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One on One with Bernard R. McIlhenny, S.J.

One on One with Bernard R. McIlhenny, S.J.
Fr. McIlhenny at the dedication of the McIlhenny Ballroom in the DeNaples Center in 2009.

Known around campus as “Father Mac,’” Bernard R. McIlhenny, S.J., now 88 years-old, spent nearly a half-century leading Scranton admissions and serving the Jesuit Community at the University.

He arrived in 1958 to serve as the fourth headmaster of Scranton Prep where he oversaw the relocation of the school. In 1966 he became dean of admissions at the University where, during his tenure, he was credited with admitting more than two-thirds of our living alumni.

Over the years, he has seen buildings constructed all around him, but—as then-University President Fr. Scott Pilarz said during the dedication of the McIlhenny Ballroom in the DeNaples Center in 2009—Fr. McIlhenny has remained our “rock.”

He is currently dean of admissions emeritus and resides in Campion Hall.

You entered the Society of Jesus 70 years ago. (Happy anniversary, by the way!) How did you decide to join the Society?

I was born and raised right in the heart of Philadelphia, six blocks from Temple University. Our home was in the Gesu parish, a Jesuit parish (there were only two of them in Philadelphia). I attended St. Joe’s Prep (a Jesuit school) and St. Joe’s University (a Jesuit university). I never even knew a diocesan priest, but what I saw in my parish, in my high school and in my college, I liked … it was as simple as that.

How did you end up in Scranton?

My training as a Jesuit lasted 14 years and included eight years of study and three years of teaching. The first two years and the last year were devoted to prayer and the spiritual life. 

When my training days were over, the Jesuit Provincial of the Maryland Province assigned me to Scranton Prep School as headmaster and it was all new to me. I had never been a headmaster and I had never been to Scranton.

What was Scranton like when you got here?

Things were very different than they are today. Scranton Prep, an all-male school with 50-some in the graduating class, was only 14 years old and was located at the corner of Wyoming Avenue and Mulberry Street in the old Thomson Hospital building. There was no gym, no theater and no real cafeteria.

The University of Scranton was just beginning to create a campus. There was a little cluster of buildings, including some World War II barracks that were used as classrooms.  Linden and Monroe Streets were sort of the focal point; the first science building had just been completed on the Estate grounds. Old Main on Wyoming Avenue was still the most important building.

During your years in admissions, what impressed you most about Scranton applicants?

When students are looking at colleges, they are searching for a good match between their interests and abilities and the individual school. In the case of the University, aside from the academics, students and their parents were looking for a good family atmosphere. Students did not want to be just a number; they did not want to be lost in the shuffle; they wanted to be with others who took the time to care and they wanted a school where they could make friends — friends for life. When I go to class reunions, I see how true that fact is, even today.

How has the campus grown around you?

When you compare a 1966 campus map with a present one, you realize how startling the physical change really is — we are no longer just a cluster of buildings surrounded by asphalt — now we are a modern campus with plenty of trees and green. Who would ever have dreamed of the Dionne Green in the heart of the campus, or the DeNaples Center with all its gathering spaces or a center for rehabilitation education building coming into existence right before our eyes?

Speaking of the DeNaples Center, you have a room named after you in that building. What’s that like?

I was deeply honored — I truly was. It is a beautiful room and I will say it over and over again: the thing I am happiest about is to see the ballroom being used for an endless variety of events. It is just another example of the University’s wonderful growth.

What are your fondest memories here?

How do you sum up 31 years? Naturally, I look back with a sense of pride as I have watched the remarkable growth of the University. But my fondest memories are the people: fellow workers, student workers and faculty, deans and grounds crew … and on and on. 

In my ballroom you might notice some words by Dag Hammarskjöld. Basically he is saying we are all instruments of God’s grace. I am simply an instrument of God’s grace. This is something I truly believe.

Tell me about your years as headmaster.

Scranton Prep was, at that time, an old hospital. There was a marvelous spirit there. One day I got a call from Father Long, the president of The University of Scranton. He was also the president of Scranton Prep, as well as the rector of the Jesuit community. Father Long said, “Well, you have to move your school, Bernie.” I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Well, they’re going to widen Mulberry Street, because it’s a feeder for the expressway, and it’s going to go right through your school.” I said, “Oh.” That set me on a mission for the next two years of not only running the school, but also finding a new location.

Those two years were very interesting years. We had the school being torn down on one side of us. We were existing in the Old Main building of the University because the University had moved up to St. Thomas Hall and that became available. We had a little library and everything there as a result.

It was important to never lose our spirit. It was hard to move, but they kept their spirit and they kept it well. The day came in September 1963 when we moved into our new building.

I was headmaster until 1966. That’s when I became dean of admissions at the University.

What was admissions at Scranton like in 1966?

In 1966 the University was all male and the students wore coats and ties. It was mainly a commuting school with a very limited number of boarders. The country was in the midst of the Vietnam War and many of the anchors of society were being questioned. It was a time of upheaval and demonstrations.

The University, like many other institutions, worked on a "sellers market" basis. The schools would sit back and the students would come to them. In 1967 I was fortunate enough to be selected for a special admissions summer program at Harvard and there I learned that this approach was in the process of changing. Now it was becoming a "buyers market.” You had to identify your institution: what makes it different from your competitors; where do your students come from; why do they come to The University of Scranton? Literally, I came home from that program and—for years to come—I was doing my homework.

What does it feel like to still be on campus, living in Campion Hall, after all these years?

Once you’re in the Society, you’re always in it. They’re wonderful. They care. One of the beauties of the order is that as you get older (I’m 88) they take care of you so you’re not sitting in a nursing home so you’re able to still be active. I thank God that I can be active. I’ve got a new hip and I had a back operation, but I’m fine. One of my joys is playing golf and I can still do that.

Watch a portion of the dedication of the McIlhenny Ballroom here.

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