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Jenkins, family members reflect on rise to presidency

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, April 27, 2005

There’s more to Father John Jenkins than his white priest collar, his powerful administrative position or even his future role as the 17th president of Notre Dame. The man who will take the helm from outgoing University President Father Edward Malloy July 1 has a rich past that will undoubtedly impact his leadership style.

One of 12 children, Jenkins grew up in Omaha, Neb. in a house he describes as “lots of fun” but “somewhat chaotic.”

“I thought it was a great place to grow up in,” Jenkins said. “I’m very close to my brothers and sisters.”

Being the third eldest of six boys and six girls, Jenkins often found himself presented with a larger bulk of the duties than the other children.

“That’s what helps you, because you’re forced to take care of the young kids – you just have to, there’s no choice,” he said. “And you get a sense of being responsible for someone other than yourself, and I appreciated that. My oldest sister did most of that work, more than me, but everyone pitched in a little bit.”

One could say Jenkins blazed his own trail. His father and grandfather both went to Creighton Jesuit University in Omaha, but Jenkins followed his older brother to Notre Dame in 1972.

“Omaha’s a very Catholic town and a lot of people go to Notre Dame,” Jenkins said. “My older brother [Tom] had gone here, he’s in the class of ’74. So it was natural to think about it, and [I] just made the right choice and got here.”

Although his father was a gastroenterologist who, along with his grandfather, served on the faculty of Creighton Jesuit University’s medical school, Jenkins steered clear of a career in medicine.

“My parents, I would say one of their greatest virtues was they let all the kids do whatever interested them, excited them, drew them, and they were always supportive, regardless of what it was,” Jenkins said. “And so I think if I wanted to go into medicine, they would have supported that, but they let me do what I wanted to do and supported me in that.”

Instead, Jenkins became interested in philosophy during his years at Notre Dame, obtaining bachelor’s and master’s of arts degrees in 1976 and 1978, at which time he began to consider a future in the priesthood.

“At that time, the question was what would I die for – what’s important enough for me to die for,” Jenkins said. “And I think that led me to think about the priesthood and to think about my faith more deeply.”

He entered the seminary in 1978 and began a five-year period of “discernment,” which solidified his desire to become a priest.

“I do think my ordination in 1983 was important,” Jenkins said. “It is what I am most fundamentally, is a priest and all that means. So that was an extremely important part of my life.”

Jenkins joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1990 and taught medieval studies and philosophy classes, a job that quickly become a personal passion.

“Teaching is the heart of Notre Dame – it’s the center of what we should be doing,

Jenkins said. “And I love to do it – I love to teach. It helps me to appreciate what is at the center, instructing students, trying to find the truth, engaging minds. So it’s just a reminder of what the central mission of Notre Dame is.”

While he will be focusing on his new role next year, Jenkins said he plans to resume teaching in the near future.

Family memories

Helen Jenkins described her son John as a quiet but happy child, who she always knew was “special.”

“I always think of him as smiling yet deeply thinking,” she said. “What I like best about John is how he looks people in the eyes and smiles.”

Clare Kizer, Jenkins’ niece and a Notre Dame sophomore, also described her uncle as being a deep thinker.

“John is the best person to turn to for advice,” Kizer said. “He is good at weighing pros and cons and just really thinking things through.”

This ability to make good decisions was apparent to Kizer when she turned to her uncle and asked whether or not she should study abroad.

“Everyone in my immediate family, my parents and siblings, had biased advice,” Kizer said. “[Jenkins] took me out to dinner and just listened, talked things through, and then instilled confidence in me that I had made the right decision. I was so grateful that he took time out of his busy schedule to support me.”

While Jenkins was an average student in grade school – where “they didn’t give him credit for being smart,” Helen Jenkins said – he excelled once he began high school at Omaha’s Creighton Prep.

“He liked it so well and got first honors from practically the beginning,” she said, recalling how her son was also one of the best swimmers and soccer players in the school.

The young Jenkins was also well-liked, Helen Jenkins said, noting how he was chosen as prom king his senior year. But he was also “independent and driven,” always finding jobs during breaks from school.

“During Christmas vacations, he worked in the stockyard to make extra money,” Helen Jenkins said. “We had a large family.”

Although she didn’t predict her son would become the University’s president, Helen Jenkins said she convinced John to attend Notre Dame, where his older brother Tom had gone, instead of St. Louis University.

“He just wanted to get away and think,” Helen Jenkins said. “I think his family was too noisy.”

When her son told her of his plans to become a priest, Helen Jenkins said she felt “so happy.”

“But I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “He was very spiritual in his own way.”

Although those who see Jenkins walking around campus are probably struck by his serene, priestly demeanor, Kizer attests to her uncle’s “goofy” sense of humor.

“He’s one of the most thoughtful and caring people that I know, but also one of the goofiest,” Kizer said. “That’s one thing people don’t know about him – he’s really funny.”

She recalled how during a family vacation last summer Jenkins became intense during a spirited game of Catchphrase.

“He was cracking up – he really got into the game,” Kizer said. “He was very competitive with the younger cousins, and it was very cute. He loves family time.”

It is this John Jenkins, the goofy and caring uncle, that Kizer visits weekly – not Father John Jenkins, the new face of Notre Dame.

“Multiple people have asked me if it is weird, or intimidating, now that John is president-elect,” Kizer said. “Funny thing is, I don’t think of him as the president-elect – he is the same friendly, funny John I know. I know that he will be president and I think it is amazing – they couldn’t have picked out a more thoughtful candidate – but he hasn’t changed from being my uncle.”

Similarly, for Helen Jenkins, it is her third child John – the one who was “so special” – that remains fresh in her mind.

“I think he never expected to excel,” she said, “I guess God just had a plan for him.”

And this plan now includes assuming the presidency at Notre Dame, a place where Jenkins said he greatly cherishes his time he spent.

“My time at Notre Dame was very important,” he said. “I think friendships formed there, the intellectual life, which I found very exciting, the spiritual life, all those things had a steady influence on my life.”

Helen Jenkins is well aware of her son’s passion for the University.

“We’ve been blessed,” she said. “And he’s been blessed because he loves Notre Dame.”