When John L. Lahey was a boy, he once accompanied his father, a hard-working bricklayer, to a worksite. He wanted to see what his father’s job was all about, and to try it out for himself. His grandfather, Daniel Lahey, an immigrant from Knockglossmore, Co. Kerry, had been a stone mason, so the craft was in the family.
After a few unsuccessful attempts by Lahey to learn the trade, his father asked him to stop. It was fairly clear that his future didn’t lie in masonry. On the way back to their home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the elder Lahey advised his son. “You’re smart,” he said. “I think your future is in education.”
As it turns out, he was right.
For the past 24 years, Lahey has been president of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. During his tenure there, the university’s academic programs, facilities, enrollment, national ranking and prestige have grown at an unprecedented rate. One semester each year, Dr. Lahey returns to the classroom with his PhD in Philosophy, teaching a course on logical reasoning or social and political philosophy. In addition to his work as university president, Lahey devotes significant time to his Irish roots. He has been involved with the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade since he was a child, and currently serves as vice chairman of the parade committee. Lahey has also worked thoughtfully and tenaciously to correct what he openly calls the “whitewashing” of the true story of Ireland’s great hunger from the history books and from cultural memory: namely, that it could have been prevented and that idleness on the part of the British was largely to blame for the magnitude of the famine’s devastation. Though he may not have been very good at literal bricklaying, Lahey has proven to be a master at a more conceptual sort of building.
The university president is the first to admit that he has always been more intellectually inclined. Thirsty for knowledge from a young age, Lahey attended the Fordham Preparatory School in Riverdale. “In a way,” he reflected during a recent visit to the Irish America offices, “we studied philosophy without calling it philosophy: we took theology courses and asked where the world had come from and where it was going – great, essential philosophical questions. I had an interest in those big questions from an early age.”
He was also very involved in the community, spending each St. Patrick’s Day marching in the New York City parade under Fordham University’s banner. He loved New York and he loved St. Margaret’s Parish, the very Irish enclave where his family lived. But when it was time to choose a college, Lahey made the tough decision to leave his city and attend the University of Dayton, Ohio.
Lahey found his niche when he enrolled in his second philosophy course at Dayton. The class explored the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and little else. “At this point,” he explained “it was still 1964 or ’65, and only certain types of philosophy were officially taught. Since Dayton was a Catholic university, they were still only teaching the traditional philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, upon which much of Catholic theology is based. There was a whole index of banned works they weren’t allowed to teach: essentially, anything that was deemed to be inconsistent with St. Thomas Aquinas or Catholic doctrine.”
However, Lahey wound up learning much more than the approved Thomistic philosophy. “Another student and I were asking a lot of questions in class,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to get Professor Balthasar in trouble, but we were curious about how to reconcile scientific thought with Catholic doctrine. One day, he asked us both to stay after class, and he said ‘Look, you two. I’ll give you an A for the course, you know what you’re doing in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas. You don’t have to come to class for the rest of the semester, but come to my office and I’ll teach you the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I can’t teach you this officially in the classroom but there’s nothing to prevent you from reading the books.’
“So he gave me two of his books: Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu. And it was exactly what I had been looking for. The author, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was somewhat of a contradiction at that time: he was a Jesuit priest, a philosopher, and a scientist, and had written extensively about his belief that the creationist theories of how man, the world and the universe came into being could be reconciled with evolution; that Catholicism and the theory of evolution could co-exist. At the time, this was deemed to be totally inconsistent with Catholic teaching. But I was a young person, and evolution understandably had a lot of enticing aspects. Not only was it supported by a lot of scientists, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, but it was also a dynamic kind of philosophy that allowed for change. I had heard there was a contradiction between being a good Catholic and believing in evolution. But here was a brilliant scientist who was also a Jesuit priest! He used philosophical thought to combine the two things I wanted to combine in my own life. I was totally taken by it.”