Jesuit Father John P. Schlegel, former president of Creighton University in Omaha and the University of San Francisco, died Nov. 15, 2015, in Omaha at age 72 after a 10-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
A passionate supporter of Catholic and Jesuit education, Fr. Schlegel was known for Creighton’s transformative campus expansion and boosting the school’s stature while he was president from 2000 to 2011. He also served as president of the University of San Francisco, was former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University in Milwaukee and served as president and publisher at America magazine.
He was serving as pastor of Gesu Parish in Milwaukee when he was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in January. Given the option of treatment with radiation and chemotherapy, or a noninvasive approach of letting things take their course, he chose the latter, preferring quality of life over quantity.
Upon receiving his news, he drew up a bucket list that included a return to England, where he earned his doctorate and first fell in love with opera and rowing, as well as new experiences, like concelebrating Mass with Pope Francis in March.
Fr. Schlegel recalled the brief conversation he and the pope had in English and Spanish. “His English is not terribly good and my Spanish is not terribly good, so we basically communicated in the language of love and respect,” said Fr. Schlegel, adding he found the pope to be a man of humility and simplicity with a genuine smile. “He puts his hand right on you and if you try to kneel and kiss his ring, he will wave you off,” noting that the pope, who was aware of Fr. Schlegel’s illness, grabbed his hand and pulled him closer in an embrace.
After the diagnosis, Fr. Schlegel also traveled to many places from his past to visit friends, family and former colleagues. Those included his hometown in Iowa and Creighton University. “I must say, the way I’ve decided to do it has worked out really well,” Fr. Schlegel said. “Without the baggage of chemo and radiation, I’ve really had a high quality of life. I’ve had the opportunity to travel widely.”
Fr. Schlegel entered the Society of Jesus in 1963 and his career at Creighton University began in 1969, when he taught political science there as a Jesuit scholastic. He joined the political science faculty in 1976 and later added the title of assistant vice president for academic affairs before leaving Creighton in 1982 to become academic dean at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri.
He went on to become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University and executive and academic vice president at John Carroll University in Cleveland before being named president of the University of San Francisco in 1991. He held that position until returning to Creighton in 2000 as president. Fr. Schlegel joined America as president and publisher in 2011; in 2014, he was named pastor of Gesu Parish. [Sources: Creighton University, Marquette Wire, CNS, Midwest Jesuits]