In fact, Brother David and others laid the ground work for an amazing transformation that would be brought about by Brother James Gaffney, FSC, who was inaugurated as President of Lewis University in October of 1988. The inauguration of Lewis University’s fourth Christian Brother President took place in the heart of the Lewis University campus – Sancta Alberta Chapel. The start of Brother James Gaffney’s presidency was seen as a new beginning for Lewis and a historic moment for the De La Salle Christian Brothers here, who, along with the faculty, staff and students, still mourned the loss of Brother David Delahanty, FSC.
Brother Bernard Rapp, FSC, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and now Lewis University’s archivist, recalled Brother David’s legacy. “I really felt a great loss… He had done so much as President. He stabilized the finances, restored morale, and, as a faculty member, I felt that Brother David had given me and my colleagues a renewed sense of self-worth. When Brother James was named President, he was able to build upon the work of Brother David – in a sense, he was able to stand upon the shoulders of a giant.”
Brother James had long been associated with Lewis, first as Chair of the Board beginning in 1975, and continuing as a member of the Board throughout the 1980s. This wealth of experience and deepened level of understanding provided him with the background and expertise required for his important new role as President. Perhaps the best preparation, however, was what was accomplished by his predecessor. “Brother David restored integrity and dignity to the presidency,” recalled Brother James.
James Perrone, an accounting professor who has taught in the College of Business for over 30 years, recalled the renewed sense of optimism that swept the Lewis community when Brother James was inaugurated. “I can’t remember more of a consensus of support for any President than when Brother James was named President. We saw him as this young rising star who would bring fresh insight to his work and get us back on track. He immediately went out into the community; he earned the support of the business community and got to really know as many people as possible.”
Internally, Brother James led early efforts to significantly improve the financial situation, increase endowment, energize the institutional advancement office, grow academic programs, and physically enhance the campus. Brother Bernard remembered the psychological impact that the appearance of the campus had on visitors prior to Brother James’ term as President. “When people came onto the campus, they had a bad impression of the University based upon what they saw outside, but what was going on in the classroom was outstanding.”
Brother James recalled the state of the campus in 1988. “There was little evidence of pride in facilities. The facilities and landscaping were worn-out and depleted of resources. Even with a limited budget, the small improvements we undertook made a big difference.” The work that began in 1988 never stopped. Alumni and longtime friends of the University alike can’t help but notice this amazing physical transformation when visiting the campus today.
In the early 1990s, the President led a multi-year effort to renew the Mission of the University, which was meant to refocus the institution, unify the Lewis community and provide a framework for academics and planning. It was during this project that the faculty and staff of Lewis, along with members of the community and many others came to a better understanding of our heritage and our Catholic and Lasallian identity that served as the basis for all that took place inside and outside of the classroom.
The Mission renewal project helped the University community to understand perhaps more than many other institutions sponsored by the Christian Brothers, that the Mission wasn’t only embodied in the Brothers themselves, but was something that everyone had an important role in modeling to students and to the community. The Brothers paved the way, leading by example and helping students to understand what the Lasallian charism was all about and how to incorporate it into their lives and work. Sharon O’Connell, a 1996 graduate of Lewis’ History program and who is now an attorney, put it best when she said, “The Brothers have chosen to live among students, to interact daily with the students, and to teach students – not only in the classroom, but by example. It is the responsibility of each student to take the examples set forth by the Brothers and incorporate the knowledge we gain throughout our Lewis experience and to seek justice in our communities and our world.”
In keeping with the Christian Brothers’ interest in the development of students intellectually, spiritually, physically and socially, under Brother James’ leadership Lewis has become an exemplar of student-centeredness. In his inaugural address 22 years ago, Brother James noted that, “Being involved in the Mission of Lewis University is such a special privilege because of the significance of what is happening to our students while they are with us, and how we can contribute to their growth and holistic development. In God’s providence we have a vital mission that is also a source of great satisfaction. We are offering our students something of lasting value during perhaps the most critical years of their lives.” Ensuring that students have the best possible educational experience at Lewis, one that is personalized, valuescentered, faith-filled and academically rewarding has been one of the President’s greatest accomplishments.
Sharon O’Connell recalled, “One of the elements of my experience at Lewis University which continues to amaze me… is the familiarity with which Brother James would greet all students. I have a distinct recollection of shock the first time he said hello to me, by name, during the second week of classes. This experience is shared by countless other students over the years. Over time, we come to accept Brother James’ inquiries about classes, family and social events with muted awe. But the fact remains that in that one initial act of calling a new student by name, Brother James welcomes students into the Lewis family, communicates his devotion and commitment to the students and the community and helps each student understand, in a very fundamental way, that a student is never really just a number at Lewis University.”
Today, with more than 600 faculty and staff employed at Lewis, almost 20 Christian Brothers serve in a variety of capacities. Some teach and chair academic departments, while others serve in administrative and staff roles. Those who are retired are active among the campus community and all Brothers, regardless of their formal responsibilities, remain a source of inspiration and encouragement to all members of the Lewis community.