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Recalling a Georgetown Giant: Father Tim Healy, S.J.

By Dane Petersen

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In April, an event during John Carroll Weekend in New York remembered one man who had a significant impact on two places – Georgetown University and the New York City Public Library.

The late Timothy S. Healy, S.J., led both institutions of learning, first as the president of Georgetown, from 1976-1989, and then as president of the library until his death on New Year’s Eve, 1992. Participants at John Carroll Weekend will have the opportunity to honor Healy’s legacy at a reception in the library’s Astor Hall.

A National Presence

During Healy’s tenure at Georgetown, admissions doubled, minority enrollment increased to one-fifth of the student body and the university’s endowment skyrocketed from $38 million to nearly $228 million. Additionally, in the spirit of the award that bears his name, he extended Georgetown’s reach into its surrounding community, starting programs for students to volunteer in local public schools and sharing resources with other area universities.

Phil Inglima (C’84, L’88), former president of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, was an assistant in Healy’s office as a student, then served as an assistant to the president – along with current university President John J. DeGioia – following his college graduation. He says Georgetown’s emergence on a bigger stage began under Healy.

“Tim took Georgetown from a well-regarded East Coast university to having a national – and the beginnings of an international – presence” Inglima says. “He was very demanding, of himself and others, and always challenging people to achieve at a high level. But he judged people more by their efforts than merely by results – he insisted on constant effort and intellectual improvement.”

Committed to Free Expression

Healy’s acumen for fundraising and his efforts to expand access to learning were again in evidence when he assumed the presidency of the library in New York. The library’s endowment increased nearly 30 percent in his brief tenure, and he led the expansion of a library for the blind and initiated plans for a science and business library, which opened in 1996.

Dan Porterfield, senior vice president for strategic development in Georgetown’s Office of Public Affairs, was studying at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York – where Healy had been vice chancellor before coming to Georgetown – when Healy was president of the library.

“Tim represented an interesting adjustment to the library’s stakeholders, as it wasn’t self-evident to all that a Jesuit priest should lead such an important secular resource,” Porterfield says. “But they quickly saw his commitments: access for the largest community possible, a commitment to free speech and expression and a scholar’s sensibility of the institution as a cultural resource.”

Setting a Precedent

Porterfield says that while at Georgetown, Healy started a practice common now, but controversial at the time, of recruiting former high-level government officials to serve, such as Henry Kissinger, to serve on the faculty and encouraging faculty, such as former professor Jeane Kirkpatrick, to serve in government, as she did as ambassador to the United Nations. “This allowed Georgetown to position itself as a great American university with national reach and influence,” Porterfield says.

Inglima adds that Healy encouraged all contributions that advanced the republic, and increased Georgetown’s influence and profile. “He did not agree with Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s politics but he was proud of her service as ambassador,” he says.

It is fitting, says Inglima, that an award for helping humanity bears Healy’s name. “He saw Georgetown as making a difference in the world – creating great citizens of the country and the world – and he put a lot of effort into promoting and celebrating those accomplishments,” he notes.

A Gift with Words

Following Healy’s death, Georgetown University published A Commonplace Book, a limited-edition publication that featured excerpts from several of his addresses, accompanied by quotes from some of his favorite authors. Attendees at the event held at the library on John Carroll Weekend will receive copies from a special second printing.

Porterfield says he frequently calls on something Healy once said when he talks about Georgetown today. “He said, ‘The old teach and the young dream, and in that mystery comes a tomorrow that we who are older will never know but will have helped to shape in the minds and hearts of our students,’” Porterfield says. “He was eloquent both at the pulpit and in connecting with friends in private, two abilities that are not often united in one person.” Inglima says the book is a reminder of how much importance Healy placed on words and his gift of finding just the right word – a talent that is far from commonplace.

April 13, 2009 | Dane Petersen is managing editor for Georgetown Alumni Online.