Father Sellinger dies Loyola president was 72 Jesuit guided college for 29 years


The Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, S.J., the implacable force that drove Loyola College through its three-decade journey from small provincial school to regional university, died yesterday in his sleep at home. He was 72.

The Jesuit priest who moved comfortably in the realm of corporate executives and golf course schmoozers succumbed to the inoperable pancreatic cancer that was diagnosed last July. Everyone knew the end was coming, but still the news of his death seemed to hush the hallways of the North Charles Street campus yesterday.

"It's very quiet," Provost Thomas Scheye said. "I think you can tell something is missing. A family has lost its father."

He had been college president since 1964 and he was president to the end. Two weeks ago, he presided over the regular meeting of his deans and vice presidents. The energy that seemed to know no bounds had clearly begun to ebb, but still Father Sellinger was sharp, focused, Mr. Scheye said.

The college he nurtured in 29 years from a school for local Catholic boys to a regional university stood as his abiding passion, propelling him out of the confines of academia into the role of fund-raiser in the Baltimore business world. He joined the Baltimore Country Club, and the boards of Crown Central Petroleum Corp. and Equitable Bank, traded jokes with CEOs and befriended powerful politicians.

"Today is a very sad day for Maryland," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, an old friend of Father Sellinger's. "We have lost a real leader, someone who was beloved by so many people, and who brought so much to the lives he touched."

Governor Schaefer announced Jan. 21 that the state's formula for distributing aid to private colleges, devised by the Loyola president in 1971, was to be officially named for Father Sellinger.

Steven Muller, president of the Johns Hopkins University for 18 years during the Sellinger stewardship at Loyola, called him a friend and academic executive who "did an absolutely outstanding job at Loyola College."

"Joe was a colleague who I liked very much and respected a

great deal," Dr. Muller said. "He had a way of endearing himself to people."

"He was a man of extraordinary force who drew people to him," said Mr. Scheye. "That ability that people call charisma, he really had it. When he walked into a room, heads turned."

He had those steely blue eyes that zeroed in on you. And for that moment, you felt like the most important person in the world, said Daniel Altobello, who has been chairman of the Loyola Board of Trustees since last April.

The changes in the college are to some degree a measure of the force of Father Sellinger's will and personality.

Under his administration, the campus expanded from 33 acres to nearly 70, from 11 buildings to 27, from an enrollment of 1,300 to 6,000. Under his leadership, Loyola joined the nearby College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1968 to build a larger library for both schools, and in 1971 Loyola merged its student body with Mount St. Agnes College in Mount Washington, a women's school operated by the Sisters of Mercy. Father Sellinger lived to see the college's endowment grow from $1.9 million in 1967 to $52 million by last year.

Not a bad record for a reluctant fund-raiser. He didn't relish the role, he said in an interview in the fall, and each time he was turned down it was "a kick in the pants."

He was not one to acquiesce in defeat, said Mr. Altobello, president and board chairman of Caterair International Corp. of Potomac, an airline-food catering firm.

"He was intensely competitive," said Mr. Altobello, who first met Father Sellinger in 1959 at Georgetown University, when the priest was a dean and Mr. Altobello an undergraduate. "Joe Sellinger loved to win. But not at any price. He loved to win through hard work."

"Quality was an ideal in his life," said the Rev. Daniel J. McGuire, Father Sellinger's assistant and a friend since seminary days in Wernersville, Pa. in 1938. "He wanted students to have the same thirst for greatness, to make something of themselves. He didn't just preach this. He lived it."

"He was a tough guy, he was one of those old Jesuits," said college spokesman Mark Kelly. "He believed you did your job and you didn't complain about it."

As a rookie teacher at Loyola in 1945, lecturing to many returning World War II veterans older than he was, an admittedly nervous Joseph Sellinger -- he had yet to be ordained -- started earning that reputation for toughness. "I was scared stiff that first week," he once recalled. "So I became a strict disciplinarian. I was like a drill sergeant. And the students called me Antimony Joe, which I considered a wonderful name until I realized the chemical symbol for antimony was Sb."

Inevitably, Father Sellinger's hard-driving ways rubbed some people the wrong way.

He fought with some wealthy neighbors along Charles Street as he bought property to expand the college. And some of Loyola's old grads were concerned for a time that Father Sellinger was trying to turn the school into a university, which he denied. Sentimentalists longed for the slower-paced academic life they remembered in the decades immediately before and after World War II.

Father Sellinger was adamant about old-fashioned values of hard word, order and discipline at the school that was founded in 1852. But he was clearly focused on the future.

Actually, earlier Loyola presidents, notably the Rev. Edward B. Bunn, S.J., and the Rev. Vincent F. Beatty, S.J., had already begun moving the school from its traditional role as a small liberal arts college for Baltimore commuters toward broader fields of scholarship and a larger presence in the community.

Given the tempo of the times, however, Father Sellinger moved ahead at a swifter pace.

And the college's reputation gained accordingly. Baltimore magazine, in a commentary on Maryland colleges in 1991, called Loyola the region's "new academic star, second only to Hopkins."

"A lot is due to . . . President Father Joe Sellinger," the magazine commented, adding: "A Loyola diploma in business management, political science, physics or biology will carry you far in Maryland."

The 23rd president of the school, Father Sellinger came to the post after 11 years as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Washington's Georgetown University, also a Jesuit institution and the oldest Roman Catholic college in the United States.

In his inaugural address as president of Loyola, the Philadelphia native made clear his intention to carry on the humanistic traditions of American education while maintaining the college's Jesuit traditions.

In 1983, the college opened a separate business school. It was named the Joseph A. Sellinger, S.J., School of Business and Management at the insistence of an anonymous donor.

Of all the goals Father Sellinger set for himself, one remains unfulfilled. When he learned of his illness in July and was given six months to live, he said he wanted to live to see the class of 1993 graduate at the Civic Center on May 15.

"He wanted to be there for the seniors," said Mr. Scheye.

Mr. Altobello said the search for a new president would begin in about a week, but he said no one had any illusions about finding someone to fill Father Sellinger's shoes. "We're going to retire his shoes and find the right man for these times and let him be his own man, not let the poor devil have to live up to this legacy."

Father Sellinger, who died at the President House, is survived by his brother and sister-in-law, Frank and Helen Sellinger of Williamsburg, Va.; five nieces and four nephews.

A series of memorial events is planned this week, the college said. Father Sellinger will lie in state tomorrow beginning at 2 in the Alumni Memorial Chapel at Loyola, with a Christian Wake Service scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

He will lie in state again on Thursday beginning at 2 p.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street, with a Christian Wake Service set for 7:30 p.m. All classes at Loyola will be canceled that day.

A funeral Mass will be offered Friday at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Private interment will be held at the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues in Wernersville, Pa.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Sellinger Scholarship Fund for Commuter Students, Loyola College, 4501 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21210-2699.

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