A Q&A with Fr. Reese

Five days after Fr. Edward Reese, S.J., became SI's 31st president, he sat down with Genesiseditor Paul Totah '75 for an interview that dealt in large part with his years growing up in Southern California and what led him to join the Society of Jesus.

Fr. Reese comes to SI from Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, where he served for the past 20 years as president. An experienced administrator, Fr. Reese has served as an assistant principal at Loyola High School, an assistant principal and principal at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose (1978–1993); and as an administrator, teacher and counselor at St. Ignatius Riverview in Sydney, Australia (1993–1995).

Fr. Reese's many accomplishments at Brophy included raising more than $85 million in philanthropic funds, doubling the campus footprint, bringing technology to the campus that made Brophy the first high school in Arizona with one-to-one computing, developing highly competitive faculty salaries and benefits and quadrupling the student financial aid budget. His proudest achievement is the establishment of the Loyola Academy in 2010, providing tuition-free education to 6th, 7th and 8th grade male scholars coming from under-served student populations in Phoenix.

Most recently, he spearheaded the construction of several new facilities at Brophy, including the Eller Center for the Arts, the Piper Science and Math Center, the Harper Great Hall, the Aquatic Center and the Brophy Sports Campus. He has also broken ground on the Fr. Harry T. Olivier, S.J., Practice Gymnasium.

PT: Can you tell me a little about your parents?

ER: My father, James B. Reese, was Welsh, and my mother, Gwendolyn Marie McNeil, who went by Jill, was Scottish. At some point, one of my grandparents changed our last name from Williams to Reese, though I'm not sure why.

My father was an attorney and a California Superior Court judge for Los Angeles County. He had previously worked for the Office of Price Administration [which was created in 1941 to control prices and rents after the U.S. entered the war]. He was born in Boyle Heights, and my mother was born in Iowa. I was born in Alhambra, Calif., on Oct. 2, 1942, and joined my sister, Jill Makowski, who is now 87 and living in Phoenix after a long career as a Catholic school kindergarten teacher. I had an older brother, Jim, who died at 18 due to a brain tumor. My brother, Tom, also a Jesuit now, came a few years later. [Editor's Note: President Obama appointed Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., on June 21 to serve as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.]

PT: What early experiences helped form your character and values?

ER: My mother was a math teacher who graduated from UCLA with her bachelor's degree and from USC with her teaching credential. When Tommy and I were young, she didn't work, but after my brother died, she went back to work as dean of girls at Alhambra High School, where she stayed until my father became sick, and then she retired to care for him. She got along with everyone, even though she was very candid. Mom would tell you what she thought, but she would also do anything for anyone who needed help. I picked up those qualities from my mother.

When I was young, my father practiced law before he became a judge. I learned integrity from him. When I was in sixth grade, my aunt bought BB guns for my brother and me. My dad didn't like the idea of us having guns, but kids had guns in those days, so he tolerated it. Soon after, we both were shooting at a bait tank on the porch of our beach house. I shot, and a bullet ricocheted, hit a plate glass window, and made a little hole in it. My father was furious. He stormed out and demanded to know who did it. My brother and I just stood there, both holding our guns. My brother didn't say a thing. I could see my dad recognize that these two brothers were going to stick together. The loyalty we showed to each other at that moment was more important to him than finding out who did it. He took our guns away but didn't push us to confess. Once, when I was 16, I intentionally bumped into a lady with my car who got in my way. I eventually told my father, but the thing he was upset about was that I didn't tell him right away. In later years, I watched him on the bench and was impressed by how he handled cases.

PT: Were you a good student growing up?

ER: I was a little dyslexic — even now I misdial numbers and I still can't spell. I went to school with 40 kids in each class, and I didn't take anything too seriously. I was probably immature. I had to repeat third grade, as I didn't know how to read. My sister taught me how to read in fourth or fifth grade, and then a nun in sixth trade started feeding me books. She knew I was smart enough. Eventually, I learned how to study. That experience taught me, when I became a teacher, to be more tolerant of students who struggled in class.

PT: Did you play any sports in school?

ER: I was big in grade school. I was the same size in 7th grade that I am now, which is 5 feet, 6 inches on a good day. Then I stopped growing while everyone else grew. I went out for football in high school and played in my freshman year. I came back as a sophomore and wondered where these giants had come from. It made more sense for me to join the choir than play football.

PT: What were your high school years like at Loyola?

ER: I probably got into Loyola because my father went there and the head of the law school knew I had applied; otherwise, I might not have gotten in, as the entrance exam mainly dealt with spelling. I received good grades despite my worries that I wouldn't do well.

PT: What activities did you join?

ER: I performed in plays and musicals. I had one of the leads in Brigadoon and performed in Heidi and as one of the Trapp Family Singers for productions staged at two of the girls' schools.

PT: What led you to become a Jesuit?

ER: If someone had said to me, "You're going to be in education all your life," I would have said, "You're crazy." I liked school but didn't love it. Summers were more fun than school.

In that day and age, priests typically would ask boys and teens, "Have you ever thought about being a priest?" So I had that in my head even before high school. Also, in grade school, I lived across the street from a church and went to Mass in the mornings to serve as an altar boy.

In high school, I determined, as only a high school senior can, that I was going to make a retreat and decide once and for all about becoming a priest. I was hoping to decide not to join, but during the retreat, I decided to do so. Once I made that decision, it was a natural choice to become a Jesuit. What impressed me among the Jesuits at Loyola was that they seemed to like each other, have fun and have a sense of community. So I went right into Society after I graduated.

I studied at Mount St. Michaels in Spokane and almost went to LMU to teach philosophy. At the last minute, I was sent to teach at Loyola in the same classroom where I had spent my sophomore year. That's where I fell in love with teaching.

PT: Can you describe your early years as a Jesuit?

ER: I started teaching in 1968 as a scholastic. In my two years at Loyola, I coached freshman football, and the team was very successful even though I had no idea what I was doing. I helped do the plays and taught choral music in my second year as well as modern European History and English while living in the dorm for high school boarders. I managed to stay a chapter ahead of the kids in my first year. I loved the responses of the students, the give and take and the relationships we formed.

PT: Starting your career in 1968 must have been interesting, given the counterculture movement of the time.

ER: I taught modern European history using Time magazine to cover current events. One day, I handed out the magazine to see a story on the anti-war protests at Berkeley. Pictured in the magazine were four Jesuits who had been a year ahead of me in my early days in the Society.

Among the high school students, drugs became an issue, and some of the more intellectually aware kids began to protest the Vietnam War. Eventually, some of my friends left the Jesuits. During those years, I went from being a Goldwater Republican to a Democrat.

In 1970, I did my theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. On one corner you could find cheerleaders and on another, you'd see kids smoking pot and protesting the war and the killings at Kent State. I helped out at the Newman Center before I was ordained in 1973 at St. Jerome's Church in Southern California.

For my first assignment as a priest, I was sent back to Loyola, where I served as director of boarding campus minister before becoming assistant principal. Over the years, I taught English, European History and various religion classes including ethics. Later, I taught students how to use computers when PCs first came on the scene. Since then, I have never met an IT device I didn't like.

PT: You have a reputation for being very tech friendly. How did that begin?

ER: I saw my first PC, a Tandy, when I joined the Bellarmine administration as an assistant principal. The computer was sitting on my desk. I asked Steve Privett, the principal at the time, about it. He told me the school didn't know what to do with it, so I started playing with it. The rest is history. That's the first time I was really exposed to high tech. Later, I helped Bellarmine become a beta test site for all sort of different things. When I first came to the school, Bellarmine, like most schools, was doing scheduling using computer punch cards.

PT: How have you seen technology help students learn over the years?

ER: I've heard teachers complain about computers. The same arguments were probably leveled against the ballpoint pen and TV. People are reluctant to change. Technology, in my experience, has allowed teachers to be teachers rather than just clerical workers and has turned the whole educational experience on its head. What was once done in the classroom — lectures and presentations — can now be done at home, and what was once homework is now done in classrooms in group settings with far more effective results.

Teachers at Bellarmine and Brophy learned that the coin of the realm was technology, and if you wanted to get along with Eddie you better get on board. I knew I had won when a server was down and all the luddites complained that they couldn't get on their computers. Brophy is now a model in the country for the integration of tech thanks to our switch a dozen years ago to one-on-one computing when we had every student use a tablet computer. We first experimented with two freshmen classes — just regular kids who weren't honor students. We gave them computers and saw marked improvement. The kids did dramatically better than their peers in large part because they learned how to organize themselves.

It's important to note that the key to technology isn't the particular gadget — it's how we use technology in our approach to education. Students will have to evaluate and learn to be critical in their use of technology.

PT: Your administrative experience is extensive and has even taken you abroad. How did you enjoy your years in Australia?

ER: After working as a campus minister and assistant principal at Loyola, I went to Fordham University for the first year of its Jesuit Secondary Education Program. Then I worked as an assistant principal and principal at Bellarmine before taking a sabbatical year in Sydney that stretched into three years. I was the Yank-in-residence at St. Ignatius Riverview, where I did some administration and counseling. I loved Australia and almost stayed. My provincial told me to come home just before the Australian Provincial was about to offer me a job as headmaster of a Jesuit school in Melbourne. I missed staying by a wink. I then worked for Ed Harris at Jesuit in Sacramento before starting my 20 years as president at Brophy.

PT: Being a teacher and an administrator are so different. What do you miss about being a teacher? What do you appreciate most about being an administrator?

ER: Most of us get into Jesuit education because they love the dynamic of working with kids. I miss that even today. As principal, I had less direct contact with kids. As president, I had even less. However, I think I'm a much better administrator than a teacher, and being an administrator allows a person to have a profound effect on our institutions. Our schools are the best thing Jesuits do, and administrators can help others be great teachers by providing them with wherewithal and direction to help kids.

I loved being a principal. That was great fun with many challenges. The job allowed me to be much more directly involved in the classroom. I knew I would probably be a president some day but wasn't excited about that prospect. Then I found out that I love being a president. Maybe it's a question of age. It's a great way to have an impact on a school and to have more involvement with parents and supporters. It's far more rewarding than I thought it was going to be.

PT: Why are Jesuit schools still important today?

ER: It's a cliché, but I think we are still creating leaders with hearts and all the graduate-at-graduation criteria that we have as our goals. We are having a profound effect on changing society and the world. That's true of Jesuit high schools everywhere.