Editor, Mentor, Friend: A tribute to Frank Oveis

In late August a group of theologians gathered at America House in New York to celebrate a colleague and friend who was retiring from his position as vice president and senior editor at Continuum International publishers. He edited some of us first in the early 1980s, others in the 90s, and several still more recently. For us he had been a paragon of insight and intelligence, seeing books through clean, elegant production to effective marketing, with a keen sense of each authors audience and its interests. The party was a true symposium, this editor standing for many other editors who have supported theologians selflessly and wisely over recent decades.

Born in the Bronx in 1941, Frank Oveis attended Cathedral High School and then St. Josephs Seminary at Dunwoodie, Yonkers, N.Y. After leaving the seminary, he attended graduate school at Fordham University and joined Seabury Press in 1973, where he remained through its various transformations into Crossroad Publishing Company, the Continuum Publishing Group, and for the past eight years Continuum International.

Despite all the technological changes in the business, he told Library Journal this past May that publishing remains a highly personal affair, dependent upon the interests, education and intelligence of the acquiring editors.... I cant say I develop books. Rather, I encourage certain authors. Exactly.


Many of us first met Frank Oveis at the annual conventions of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the College Theology Society or the American Academy of Religion, where he was a regular presence at the book counters, at plenary sessions, in hallway conversations or evening socials (where the real business takes place). He had a gift for spotting quality and was generous with young theologians. Peter Phan of Georgetown University (who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Karl Rahners eschatology) recalls that Oveis sold him Rahners complete Theological Investigations at a reduced price to help him get started.

Early in his career Oveis helped make available in English translation the work of major European theologians and biblical scholars, including Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Häring, Hubert Jedin, Othmar Keel, Johannes Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx. In mid-career Oveis worked with Carol Christ, Lawrence Cunning-ham, Joseph Fitzmyer, Langdon Gilkey, Bernard McGinn, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and David Tracy. More recently Margaret Farley, Roger Haight, James Keenan, Judith Kubicki, Paul Lakeland, Kevin Seasoltz and Terrence Tilley joined the chorus of voices Oveis both heard and advanced.

Oveis may well be the only editor to have nominated two winning books for the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Responsible at Continuum also for Judaica, he took particular pride in the posthumous publication, after a decade of negotiation, of the English translation of Abraham Heschels classic 850-page work Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations.

When his former teacher Msgr. Myles Bourke died in 2004, Frank wrote that the Scripture scholar had been for two generations of New York priests their most exacting professor, but one who inspired limitless devotion. Even though Frank Oveis is retiring, many authors will continue to seek counsel and advice from a friend whose high standards also evoke deep affection and admiration.

Authors on Frank Oveis

Last summer I was beyond exhausted, and the job of finishing the book I was working on, on God, seemed debilitating rather than filled with joy. I wrote Frank a letter and explained, apologetically, that I could not write and he should just forget about it. Franks only response: F the book. He took off the obligation. The freedom enabled me to rest, then indeed to finish. The book, Quest for the Living God, has just appeared.

-- Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.

Every one of Franks former writers will tell you the same thing: he had a nose for clumsy prose; he was always right about suggestions he made; he was conscientious to a fault. They will also tell you he was a wonderful talker at table and possessed of a formidable intelligence.

He is the best letter writer with whom I ever corresponded. Frank would write me out of the blue about something he had read, or to pass on a book that might be missed or to relate some fey anecdote that had amused him. I wish I had kept a file of those wonderful letters. I frequently tucked the letters into books and, now and again, run across them and reread them with a mixture of pleasure and amusement. Letter writing is a lost art, but, in my mind, he is the last great practitioner of that noble genre.

-- Lawrence Cunningham

Frank said he never knowingly published a revised doctoral dissertation until Gaspar Martinezs Confronting the Mystery of God (2001). I promptly read it and understood why he took it; it is a great analysis of the work of the nephews of RahnerMetz, Gutiérrez and Tracy. He had an eye for what would be significant and important in theology.

-- Terrence Tilley

Ive worked closely with Frank on four books over the past five years. He wants to publish good books. He personally assumes responsibility for the work so that, as an author, you have complete trust in his judgment. He is far from heavy-handed, but his suggestions carry authority because of his book and market wisdom. When he takes your book, you know it is in good hands.

-- Roger Haight, S.J.

Several years ago I was in the final stage of editing Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention, a book designed to appeal to mainstream lay Catholics and bishops. Above all I wanted to argue that Catholics working for H.I.V. prevention ought to be seen as orthodox. After doing the proofs and the final mark-ups, unilaterally our publisher withdrew our contract. Inasmuch as I wanted to keep the book mainstream and not controversial, I could not take any action against the publisher.

Fortunately, the associate editor at that press walked our manuscript right over to Frank. He took it instantly. The book was published and reviewed in over 40 international journals, won the Alpha Sigma Nu (Jesuit Honor Society) prize in ethics and was republished in Brazil and the Philippines. Because of Frank, our book remained mainstream. I know my book was not the last he would rescue.

-- James F. Keenan, S.J.

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James Harford
11 years 4 months ago
Frank Oveis is too young-minded to retire. He guided and encouraged me and my book [Merton and Friends, A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax and Edward Rice] from its inception. His is a big loss to publishing, especially Catholic publishing. Let's hope he writes something himself.
Matthias Beier
11 years 4 months ago
The thing I most appreciate about Frank as a publisher is that he took freedom of speech in theological publishing very serious, thus daring those who wish to silence what innovates and humanizes religion through radical change. Besides some of the authors mentioned by O'Donovan who benefited from this wonderful trait, it is worth mentioning that Frank also deserves credit for publishing the first English introduction into the thought of today's most controversial theologian in Europe, Eugen Drewermann, my book "A Violent God-Image" (2004). Thanks, Frank, for making the world a better place by providing in the arena of the printed word space for geniune dialogue!
Val Webb
11 years 4 months ago
I think I qualify as one of Frank's last "new" authors with my book "Like Catching Water in a Net: Human Attempts to Describe the Divine." Frank expressed interest in a manuscript proposal from an Australian he did not know, showed patience during my husband's year-long illness, and guided the book to completion, literally as he retired, with grace, humor and speed. I will be forever grateful to him for adding me to Continuum's list and I was thrilled to finally meet him face to face, after all his cheery notes and comments, at his retirement party at the American Academy of Religion meeting in November this year.


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