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."
Politicians such as Marvin Mandel and business friends such as racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis asked him for help when they needed someone with both loyalty and integrity. Governor Mandel asked him to investigate a salmonella outbreak in a Baltimore nursing home. Mr. De Francis, a wealthy member of Loyola's board, wanted an ally on his racetrack board for an ugly battle with his partners. Father Sellinger accepted both jobs.
"That's what I'm here for," he explains matter-of-factly. "If I can help I will."
"Some people might think he's too much involved in the secular world," says the Rev. Anthony P. Dziwulski, an old friend. "But he does it with a purpose, to help the college, to help the church."
That worldly involvement has paid off. The college has tripled its enrollment since 1964, and test scores for its freshmen are respectable. Its business school (named for Father Sellinger at Mr. Hammerman's insistence when he contributed $1 million a few years ago) has a solid reputation. Students come from 34 states, and about 75 percent of the student body now lives on campus.
"It's still not Harvard," says Michael D. Sullivan, president of Merry-Go-Round Enterprises and a Loyola board member. "But it's come a
hell of a long way from where it was 29 years ago." 'We should celebrate his life'
"It is never," says Father Sellinger, "opportune to know your life will be limited."
Now that he does, he finds himself in a twilight time of sadness and celebration.
At a spaghetti dinner for student volunteer leaders the other night, he talked about how his illness has brought him closer to the Loyola community.
"To love God, we have to love each other first," Father Sellinger said. There were tears in his eyes.
"It was kind of quiet for a minute," recalls Devin C. Heath, a junior. "Everyone took in what he had to say."
This week, the priest was overwhelmed when two dozen Loyola and Georgetown graduates came from Delaware to present a $1 million check from their employer, MBNA America Bank. Quoting Longfellow and St. Francis de Sales, Charles M. Cawley, the bank's chief executive, praised Father Sellinger's leadership and character.
When it was his turn, Father Sellinger thanked the men for the gift and started talking about his illness. The words came slowly. "It's tough. It's tough for me to express . . . The outpouring of support for me is more than I can say. Thank you."
At Loyola, this autumn has been a time to connect, a chance for the students to get to know the legendary college president in a way not possible before.
"I think that what he's doing is reminding us of what an incredible person he is," says Ms. O'Meara, a senior. "We should celebrate his life while he's here."
For his part, Father Sellinger seems to be doing just that, savoring everything about Loyola, even the mundane.
At a meeting with accreditors the other day, the kind of thing that would have scarcely held his interest before, he astonished everyone with his attentiveness.
The other Loyola officials were fighting to stay awake, says Mr. Scheye, the provost. "Except him. He made comments, he told jokes, he asked questions. It was amazing."
Father Sellinger lingered at a party honoring Loyola's club lacrosse team last month. A half-century earlier, at St. Joseph's high school in Philadelphia, he had idolized the young Jesuits, educated men who played sports and enjoyed life.
That night, he was the one being revered. A former football player, he moved easily among the athletes. He wore an aqua golf shirt instead of a clerical collar, and told funny stories about athletes breaking the rules. When the talk turned to club president David Lane's car -- a notoriously unreliable 1977 Hornet -- the priest offered his help.
So, on a warm Baltimore night in a campus parking lot, Father Joseph A. Sellinger blessed a car.
"It was an honor," says Mr. Lane. 'A Good Jesuit'
Father Sellinger made his way with the rest of the sick to the campus chapel one recent Sunday, looking for a miracle.
"He wasn't there as the president or anybody special," says the Rev. John Brunett, who helped with the service that day. "He was a man, like the others, who was sick."
Leading the ritual, the Rev. Jim Ditillo, the 45-year-old campus chaplain, touched Father Sellinger's forehead and hands with sacred oil.
"Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit," Father Ditillo prayed. "And may the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."
The blessing complete, Father Sellinger stood and resumed his role as a priest, anointing some of the other sick.
He needs a miracle because the doctors can't do much. The only treatment for his pancreatic cancer would put him in a
hospital for a week each month, with little assurance that it would actually prolong his life. He has decided to forgo treatment to stay on the job as much as possible.
In Jesuit teaching, it's known as Ignatian Indifference -- accepting your life as God gives it to you and forging ahead with your tasks.
"As long as I'm functioning and able to do the job that has to be done, I'll stay," Father Sellinger says.
"I do not think Loyola will bury an ex-president," says Daniel J. Altobello, chairman of the Loyola board. "They will bury a president who will be firmly in control."
For Father Sellinger, that means quiet afternoons working in his office, warm light spilling in the southern windows. Awards and mementos cover the walls. A crucifix hangs next to a display of pens used by governors to sign bond bills for the college.
He has some unfinished business. Loyola's $40 million capital campaign, for one. And he wants to bring Phi Beta Kappa status to the campus. He would like to attract more minority students and make the school more selective.
"I need some time," he says.
He agrees to talk about life and death with a reporter but insists there be no "pity piece" written. After all, he says, "My whole life is really a preparation for death."
Long before he got sick, he asked a friend from New Mexico, the Rev. Paul Betowski, to write his eulogy. Father Sellinger recently checked with his friend, playfully asking how many drafts he had written.
"I told him it would all be B.S.," Father Betowski jokes. "He took it all in stride."
Father Sellinger knows he has been fortunate.
"I have been blessed a hundredfold by God, both with the host of friends I have and the success that has come to Loyola," he says. "God has been so good to me."
He's decided on his epitaph: "He was a Good Jesuit."
As he prepares for death, Father Joe is following the example of St. Ignatius, the order's founder.
"He was simply at his post when he was definitively grasped and surprised by God; he was still doing the daily deed, realistic, always to be done again," reads a well-known sermon about the death of Ignatius, written in 1966 by a French priest.
"His ending was that of a laborer and a poor man dead at his work. This is the most common death; it is also the most beautiful."