Thursday, June 13, 2002

University of Dayton's 'Brother Ray' retiring

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

        DAYTON, Ohio — It was late at night. Brother Raymond Fitz, president of the University of Dayton, interrupted his meeting on campus with Ohio Senate President Richard Finan to make a telephone call.

        Brother Fitz, who oversees an annual budget of $250 million, had to call home — a modest house in a student neighborhood affectionately known as “the Ghetto.”

        “He said, "It's my night to take out the garbage, and I've got to get someone to do it for me,'” recalled Mr. Finan, chairman of the school's trustees. “He thought there was never a job too small for him.”

        “Brother Ray” will retire at the end of June after 23 years of running the private, 11,000-student Roman Catholic university. He will continue to teach a leadership course.

        The 60-year-old Brother Fitz is the second-longest-serving sitting president of any Catholic college or university in the country. Sister Joel Read has been president of Alverno College in Milwaukee for 34 years.

        “It's a very demanding job in terms of energy. I like all the pieces, but there are so many pieces it just wears you out. I don't want people to carry me out of here,” the silver-haired Brother Fitz said with a smile.

        His successor — Daniel Curran, executive vice president of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia — will be the first lay leader in UD's 152-year history.

        About half of the 235 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are run by lay presidents, compared with 30 percent in 1991. The change stems from a dwindling supply of brothers, priests and nuns.

        Friends and colleagues describe Brother Fitz as selfless and kind but firm, who has broken pencils in anger but also can exercise self-control. He also is fiercely determined and has a tendency to micromanage.

        “He tends to get in everybody's soup,” said the Rev. Eugene Contadino. “He just loves managing things.”

        Under Brother Fitz's watch, the school's budget has quadrupled, enrollment has increased 6 percent, and the endowment increased from $7.7 million to $275 million. There are nine new campus buildings, including a humanities center and law school.

        Brother Fitz has handed out degrees to 57,652 students.

        Like other Marianists, Brother Fitz has taken a vow of poverty. He gives all but $11,200 of his annual $190,000 salary back to the Catholic order, which is devoted to serving young people and the poor and founded the university.

        “That is his life. That is his satisfaction,” said Mr. Finan, a Republican from Cincinnati. “He does not care a whit about temporal goods.”

        Brother Fitz grew up in the Akron suburb of Cuyahoga Falls, the oldest of six children.

        While in high school, Brother Fitz met Dr. Tom Dooley, a Navy lieutenant who devoted much of his life to helping the sick and poor of Southeast Asia.

        “I was very inspired,” Brother Fitz recalled. “I wanted to do something with my life that would make a difference.”

        Already familiar with the university because his father was a graduate, he enrolled in 1959 and joined the Society of Mary. In 1964 he earned a degree in electrical engineering with a major in religious studies and minor in philosophy.

        Brother Fitz later began teaching electrical engineering at the university. In 1978, at age 37, he was asked to be a candidate for the president's job.

        Mr. Finan, who was on the search committee, remembered Brother Fitz as being smart and energetic — and a risk.

        “He was young, totally inexperienced. He had the academic credentials, but did not have any administrative credentials,” Mr. Finan said. “But there was just something about him that sold him to the search committee.”

        Brother Fitz's ride as president had some rough patches:

        • In 1988, about 50 students took over his outer office and demanded a one-year moratorium on the CIA being allowed to recruit on campus. Brother Fitz met with the protesters and, although a moratorium was never instituted, he pledged to monitor the CIA's accountability for its covert actions.

        “In some sense you wanted students to be concerned about what was going on and you wanted them to have a social conscience,” he said. “But we had to do it within some bounds of civility.”

        • Brother Fitz fired longtime Dayton basketball coach Don Donoher in 1989 after three straight losing seasons. In his 25 years at the basketball-crazy school, Mr. Donoher had compiled a school-record 437 victories and taken the team to the NCAA championship game in 1967.

        • Brother Fitz suspended homecoming at Dayton indefinitely in 2000 because of excessive drinking and furniture fires at street parties in student neighborhoods. “We had to cancel it to get the situation back in control,” he said.

        In 1989, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that can impair vision and cause muscle tremors and, sometimes, paralysis.

        Father Contadino, who along with other Marianist brothers lived with Brother Fitz until last year, said his former housemate rolls with the punches the disease throws him, such as fatigue and stiffness.

        “He refuses to take a drink in public because he's afraid someone will see him stumble and think he's drunk,” Father Contadino said.

        Sue Wesselkamper, president of Chaminade University in Honolulu, credits Brother Fitz with helping the Marianist school get back on its financial feet when she took over in 1995.

        Brother Fitz persuaded the Marianist province of the Pacific to erase Chaminade's $4.2 million operating debt by promising to provide free technical financial expertise from Dayton.

        Enrollment has increased from 600 to 1,000 students, and assets from $1 million to $10 million.

        Students consider the stocky Brother Fitz one of their own. He is always walking the campus and student neighborhoods and pops up in the student cafeteria.

        “Students feel very comfortable approaching him and speaking with him,” said Mark Ferguson, 22, of the Dayton suburb of Beavercreek.

        Brother Fitz and his Marianist brothers often have students to their house for meals.

        “That they know they can come to his house and share a meal with him is something that just blows people away,” Mr. Ferguson said.


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