In Memoriam: Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. ’49, 1923-2012

July 3rd, 2012 by 


Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., the longest serving president of the College of the Holy Cross, died on Monday, July 2, 2012, at UMass Memorial Hospital—University Campus in Worcester, after complications from lymphoma. He was 88.

During his tenure as the College’s 29th president from 1970 to 1994, Fr. Brooks presided over a period of enormous change at Holy Cross, New England’s oldest Catholic college. In addition to moving the College to coeducation and recruiting a significantly more diverse student body, he helped strengthen Holy Cross financially, energize the alumni network, and build the College into one of the country’s top liberal arts institutions. At the time of his death, Fr. Brooks was actively working, serving as President Emeritus and Loyola Professor of the Humanities in the Religious Studies Department. He continued to teach a seminar in Contemporary Christology, remained engaged in fundraising and the business of the College, and had close ties with legions of alumni. In the past year, his leadership at Holy Cross received widespread attention after the publication of the book “Fraternity,” chronicling the bold steps he took in the late 1960s and early 1970s to recruit African-American students to the College.

1923-1966
Born July 13, 1923 in Dorchester, Mass., to the late John E. and Mildred (McCoy) Brooks, Fr. Brooks grew up the oldest of four children in the West Roxbury section of Boston. He graduated from the Boston Latin School and entered Holy Cross as a freshman in 1942. Fr. Brooks volunteered for service in the U.S. Army in 1943, and trained in the Signal Corps. He served in World War II campaigns in Northern France, the Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe until his discharge from the Army in January 1946. He graduated from Holy Cross in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree and major concentration in physics. After pursuing graduate studies in geophysics at Pennsylvania State University, he entered the New England Province of the Society of Jesus in 1950. He earned an M.A. in philosophy in 1954 from Boston College, and immediately returned to Holy Cross as an instructor of mathematics and physics. In 1956, he began his study of theology at Weston College and was ordained a priest on June 13, 1959 by the late Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston. Having completed a year of ascetical theology study at the Jesuit Tertianship in Pomfret, Conn., he also earned an M.S. in geophysics from Boston College. Assigned to pursue graduate studies in theology, in 1963 he earned a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from the Gregorian University in Rome, during the early years of the Second Vatican Council.

He returned to Holy Cross as a faculty member in the Religious Studies Department in 1963, and was named department chair in 1964.

Fr. Brooks made his final vows as a Jesuit in August 1966.

Bold decisions
Immediately following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April of 1968, Fr. Brooks traveled to high schools up and down the East Coast to recruit African-American high school students to attend Holy Cross. Among the dozens of students he brought to Holy Cross were Clarence Thomas ’71, the future Supreme Court justice; Edward P. Jones ’72, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature; Theodore Wells ’72, who would become one of the nation’s most successful defense attorneys; Stanley Grayson ’72, future New York City deputy mayor who would break the color bar on Wall Street; and Eddie Jenkins ’72, who would play for the Miami Dolphins during their 1972 perfect season.

Also in 1968, Fr. Brooks was appointed Academic Vice President and Dean of the College, and in 1970, he succeeded the Rev. Raymond J. Swords, S.J., whose 10-year presidency was the longest at the College at the time. Fr. Brooks was the first president elected by a combination Jesuit-lay Board of Trustees.

In 1970, he announced that the previously all-male Holy Cross was to admit women, and in the fall of 1972 approximately 300 women entered Holy Cross.

Throughout his tenure as president, Fr. Brooks was an indefatigable fundraiser, annually traveling across the country, delivering talks to dozens of regional alumni clubs and meeting with supporters and donors. In partnership with his friend and colleague, the late Francis X. Miller, S.J. ’46, vice president of development, they strengthened the famous Holy Cross alumni network and built a lasting foundation of loyalty among Holy Cross graduates.

In 1986, with presidents from Bucknell, Colgate, Lafayette, and Lehigh universities, he helped found what has become the Patriot League, originally begun as a Division I football league, now expanded to be inclusive of all sports and to this day recognized for its promotion of high academic achievement among participating student-athletes. He was inducted into the Institute for International Sport’s Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame in 2003.

Expanding campus opportunities, interreligious understanding
Fr. Brooks was also instrumental in expanding the cultural offerings at Holy Cross, particularly art and music. He founded the College’s first art gallery in 1983, and today the campus and the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery are known for extensive collections as well as an acclaimed exhibition program. Fr. Brooks also commissioned the College’s award-winning Taylor and Boody Organ, designed in the tradition of 16th and 17th century Dutch and north German organs, which was completed and dedicated in 1985. The Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. Concert Hall was named for him, and the full-tuition Brooks Music Scholarship was established in his honor.

Fr. Brooks was president in 1990 when his friend and Holy Cross trustee, the late Jacob Hiatt, along with his daughter and son-in-law, Myra and Robert Kraft, made a major gift to Holy Cross and Brandeis University to endow two professorships in comparative religion: the Kraft-Hiatt Chair in Judaic Studies at Holy Cross and the Kraft-Hiatt Chair in Christian Studies at Brandeis University. To this day, the Kraft-Hiatt fund supports campus and community-wide educational initiatives that foster understanding of Judaism and Jewish culture, and dialogue between Jews and Christians.

Honors and remembrances
Fr. Brooks received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Holy Cross in 1994. He also received honorary degrees from St. Ambrose College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, St. Anselm College, Assumption College, Anna Maria College, and the University of New England. He served on the boards of Spring Hill College, Canisius College, St. Peter’s College, and Anna Maria College. He was also a trustee of The Gregorian University Foundation and St. Sebastian’s School, among many other educational, cultural, and research organizations he helped lead.

He was past president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and the New England Colleges Fund, Inc. He also served as chair of both the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts and the Colleges of the Worcester Consortium.

Fr. Brooks is survived by his sisters Mildred E. Brooks and Marion L. Brooks, both of Needham, Mass; his brother Paul F. Brooks of Manchester, N.H.; and sister-in-law Dorothy G. Brooks of Needham. He is also survived by niece Maureen Shambo, of Merrimack, N.H.; nephew Paul F. Brooks and his wife Tammy of North Attleboro, Mass.; nephew John E. Brooks of Manchester, N.H.; cousin Roger Sullivan and his wife Marguerite and cousin Barbara Sullivan, all of Hingham, Mass.; and many grandnieces and grandnephews whom he loved very much.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his memory to the College of the Holy Cross, One College Street, Worcester, Mass. 01610; Attention: Development Office.


Information for campus visitors

Wake: Sunday, July 8, 2 to 5 p.m., with vigil service and reflections at 4:30 p.m., Mary Chapel (lower level of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel)
Parking is available in the Hogan Campus Center lots (enter Gate 7); Loyola lot (enter Loyola Gate off McKeon Road); or Linden Lane. Shuttle service will be available from campus parking lots to the chapel. Enter Mary Chapel by side door near St. Joseph statue and proceed to the chapel’s gathering space, accessible by elevator or stairs.

Funeral Mass: Monday, July 9, 10:30 a.m., St. Joseph Memorial Chapel

Parking is available in Hogan Campus Center lots (enter Gate 7) and Loyola lot (enter Loyola Gate off McKeon Road). Shuttles will be available from campus parking lots to chapel. The funeral will be simulcast in Mary Chapel (lower level), where there will be overflow seating. Eucharistic ministers will bring communion to the lower chapel. No tickets are being issued for the funeral.

Following the funeral, a brief graveside service and private burial will take place in the Jesuit cemetery on campus. Speakers will be set up near the chapel plaza, so those wishing to listen to audio of the service can be accommodated.

Public Safety and Worcester Police officers will be stationed to direct traffic and assist those with handicap or accessibility needs.

Directions and campus map are available here.


brooks Photo Gallery: Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. ’49, 1923-2012 »
brooks Photo Gallery: Former Holy Cross President Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. ’49, Laid to Rest »
brooks Video: NBC’s ‘Today’ Show Features Holy Cross and ‘Fraternity’ »
brooks Learn more about “Fraternity,” Fr. Brooks, and the extraordinary group of black alumni featured in the book, read an excerpt, buy the book, and see reviews and media coverage »

For additional information, please contact the Office of Public Affairs at 508-793-2419.

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Comments (15)
  1. Bill Mahoney, Class of 1940 says:

    Father Brooks – Ever the congenial host

    Some years ago, my wife, Ann, and I were attending the sold-out general alumni dinner at the Fenwick dining room. Our daughter, Jane, was visiting Cape Cod with two of her college classmates and took the opportunity to come and visit us while we were at Holy Cross. The group was late arriving and ended up meeting us at the cocktail reception.

    Father Brooks greeted them and spent some time with them, then came over to Ann and me to ask if our guests wanted to stay for the (sold-out) gourmet dinner. He said he was sure the chef could find 3 filets for them! Although Jane and her friends had made other arrangements, they were touched by his kind offer and spirit of inclusiveness. It’s just one example of the consistent kindness of Father John Brooks.

    He made Holy Cross a great institution and he will be missed.

  2. Ellen O'Connell, widow '49 says:

    As the wife of Bob O’Connell ’49, who was Fr. Brooks’ only physics major classmate, I fondly remember when he became president. We lived in Lexington and the announcement came over the radio early morning. I yelled up to Bob who yelled back “Brooksie, President?” He couldn’t believe it. But what a good one he was.

  3. Larry Kelly '77 says:

    In September of 1973 I was a new freshman walking down the hall of Fenwick toward O’Kane. Down the hall walking toward me is Fr. Brooks. OMG is that him? Do I say something? What do I call him? Father President? In the 7-10 seconds I have I decide. As we approach each other I look up and say “Hi, Fr. Brooks.” He looks me right in the eye and responds, “Hi, Larry.” Only later did I hear what I learned first-hand, that Fr. Brooks memorized the names of incoming students from our application photos. He must have loved the reactions of awe from those like me.

  4. Tony Ponte, Human Resources Retiree says:

    I just wanted to take a minute to express my profound sadness on the passing of Father Brooks. I consider myself lucky enough to have worked and known Father during his time as President and after. One thing comes to mind when I think about Father Brooks, and that was that everyone that worked at the college was important, it didn’t make any difference if they were a custodian, a housekeeper, an office worker like myself or a faculty member. It was one of those times that I regretted not living closer so I could have paid my respects in person. I do know that his legacy will endure for as long as there is a College of the Holy Cross.

  5. Anne O'Rourke, widow '49 says:

    I will always remember my first meeting with Fr. Brooks at my husband’s 50th class reunion. I was greeted and welcomed like an old friend and that has been my feeling ever since. As a friend of my husband’s just wrote me about Fr. Brooks, “an obituary that sums up piety, leadership and warm humility.” He’ll get a warm greeting from Ted in eternity. Peace. Those few words sum it up.

  6. Rick Romatowski '73 says:

    I graduated from Holy Cross in 1973. Having entered in 1969, I was there from the beginning of Fr. Brooks’ tenure. What an honor to have known him. He firmly guided The Cross through turbulent years of change with strength, conviction and vision. I sit here with a feeling of sadness and loss, tempered by the knowledge I stood next to, and was guided by a true gift from God.

  7. Iris Cantor says:

    It is with great sorrow that we bid farewell to our close friend Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. Father Brooks’ pioneering achievements for Holy Cross and its students and alumni will be fondly remembered. He was a committed advocate of the arts and it is his vision that made Holy Cross a place where life and art converge. He worked tirelessly to increase the appeal of Holy Cross and opened admissions to a diverse group of new students. Father Brooks’ enthusiasm made him an inspiration to everyone at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation as well as to me personally. My heart goes out to those who had the pleasure of knowing Father Brooks, for I have been inspired by him in every aspect of my life. Farewell my friend.

    Iris Cantor
    President and Chairman
    Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation
    Recipient, Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, May 2003, College of the Holy Cross

  8. Ken Furlong '47 says:

    John Brooks did so much for Holy Cross that will never be forgotten. He also did much that is not generally known. A fine man, fine priest and great person. I thanked him at our 50th reunion for all he had done for Holy Cross saying that I wished I had spoken sooner. He was as always the kind gracious fine representative of the college.

  9. William J Kane, Class of '54 says:

    The Class of ’54 remet Will Jenks at our 25th reunion and recognized that he was far brighter and more courageous than any of the class due to his total paralysis from polio. A petition was sent to Fr. Brooks re- questing that he confer on Will a well deserved Bachelor of Arts, but as that was not feasible Father Brooks provided an Honorary Degree in its place, and it was one of Fathers many generous and most satisfying deeds.

  10. Richard E. Hoff '84 says:

    In late August of 1979, my parents and I pulled up to Holy Cross during my college tour of New England. This was a stop I did as a favor to my father who had met Fr. Brooks at a charity dinner in New York. I met Fr. Brooks and did the tour. After I had seen the Cross, met some of the people, my view changed entirely. This college quickly shot up the list of schools I wanted to attend. The pride he took was reflected in every aspect of school on Mt. St. James, from admissions to the beautiful campus.

    Fr. Brooks was not only a great man, he was a good man. The changes that he made while still being able to make Holy Cross a distinct place reflected the goodness in this wonderful man.

  11. James E. Sparkes '71 says:

    Rev. John E. Brooks, SJ personified, with humble dignity, the mission of his Order. No one who experienced this man could escape the undeniable purpose of his life, and of ours, “To live as people for others.” May he rest in peace, with knowledge of a job well done.
    Jim Sparkes ’71
    President Elect, Holy Cross Alumni Association

  12. Richard A.Callahan '63 says:

    Greatness is reserved for those few who impress upon significant institutions those traits that make their personal character noble and effective. Fr . Brooks raised the standards at Holy Cross by imbuing it with his personal scholastic, humanitarian and Christian standards. In addition he was a master at running the business that is Holy Cross. He was certainly the greatest President the College has had in living memory, perhaps ever.

    • sharoninconnecticut says:

      my Mom worked in the registrars office for many years when Father Brooks was President. I worked in Alumni Records. The College grew and their standards grew under the leadership of Fr. Brooks. God Bless.

  13. Joe Giglio says:

    He was a great man. A Jesuit for his time and a visionary. His impact on Holy Cross is immeasurable. Having recently read “Fraternity” about his efforts to integrate HC and remembering “Women on the Hill” the book about Brooks’ leadership in making HC co-ed, I am in awe of his wonderful work. Of course, that’s just a fraction of the good he did. Rest in peace, dear Fr. Brooks. You help make this world a better place, A.M.D.G.

  14. Bill McGovern (Class of 1974) says:

    A great man has left us. A true giant of a man, whose heart is bigger than Texas, whose love for all was obvious, who lived and breathed for Holy Cross and her sons and daughters. We all have our personal memories of this great man, who over the years has shown what it is to walk in the footsteps of the Lord. And that it can be done. I grieve his passing, but rejoice and celebrate even more that he was with us for so many wonderful years! AMDG, Father Brooks!

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