an academic institution must be to return, as best we can, as quickly as we can, to a state of normalcy in response to the calls of our civic leaders…. we also need to seek a better understanding of the political and cultural roots of this monstrous evil and commit ourselves to work with others to build a world of peace and justice founded on a respect for the human dignity of all peoples.
“As a nation and as individuals, we must resist those instincts that might prompt us to strike out against the innocent,” he said. “The contempt for human life demonstrated in these wholesale attacks on the innocent is a fundamental violation of all religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If we are blinded by a desire for revenge and yield to racial and national stereotypes we become mirror images of our adversaries. Only by keeping faith in God and with one another will we prevail.”
After his many years at Fordham, Father O’Hare returned to America in 2003 as an associate editor; he retired in 2009.
Among his many roles, Father O’Hare was:
- Chair of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities as well as chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
- A trustee of the Asia Society, he was part of a study mission to the Philippines that it sponsored in 1986.
- A member of the Council on Foreign Relations
- A member of the Mayor of the City of New York’s Committee on Appointments (charged with interviewing and recommending candidates for city commissions, 1986-1989)
- A member of the Charter Revision Commission of the City of New York (1986-1988)
- Chair of the Campaign Finance Board (under Mayors Edward I. Koch and Rudolph W. Guiliani in the 1980s and 1990s)
- Awarded the Civil Leadership Award by the Citizens Union of New York City in 1992
- Given the I Love an Ethical New York Award in 1999 by Common Cause/New York for his 10 years of service as founding chair of the New York Campaign Finance Board
Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University. He first met Father O’Hare in 1962, when the latter was one of Father Ryan’s philosophical studies examiners at the now-closed Fordham seminary in Shrub Oak, N.Y.
“Joe’s connections with the Philippines are what most connected me with him,” Father Ryan said in an email to America. “I left Africa several times to return to New York, my home town, but Jesuit superiors often prevailed on me to return to Africa.
“Joe spent 10 years all together in the Philippines and I spent 26 years in Africa,” Father Ryan said. “Joe had a missionary heart, and it is why he had so many good friends in the Philippines, and especially the Aquino family. He also understood why I could not say ‘no’ to Africa, even when I was free to do so.
“Once a missionary, always a missionary,” Father Ryan remembered. “Joe was always open to what was new and challenging in his life as a Jesuit,” he said.
He was renowned not only for his public service and his priesthood but as a gentleman proud of his Bronx and Irish roots.
“He was like a father figure to me,” said John D. Feerick, former dean of Fordham Law School.
Mr. Feerick praised Father O’Hare’s support of Fordham Law, his establishment of the Walsh Family Library at Rose Hill in 1996 and, not least, his parochial school-era dancing skills.
“How do you know that you were a good dancer?” Mr. Feerick said he once asked Father O’Hare. “[I] got the biggest applause” was the response.
“He was charming, he was witty...He certainly had the presence of a statesman,” said Mr. Feerick, who called Father O’Hare “a priest for all seasons.”
It was not for nothing that the Irish American Historical Society presented him with its Gold Medal in 1992 and that the Irish Echo newspaper named him as a “Best of the Bronx” nominee in 2008. During his tenure as editor-in-chief at America magazine, every March 17 turned America House into “Ireland House” for the day.
“He was the personification of the Jesuit ideal of ‘eloquentia perfecta’ and a loyal son of Ignatius,” said Stephen J. Fearon, a lawyer who served with Father O’Hare on the board of the American Irish Historical Society. “God will be good to him.”
Correction, Mar. 31: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Father O'Hare graduated from St. Nicholas of Tolentine Catholic Academy in Queens, N.Y. Father O'Hare graduated from St. Margaret Mary Parish School in the Bronx, and afterwards moved with his parents to St. Nicolas of Tolentine Parish.