Obituary: Rev. John E. Brooks / Holy Cross diversified campus under his watch
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The Rev. John E. Brooks, the longest-serving president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., who as a professor there in the days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. set out on a mission that led to the integration of what had been an all-male and virtually all-white institution, died Monday in Worcester. He was 88.
The cause was complications of lymphoma, said Ellen Ryder, a spokeswoman for the college.
On April 4, 1968, the day King was murdered, fewer than a dozen of the 2,200 students at Holy Cross were African-Americans, most of them on athletic scholarships. That month, Father Brooks, a theology professor, began driving up and down the East Coast in search of qualified black high school students to recruit to the college, which the Jesuits founded in 1843. Initially he was on his own, paying his own expenses. But support soon followed when the Rev. Raymond J. Swords, the college's president at the time, heard of his quest.
Among the 20 students Father Brooks recruited that year were Clarence Thomas, the future associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Edward P. Jones, who would win the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Theodore Wells, who would become a successful defense lawyer; and Ed Jenkins Jr., who wears a Super Bowl ring that he won as a player for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins team before going on to become the chief civil rights officer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
In an interview last month with The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Father Brooks was asked if he had ever imagined that so many of the students he recruited would become so successful. "They've done superbly well," he said. "They couldn't have done better. We were either brilliant or lucky. I don't know which."
Two years after beginning his integration campaign, Father Brooks became the 29th president of Holy Cross, succeeding Swords, who died in 1984. Within a year of taking over the post, which he would hold for 24 years, Father Brooks announced that the college would admit women. In the fall of 1972, about 300 joined the student body.
Of the more than 2,800 students now enrolled at Holy Cross, more than half are women and about 25 percent are members of minorities.
"Even among the Jesuits, a progressive, intellectual and typically outspoken order of the church, John Brooks stood out," Diane Brady, a senior editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, wrote in "Fraternity," her account of his integration campaign, published this year. "While many of the professors and priests at Holy Cross welcomed change, few were as relentless as Brooks in pushing for it."
In 1990, Holy Cross and Brandeis University, which has a largely Jewish student body, joined in creating an endowed professorship at each school to promote understanding between students of both faiths. "This is an opportunity to take us further down the road to diminishing discrimination," Father Brooks said at the time. "The view of Holy Cross is that the Catholic community in general does not understand our shared spiritual patrimony with the Jewish community."
John Edward Brooks was born in Dorchester, Mass., on July 13, 1923, the eldest of four children of John and Mildred Brooks. His father worked for the telephone company. Young John was admitted to Holy Cross in 1942, but enlisted in the Army a year later and served in the Signal Corps in Europe. His scholastic interests would swerve from the theological to the scientific.
Soon after graduating from Holy Cross in 1949 with a degree in physics, he joined the Jesuit order. After earning a master's in philosophy at Boston College in 1954, he returned to Holy Cross as an instructor of mathematics and physics. He later earned a master's in geophysics from Boston College and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome.
Father Brooks, who was ordained in 1959, returned to Holy Cross as a professor in the religious studies department and served as its chairman from 1964 until being named president.
He is survived by his sisters, Mildred and Marion Brooks, and his brother, Paul.
Father Brooks not only persuaded young black men to attend Holy Cross, Ms. Brady wrote in "Fraternity"; he also arranged for the college to provide them with scholarships, and mentored and defended them through often challenging college years.
For Justice Thomas, she wrote, Father Brooks "was a combination of friend, uncle, priest, father, saint and good Samaritan." She quoted Justice Thomas: "I wasn't part of some program to Father Brooks. ... We weren't symbols to him. We were just kids."
First Published July 6, 2012 12:00 am