Recently I had the opportunity to speak of the life of one of the greats in the history of Saint Ignatius, Fr. Bernie Streicher, S.J. Fr. Streicher was not at Saint Ignatius while I was a student and so I only got to know him once I returned to campus in the fall of 1981 as a first-year Theology teacher. Fr. Streicher was to me the archetypal “old school” Jesuit, reminding me of people like Fr. Arthur Walters, S.J. and Fr. James Kirby, S.J., my freshman Latin and senior physics teachers, respectively. There was a gravitas, a brilliance, and yet a twinkle-in-the-eye sense of humor that sat just below the surface of their otherwise serious demeanor.
In that same mold, from that same time period, was the man who sat in the corner office during the “glory days” from 1973-1977, Fr. James E. O’Reilly, S.J. Fr. O’Reilly went home to our Lord on the 5th of January at the age of 91. As the president of Saint Ignatius in the volatile days of urban decay and social unrest Fr. O’Reilly held firm to the belief that in order to be true to the mission of her namesake Saint Ignatius needed to stay rooted in the city and not be tempted to follow the flight to the suburbs.
Ironically, Fr. O’Reilly’s high school alma mater, Campion Jesuit High School, was in the fairly rural location of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. If Campion Jesuit High School sounds familiar it might be because it was the alma mater of George Wendt – Norm Peterson on Cheers – or it might be because it was also the alma mater of Fr. Streicher. Fr. Streicher and Fr. O’Reilly were two years apart (Class of ’46 and ’44, respectively) in school, and both spent the bulk of their careers at Saint Ignatius, yet seldom served on campus at the same time.
Fr. O’Reilly wore a number of hats during his time here at Saint Ignatius, beginning with his regency as a scholastic from 1951-1954 when he taught English and mathematics. Once ordained, Fr. O’Reilly spent the next 22 years as a Theology teacher, counselor, president, rector, and alumni director. He also had a stint as an assistant track coach – even while he served as president.
In the fall of 1973 Fr. O’Reilly greeted the Class of 1977 with a talk that has had as lasting an impression on me as anything that I have ever heard. I can still hear both his impersonation of a whiney freshman who was too timid to stick out his neck and get involved, as well as his commanding appeal to become an active member of the school community. It led me to involvement with the Christmas Canned Food Drive, and it also gave me the guts to walk up to the sixth floor yearbook office and ask a group of seniors – seniors! – if there was anything I could do.
Fr. O’Reilly also told us that he didn’t care what we ended up doing for a living, as long as we did honest work to the best of our abilities. He said that he would be proud of us not for the prestige of our professions, but for the quality of our work within that profession and the type of men we were. In a world where we are so often judged by the former – our profession – rather than the latter – our quality – and at a school that is known for the professional success of our alums, Fr. O’Reilly’s was an important message to hear.
Another lasting memory of Fr. O’Reilly is one that exists solely in our minds, a great example of the logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc: “after this, therefore because of this.”
During Fr. O’Reilly’s tenure as president not only did the school decide to stay at 1911 West 30th Street, but also decided to expand beyond the 1973 footprint. Plans for a practice field east of the school along Lorain Avenue and West 28th Street were in the works, but were stalled because of the presence of apartment buildings on the future site of Wasmer Field.
Almost immediately after the plans were announced, or so it seemed to our young conspiratorial minds, those buildings began burning to the ground. Personally, I imagined Fr. O’Reilly sneaking out at night, Hogan’s Heroes-style, to take the matter of school expansion into his own hands. For the rest of his days Fr. O’Reilly would be known as “Torch” to those who attended Saint Ignatius in the mid-1970s.
In truth, Torch O’Reilly’s nickname should have a much more Ignatian explanation. The founder of the Society of Jesus commissioned his men to “go forth and set the world on fire,” and in that phrase is captured the greatness of Fr. James E. O’Reilly, S.J. Without using those words, it was the commission that he gave to every student he met, and it was definitely implied in the question that he once asked me as I walked from the Main Building into Loyola Hall during my junior hear.
“Heals, what did you learn today?”
I don’t remember what meaningless fact I spouted at the time, but he was pleased with the answer because that was his way – take people where they are and propel them to do more. He may not have burned down any buildings, but he certainly lit a fire under me and a great many other Wildcats to whom he passed the torch.