Gravely ill, Loyola's leader stays on the job


November 13, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

Loyola began conquering the bad news about Father Joe Sellinger on a hot, clear September afternoon.

Every year, the priest looked forward to this day, to the Mass of the Holy Spirit that was the spiritual beginning of the school year. And every year, he would be disappointed, demanding after the service, "Where were the students?"

But this year, as if a message had been secretly passed from person to person, a crowd -- big beyond belief -- gathered in the college's neo-Gothic chapel. The students were everywhere, in the aisles, out the door, even on the floor behind the altar.

With Gonzaga, Xavier and the other stained-glass Jesuit heroes staring down, Father Sellinger walked into the chapel, elated by the size of his congregation.

His sermon was short, a meditation on Loyola and its Roman Catholic tradition. When he finished, it started. An affectionate, bittersweet round of applause that surged into a glorious standing ovation.

"Nobody knew why. Everybody just did it at the same time," says Kerry Anne O'Meara, a 21-year-old senior. "I guess they just wanted to say thank you."

By then, everybody knew that the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, Loyola's dynamic president, was dying.

Two months before, on July 4, Father Sellinger, 71, found out that the pain in his gut the last few months was a malignant, inoperable growth on his pancreas.

He accepted it quickly -- "It's God's will," he told friends in the hospital -- and went back to work, the good Jesuit.

Now it's Loyola's turn to cope, and there's no formula. After all, almost no one at the college has any memory of what Loyola was without him.

For 29 years, Father Sellinger burrowed into the Baltimore establishment, selling himself and his college in the boardroom and on the golf course, drinking Russian vodka and trading jokes. He made friends with the affluent and did favors for the powerful, always in Loyola's name. A quiet all-male commuter school three decades ago, Father Sellinger's Loyola today is a respected regional college.

"It's kind of scary to think about what's next for Loyola," says Ms. O'Meara. "So everybody is thinking we're lucky to have him here now."

In many ways, nothing has changed on the North Baltimore campus. Teachers teach, students study and lives go on. But in countless ways subtle and large, Loyola and Father Joe are groping for ways to say goodbye to each other.

'That's what I'm here for'

Twenty-nine years ago, he didn't even want the job.

Back then, Father Sellinger was next in line to be president at Georgetown University -- the jewel of Jesuit academia. He expelled Pat Buchanan after a fight and taught Bob Hope's son, launching a lifelong friendship with the comedian.

He was a strict disciplinarian with a flattop haircut. A favorite target was Thomas E. Scheye, a Georgetown student in the early 1960s. Week after week, Father Sellinger would scream at him for things he wrote for the student newspaper.

"His face would swell up like an adder," remembers Mr. Scheye, who is now the Loyola provost. "And he would shout, 'This is my university. If you don't like it here, you can leave!' "

But after a falling-out with Jesuit authorities, it was Father Sellinger who had to leave -- sent up to Loyola, a small commuter school, an academic backwater.

In 1964 Loyola was a quiet little campus mainly for the Catholic middle-class boys of Baltimore. Around town, people said Loyola had an excellent reputation -- for five miles in each direction.

Its new president shook things up. He built dormitories to attract out-of-town students and swallowed up Mount St. Agnes College, bringing coeducation to campus.

As enrollment grew, Father Sellinger pushed out the campus' borders, surging west across Charles Street to buy property. He had ugly battles with the neighbors, some of them wealthy and influential.

To do it all, he needed money. He joined the tony Baltimore Country Club and some of Baltimore's most powerful corporate boards. With an unassuming way and a ready laugh, he made friends easily and the money flowed.

His testimonial for August A. Busch Jr., head of the Budweiser beer company, yielded a $500,000 check from the beer baron. Local developer Ralph DeChiaro donated money for a student center.

I. W. "Bud" Hammerman 2nd, the Baltimore mortgage broker, came through several times for Father Sellinger, whom he met in 1945. The two remained the best of friends even after Mr. Hammerman was identified as the bagman in the Spiro T. Agnew scandal.

Loyola's endowment now stands at $42 million, about $42 million more than when he started.

"It's not like he's some super salesman who's always out there pulling and tugging," says Michael J. Goff, Loyola vice president for development. "He just has an enormous reservoir of people who like him."

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