Opinion: Looking back on Wildes’ time at Loyola

Fr. Ted Dziak

Fr. Ted Dziak


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When you first walk into Loyola President Kevin Wildes’ office on the second floor of Marquette, you see many framed photos on his shelves and walls. They’re pictures of Father Wildes with students or families or friends — weddings, gatherings — and all are smiling and happy. ‘Cura Personalis’ is what Jesuit educators call it: always caring for the whole person. These are the mementos of Father Kevin Wildes, Jesuit priest.

This past week we learned that Loyola’s president of the past 13 years would leave the office by the end of this academic year. In a world when university presidents spend an average 8.5 years at any given institution, Father Kevin W. Wildes is one of the longer-serving presidents — the elder statesman of the New Orleans area universities. A search committee is now being formed to replace him.

I’ve been honored to serve under Kevin Wildes for over 11 years and to get to know him as a friend and Jesuit companion. Being president of Loyola is not an easy job, but the buck has to stop somewhere. In an era of tightening budgets, attacks on the value of higher education and falling college-age demographics, leading a university today brings stress, headaches and challenges. How does Kevin eliminate that stress? The punching bag. He was a Golden Gloves boxer as an undergrad at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. And while teaching at Georgetown, and living on campus, he would offer Tuesday evening masses, along with the occasional Sunday evening boxing lessons. Both drew crowds. He has continued his boxing at Loyola, finding a local gym in New Orleans and always seeking a sparring partner of his caliber (and age class). Yes, the Jesuit priest has always been active — he’s run three marathons — and always a competitive fighter.

Kevin Wildes is a Jersey boy and son of a policeman, who found his vocation at St. Joe’s University. I like to invite Kevin to come to my Ignatius class to share his vocation story, for he keeps the class laughing and enthralled — and even a bit inspired. To know Kevin, you have to understand that aspect of him: that he listened to his vocational call, felt drawn to the Jesuits, and followed his call to the priesthood. Discerning a career, he followed his call to teaching, straight through to his doctorate in health ethics. Even as president, Kevin is always ready to share his knowledgeable perspective on current health issues in a Huffington Post article or to his bioethics class on campus. But Kevin Wildes is, and always will be, a Jesuit priest.

We are all shaped by our experiences, and Kevin Wildes was named Loyola’s president in 2004, just about a year before Katrina hit New Orleans. Hurricanes were not in his East Coast mindset and he made a decision not to evacuate, but as captain, to stay with the Loyola ship. So he hunkered down with Physical Plant personnel on a cot in Mercy Hall and suffered the wind and rain of Katrina. Luckily, the campus was not flooded and our president emerged, walked around the campus and viewed the damage. When he heard the levees had broken and saw the widespread flooding, he knew he had to get out fast or he’d be stuck. So he borrowed a truck and fled the worst storm in American history to Alexandria, Louisiana, to set up a makeshift leadership group in a garage apartment. Closed for only one semester, Loyola was in the first group of schools that started again in January 2006, and we can thank him for his quick action. Cura Personalis. One of Kevin’s first initiatives was to set up a trailer park on a piece of unused land Loyola owned near Lake Pontchartrain for those staff and faculty who had lost their homes. It was a difficult second year of his presidency, and the Jesuit priest rose to the challenge.

Any college president in today’s world has successes and failures, and Kevin Wildes’ legacy as Loyola’s President is for others to judge, not me. What I see in Kevin is an exceptional bioethics scholar, an energetic colleague, a dedicated Jesuit priest, and a friend, who will soon leave our Loyola community. There will be much time for goodbyes as he will be with us through May.

Ignatius calls us Jesuits to be contemplatives in action, to be always ready to move to our next challenge, the next frontier. Father Kevin Wildes now opens his head, heart and spirit to his next ministry, which will await him after Loyola. Our prayers go with him.

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