Homily for Funeral of Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. '49

By Rev. Earle Markey, S.J. '53

Bishop McManus. Bishop Reilly. Bishop Rueger. Father Provincial Myles Sheehan of the Society of Jesus. Thank you for your presence here today. You honor Fr. Brooks and all of us.

To John’s family: Mildred, Marion, Paul and Dorothy, and all your family. We express our sincerest condolences and assure you of our continued prayers for John and all your family.

To understand John Brooks’ devotion and loyalty to the College and to the Society of Jesus, one must first understand his major spiritual motivation and intellectual obsession. It was, like that of St. Ignatius himself, his obsessive search for the meaning and reality of the person of Jesus Christ. He was a voracious reader—as a visit to his room in the Jesuit residence would attest. He read all that he could find about the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of history, the Jesus of modern cinema, and everything else about Jesus. Not only that, every year, as teacher, as Dean and as President, he taught a seminar on the theology of Christ. He called the course: “Modern Christology.” He required each student in the seminar to select a prominent theologian, Catholic or not, and to report their interpretation of the theologian’s understanding of Christ. Only students who didn’t mind reading volumes need apply! Their final exam was to respond to the questions of a panel of invited professors of religious studies—followed by a celebratory banquet of all involved. And now he knows Christ face to face! It was his life’s goal, his motivation, and his purpose.

He began his presidency with the purpose of bringing the College into the 21st century, and making the College a liberal arts college competitive with the best in the nation. He never wavered from that goal and said, at his retirement, that he honestly never made a decision that he did not think was in the best interests of the College. He said he may not have been right all the time, but he never made a decision that he did not think was in the long-term good of the College.

He began early to professionalize the faculty, entering into sometimes contentious debates about guidelines and procedures for tenured faculty positions. He prepared the way for coeducation—the decision he called the “single most important decision he made.” As in recruiting talented and promising African-American students, so too in the recruiting of women, he recognized their potential for leadership in a society that was becoming more advanced in learning and more tolerant in social matters. For him, the purpose of the College was to recruit and educate the leaders of the future. Those he recruited he saw as potential leaders, and he made no concessions for them. He knew they could face the challenge that everybody else had to face, academically. He would nurture them, but he would not coddle them. They would have the same courses and obligations of every other student—no reduced class loads, no special classes or programs lighter than anybody else’s. Time has proven him right. Outstanding leaders have emerged from amongst the women and minority students he recruited.

But to professionalize the faculty, rebuild the substructure of the campus, add new buildings and introduce new academic programs, money was required—plenty of it. The College’s endowment was approximately $6 million as he assumed the presidency. Last year’s bills were being paid by this year’s tuition—a sure formula for fiscal disaster. Father Brooks assumed the office of the President at a time when the financial crisis was at its peak. He was directed by the Board of Trustees to limit the deficit and begin to operate on a balanced budget, beginning in the fiscal year 1972. And balance the budget he did, but not without some understandable discomfort to several of his constituencies. As time went on, he balanced the budget each year, raised faculty salaries and benefits to competitive levels, rebuilt the physical plant, added buildings to the campus and, at his retirement, left an endowment of $150 million to be used for future institutional growth. This was a targeted number in his own mind since the beginning of his presidency. For this remarkable accomplishment, the Worcester Telegram in the September 27, 1995 editorial section awarded: “A tip of the hat to Holy Cross College for being recognized as the most efficient liberal arts college in the country, with the highest ratio of academic return for money spent to educate students. The ranking comes from U.S. News and World Report, in a survey that considered total budget and national academic standing.” John always wanted to be first in competition, and if Holy Cross could not be first in the nation in athletics, I suppose this honor would be one that he cherished the most.

John began the process of modernizing the College by visiting over 40 regional clubs each year. His message was always the same—one that did resonate with the vast majority of alumnae and alumni who regularly attended these regional meetings. It was this:

“The educational spectrum in the United States is very wide. We at Holy Cross have selected a very narrow part of that spectrum in which to excel. We focus our attention and our efforts on the Liberal Arts for undergraduates. Other educational institutions will focus on different aspects of that spectrum, either as colleges or universities dedicated to various disciplines in direct preparation for employment. Other institutions can better educate directly for professional life and offer graduate programs. We can excel at the Liberal Arts, a traditional foundation for future professional education.”

With this goal in mind, to pursue excellence in the Liberal Arts, he set about recruiting an excellent faculty, a very bright student population, building a state of the art Library addition, classrooms and labs. When one considers the limited endowment and aging Jesuit faculty, as well as an aging physical plant, one can only marvel at Father Swords’ and Father Brooks’ single-minded wisdom and commitment to their goal of making the College of the Holy Cross an outstanding, highly respected Liberal Arts college for the 21st century.

We have many snapshots of his single-minded determination. Once, on a drive to New York City with Father Frank Miller for an alumni fundraising meeting, John sped down the Connecticut Turnpike and hit a deer straight on. The poor animal flew over the windshield after rearranging the car’s front grill and hood—blood and fur splattered the windshield and roof. But he drove on. Never stopped until he got to New Rochelle. After a few stares of disbelief by parking attendants, he and Frank attended the meeting, and when it ended, they both got into the damaged car and drove back to Worcester. John took the car to the motor pool at the College the next day, and stunned the mechanic there when he told him that he had hit the deer in Connecticut on the way to New York and returned from New York the same day without stopping for repairs. Father Brooks just shrugged, and Father Miller remained tight-lipped.

A few days before he was to be the main speaker at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s annual dinner on St. Paddy’s Day in New York City – a big deal – John slipped on the ice outside a Logan Airport passenger terminal. He broke his shoulder and was in obvious pain and great deal of discomfort. However, with the shoulder in a sling and an arm of his coat jacket hanging limply by his side, he gave a very well-received and appreciated talk to this large gathering of prominent New Yorkers.

John was also single-minded in his support of College teams. He was once asked to officiate at the wedding of a daughter of an alumnus. He officiated at many such weddings and was willing to honor this request also. However, the date and time of the wedding was in conflict with the annual Holy Cross-Boston College football game to be played at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro. He agreed to officiate at the wedding provided the wedding was moved to the morning. The time of the wedding was so moved and John officiated at the wedding.

Some of John’s many successes and accomplishments have been heralded in books, magazines and newspapers. John Feinstein’s best-selling book “The Last Amateurs” is a testimonial to the academic and social wisdom of founding the Patriot League. Not everybody saw it that way, and he met some opposition to the founding of the league. He always laughed about the time he was the Grand Marshal of the Worcester St. Paddy’s Day parade. As his open air vehicle passed a local watering hole—that had been open since early morning, it seemed—one of the patrons yelled to him: “Hey, Father Brooks, when are you going to get out of that Patriot League?”

Another time, after the commissioning ceremony of the NROTC cadets on graduation day, Father Brooks stopped to talk to several parents of the newly commissioned cadets. He was introduced to the mother of one of the cadets and when she heard the name “Father Brooks,” she exclaimed, “Oh, you are the one who got us into that Pineapple League!” Later John remarked to me: “She must have been drinking.” His response to all criticism of the league was simply: “The sign at the entrance to Linden Lane reads COLLEGE of the Holy Cross. Not football team of the Holy Cross or basketball team of the Holy Cross—it only says COLLEGE of the Holy Cross.”

Of all the issues a college administration must deal with, both now and in the past, athletics is probably the thorniest of the issues. No matter what your policies, you can never satisfy everybody. The best you can do is hire people who understand the proper role of athletics on a college campus and try to balance the demands of competition with the demands of academic integrity. John was, above all, an educator of great integrity, sincere in his search for excellence, both in athletics and in academic matters. If anything, he was an overzealous fan and a demanding academician. He saw the Patriot League as a way of preserving the College’s academic reputation while, at the same time, preserving its athletic traditions. He sought excellence on a Patriot League level and not necessarily on a national level. He really did not downgrade Holy Cross athletics, he merely realized how the times are changing on the intercollegiate athletic scene and, with his clear vision of the future, placed the College’s athletic teams on the appropriate level of competition.

In the midst of great change, John always confirmed that the College remains a Catholic college. He never wavered from his view that the College of the Holy Cross served the Church as an instrument of intellectual competence, where the Church met the world and world met the church. It was a place where faith and reason could meet and be reconciled each to the other. He believed that it is better to teach a poor man how to fish, something he could do for the rest of his life, rather than simply give him fish for a family dinner. That is an old missionary guideline.

John Brooks clearly understood the words of St. Ignatius when he founded his first school in Messina, and urged the founding of many other schools in Europe in the mid-1500s. St. Ignatius saw many reasons for founding schools but his most significant reason was the following: “From among those who are merely students, in time some will depart to play diverse roles—one to preach and carry on the care of souls, another to the government of the land and the administration of justice, and others to other callings. Since young boys become grown men, their good education in life and doctrine will be beneficial to many others, with the fruit expanding more widely every day.”

And so we see time and events have proven that John Brooks was the right man at the right time in the right place as President of the College of the Holy Cross. We will miss his wise guidance, but he has left a legacy that will not end as long as the College of the Holy Cross remains a relatively small, Jesuit Liberal Arts College.

It was Divine Providence that nurtured and prepared John for his entire life’s work at the College of the Holy Cross. As there is Providence in the fall of a sparrow, there is a Providence that shapes our ends. We pray today that God’s Divine Providence, which watches over the birds of the air and gilds the lily of the field, will bring John, who believed in Christ and was buried with Him in baptism, to share in His Resurrection and Eternal Life. This is our Christian hope that sustains us in life’s darkest moments. The Prophet Micah reminds us: “This is what the Lord your God asks of you: only to act justly, love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.” John heeded the Prophet’s advice.

How appropriate are the words of Father Bill Donaghy’s sonnet:

“He sleeps beyond the boys, the books and the bell, Beneath the Cross, who served the Cross so well.”

May he now rest in the peace and eternal joy of the Risen Christ.

Rev. Earle Markey, S.J. '53, is the associate director of admissions at Holy Cross.

Related Information:

Welcome Remarks by Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J. »
Homily by Rev. Earle Markey, S.J. '53 »
Eulogy by P. Kevin Condron '67 »
Reflections on Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. '49, Delivered on July 8 at His Wake by Frank Vellaccio »