By Maggie Downs and Rebecca Goodman
Enquirer staff writers
Eleven weeks ago, the Rev. James E. Hoff stood behind a pulpit for the last time, his voice trembling with emotion. The former Xavier University president discussed faith, hope and ideals as he delivered the homily for the Class of 2004's baccalaureate ceremony.
Wednesday, the Rev. Michael Graham, current Xavier president, mused over the statements made that day - as he delivered the homily at Hoff's funeral.
"It was as if something inside of Jim knew it would be the last pulpit he'd ever have," Graham said.
Almost everyone who walked through the doors of St. Xavier Church downtown found a friend to embrace at Hoff's funeral.
Among the crowd of 500 were former Xavier basketball coaches Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser, as well as the current basketball team. Other members of the community included Rep. Rob Portman, administrators from local colleges and about 30 Jesuits, as well as countless friends who considered themselves part of Hoff's family.
The Rev. Richard Bollman, the university's community rector, said that during the last days of Hoff's life, he knew there would be a gathering of affection and love for the inspirational man; a gathering to make sense of his death. "You are that gathering," he told the crowd.
Hoff died Friday of cancer at the age of 72.
The Rev. Luke Byrne, a chaplain for Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., delivered the eulogy. In 1955, Byrne became fast friends with Hoff because of a mutual love for sports. They later attended the seminary together.
Byrne said he always admired the way Hoff made everyone feel important.
"In his world, there were no little people," he said. "We knew it. He could communicate that with us."
But he also saw a side of Hoff that many didn't: the competitive person who emerged on the golf course.
"A friend of mine said that (Hoff) was not only focused on winning. He was focused on beating you," Byrne laughed.
Throughout the day, almost 100 people at a time stood in line on the sidewalk in front of the church, waiting to go inside to pay their respects to Hoff.
The afternoon saw a steady stream of mourners - almost 600 more - who lingered to look at several collages of pictures of Hoff and to talk about his legacy.
If a theme emerged it was this: That while Hoff was an excellent administrator, he also filled a paternal role at Xavier.
He was "kind of like everyone's parent at Xavier," said Mike Sikora, 22, of Oakley, a 2004 graduate who is heading to medical school at the University of Cincinnati.
"He was a really wonderful man," said Sikora, who roomed with Hoff's nephew. Sikora was a cheerleader and hung out with Hoff at the hotel pool in Atlanta when the basketball team was in the NCAA playoffs there last spring.
"Every time I'd see him, he'd wave," said Andy Seitz, 23, a 2003 graduate. "He didn't know who I was, (but) he didn't care who you were - just that you were."
Deborah Hines, 50, of Batavia knew Hoff when she enrolled at XU after 25 years away from school. It was a stressful time in her life. She was not only juggling classes, a divorce, and taking care of a daughter, but several of her family members had died in a two-month span. Then she picked up her grades on campus and discovered that she had got a C.
Hoff noticed that she was upset and walked over to her.
"He recognized there was a problem," Hines said. "I told him everything."
Hoff shepherded her through the crisis, and she bounced back and landed on the dean's list. He was the one who handed her a bachelor's degree in education in 1999 and a master's the following year.
"He makes me want to be a good person," Hines said. "He showed me the world is not perfect, but we need to be the best we can be. ... I want to give something back to the world."
Hoff's paternal role extended to his family.
"All the milestones of our lives involved him," his nephew Paul Schmitz of Milwaukee said. "He married all of us, baptized us, buried us, said Christmas Mass for us. From birth, (he was) a major force in our lives."
His grand-niece Kristen Frank of New York, a 1996 graduate of Xavier, added that he listened to them without judgment and "let us be exactly who we were meant to be."
Hoff steered Frank to Xavier, where he leaves a legacy of academic advancement and physical improvement.
When Hoff became the 33rd president of the 6,500-student Jesuit university in March 1991, he set out an ambitious agenda to gain, in his words, "everything" for the school.
He came from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., where he had been vice president of university relations and president of the Creighton Foundation. At Creighton, he raised $102 million in five years - $32 million more than the goal.
In his words, his vision for Xavier was to "prepare students intellectually, spiritually and morally to take their place in a rapidly changing global society and work for the betterment of that society,"
He oversaw the largest capital campaign in Xavier's history. The Century Campaign raised a record $125 million, which was used to implement some of the school's most dramatic changes.
He quadrupled the university's endowment and enhanced its academic reputation. The John Templeton Honor Roll - published by the John Templeton Foundation, whose mission is to explore the relationship between theology and science -named XU one of the nation's top 100 character-building schools. And Money magazine declared it to be among the country's 150 best buys. Every year since 1995, Xavier has made U.S. News & World Report's list of best universities.
But perhaps Hoff's biggest legacy is the 10,000-seat, $46 million Cintas Center built in 2000 - a state-of-the art center that was the most expensive and significant building project in XU's history.
Initially, Hoff had been skeptical about coming to Xavier. He said no three times to interviewing for the job. His boss at Creighton persuaded him to at least talk to Xavier.
"I had no idea at the time how blessed and fortunate I was to be chosen president of Xavier," Hoff said upon his retirement in 2000.
It's funny, Graham said.
"We were at our best after Jim Hoff came to us," he said. "But Jim Hoff was at his best with us."
Hoff returned to the classroom and served as chancellor of Xavier after his presidency ended in December 2000.
Diagnosed with cancer in March, he was inducted into the university's Athletic Hall of Fame in April.
He traveled to Milwaukee earlier this month to celebrate his sister's birthday and see his family one last time.
He fell, and had to have nine stitches in his head. But he refused to forgo a dinner with the family at a restaurant later that day.
"He would go to the ends of the earth for us - and did," Schmitz said. "It was by role modeling. He tried to live Christ's example in a way that was an inspiration to us."
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