Obituary: The Rev. John F. Murtha / Former president of St. Vincent College
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The Rev. John F. Murtha, a Benedictine monk who was president of Saint Vincent College during a decade in which it rose rapidly in national rankings, died Tuesday of emphysema and heart disease at age 79.
"When people wanted things done, they went to him. He was a man of tremendous common sense, with a touch for the common person," said Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, chancellor of the college and Father Murtha's religious superior.
"I think a lot of the success that we've had in subsequent years in development and the expansion of the campus was due to the advances during his years as president."
Father Murtha always said that he grew up at Saint Vincent, having entered its former preparatory school at 14. But his hometown was the village of Marguerite in Unity. One of seven siblings, he shared his name with a second cousin who would go on to become a powerful member of the U.S. Congress.
He took his first vows in 1951, graduated from Saint Vincent College in 1953 and was ordained a priest in 1957. He earned a master's degree in history from Columbia University in 1960 and a doctorate in history from the Catholic University of America in 1965. During graduate school he also served as a history teacher and assistant headmaster at the preparatory school.
In 1965 he was dispatched to Taiwan to become a history professor at Fu Jen Catholic University, a Benedictine school that had reopened many years after the communists forced it from the Chinese mainland. He was so popular there that, when he returned in 2002 to receive an honorary doctorate, many of his former students vied to throw parties in his honor, said Brother Norman Hipps, now president-elect of Saint Vincent, who accompanied him on that trip.
He served in Taiwan for 12 years, returning to Saint Vincent as an associate professor of history in 1977. He was chosen as the college's 13th president in 1985.
One of his primary goals was to advance the college's reputation from that of a strong regional school to a national competitor. By the end of his tenure, Saint Vincent was named one of the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the northern United States, and Money magazine rated it one of the top 100 best college buys in the nation for 1996.
Along the way he oversaw two successful capital campaigns, quintupled the school's endowment to $16 million, built a new science facility, computerized the library and added a swimming pool and student union. New degree programs were established in environmental science, early childhood development and elementary education.
But his signature programs were service-oriented. The school began a drug and alcohol prevention program for high school students, a Teacher Enhancement Institute to help math and science teachers improve their skills, and aided entrepreneurs through a Small Business Development Center and the Center for Global Competitiveness.
He knew how to delegate, said Brother Norman, who worked with him in administration.
"He created an exceptional sense of responsibility among the deans and a strong communal sense in the college," he said.
When he gave out an annual Presidential Award at commencement, he often bypassed movers and shakers who were potential big donors, Brother Norman said. One went to a grade-school teacher who had taught in his hometown for more than 50 years, another to the nuns who ran the college food service.
He practiced management by walking around long before that became a catch phrase in business schools, Archabbot Douglas said.
"He would walk around the campus and stop into people's offices. He was concerned about their families and how their children were doing. People felt very comfortable in sharing their life stories, along with the difficulties and the tragedies," he said. "He was a very kind man. If a student's parent had lost their job, he would assist the student with additional financial aid or whatever was necessary."
He hated meetings.
"If you needed his input at a meeting, you had to make sure the agenda item got to the top, where it would be discussed in within 10 or 20 minutes. He was well known for leaving meetings if he thought there was a lot of hot air," the archabbot said.
He resigned after 10 years' saying, "When you find yourself retracing your own footsteps, it's time to move on."
He was then sent to Savannah, Ga., as president of a military academy that the Benedictines had founded after the Civil War. But he developed emphysema and heart disease and returned to Saint Vincent in 1999 to recuperate. His last assignment was as pastor of his hometown parish, Saint Benedict in Marguerite from 2001 to 2004.
He is survived by a brother, Harry, and a sister, Theresa Cox, both of Greensburg. Visitation is from 3 to 5 and 7 to 9 p.m. today and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday in the parlor of the Elizabeth J. Roderick Center of Saint Vincent Archabbey. A vigil will be held at 7:15 p.m. Sunday in the archabbey basilica. The funeral Mass will be at 1:30 p.m. Monday in the basilica, with interment in Saint Vincent Cemetery,
Gifts may be made to the Rev. John F. Murtha Scholarship Fund, Saint Vincent College, 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe, PA 15650.
First Published April 17, 2010 12:00 am