Father Sellinger: friend and partner in ecclesiastical collar

John Steadman

April 21, 1993|By John Steadman

HIS PRESENCE, of course, was at all times priestly. He was the Rev. Joseph Sellinger, S.J., a truly ecumenical man profoundly respected by Jew, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. He made an impact on Baltimore during the 29 years he presided over Loyola College such as few clerics or administrators have.

It was Father Sellinger who changed the stature of Loyola, taking it from a school for "day hops" to a position in academia that now attracts a cross-section of America. Loyola and Father Sellinger became almost synonymous.

He was more than the chief executive of an educational institution. He was a walking-around friend and confidant to faculty, alumni, students and even to those who didn't have ties to the school founded by Jesuits in 1852.

Father Sellinger, handsome and articulate, was never presidential or pompous. Setting himself apart, the aloof manner, simply wasn't his style. He became involved with the Baltimore business community, a kind of ecclesiastical partner in a Roman collar.

Turn the calendar to a winter morning in 1964, when this reporter happened to meet Father Sellinger, newly arrived at Loyola, under odd circumstances. Both of us were dressed as we came into the world, sharing the sauna at a health club in the Blaustein Building and perspiring profusely.

The discussion, after "hello" and "how are you," evolved to sports. His strong shoulders indicated he might once have been a football player.

"That's right," he said. "I played at St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia. If you look at my nose, you can see it's bent. That happened when Frank 'Bucko' Kilroy hit me with his fist on the first play of a game."

Yes, the same "Bucko" who became one of the most feared middle guards the National Football League ever knew. This reporter told him "Bucko" was a friend of long-standing. "How do you know him?", he asked. Then we introduced ourselves, a sports writer meeting a priest and college president, both of us continuing to offer testimony to the toughness of "Bucko" Kilroy.

Father Sellinger said once St. Joseph's was playing one of its traditional football foes, Northeast Catholic High. But the night before, at a pep rally, all the girls had wanted to dance with the St. Joseph's football players, not those from Northeast.

"When 'Bucko' hit me he said, 'that's for you guys dancing with all the girls last night. All we got were turn-downs,' " Father Sellinger recalled.

When it was explained to "Bucko" that he had hit a rival lineman in high school who later had become the new president of Loyola College, the irrepressible former Philadelphia Eagle said, "Look, John, I hit so many guys I never kept score."

When Father Sellinger heard the post-script to the story he laughed and said to make sure to give "Bucko" his best.

Father Sellinger, when he was academic dean at Georgetown, had Pete Hope, the son of comedian Bob Hope, under his tutelage. Hope, who called Father Sellinger "Father Joe," would come to Baltimore for performances and to play in golf tournaments to benefit Loyola and other causes.

Once, at the old Civic Center, Hope came on stage and, after saying he had "worked in garages that looked better than this place," he hollered for the house lights. "Where is Father Joe?" he asked. "Stand up Father Sellinger, I know you're here."

Father got to his feet. All eyes in the audience turned to him as Hope said, "Take a look at the good padre. He taught my boy Pete at Georgetown. That added to my troubles because every time he wrote home for money not only was it in English but in Latin, too."

Our friendship developed as time went by. It made no difference to Father Sellinger that this reporter wasn't a "Loyola man." Last May, at a campus dinner preceding the annual Johnny Bass-Frank Cuccia Golf Tournament, we sat and talked. Father had no complaints, physical or otherwise, except the state of his golf game.

"I was at our retreat last week," he mentioned. "One afternoon I was in the chapel all alone. I offered some prayers, thanked the Lord for letting me be a priest and then talked to Him in a rather casual way. I said something like, 'Lord, I've never wanted much but I'd like my golf to improve. Not to be great, just to play better than I do now.'

"Then I caught myself. I said, 'please forgive me, Lord, for asking something so unimportant. Besides, Lord, I'm such a bad golfer I wouldn't want to put that responsibility on your shoulders.' "

Father Sellinger smiled, then recalled Bernard Saltysiak, a former Loyola College golf captain who had died. "After the funeral, his wife called and said there was a letter Bernard had left for me. He was grateful for what I had been able to do during his illness, which wasn't much, but he pointed out if I wanted to improve in golf, to make sure to call a man who lived in Phoenix, Md., named Nevin 'Tommy' Kendrick."

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