John Garvey waving dressed in his commencement attire

By Ellen N. Woods
CatholicU, Spring 2022

Catholic University’s 15th President will step down after 12 years of service on June 30 of this year. John Garvey’s legacy includes unprecedented growth and transformation, and most importantly, an unwavering love for Catholic University.

It’s not often that a snow deep enough for sledding falls in Washington, D.C. But when it does, students at Catholic University know they are welcome to swing by Nugent Hall to pick up sleds before heading to the top of O’Boyle hill. 

The MLK holiday weekend brought such a snowfall this year. The sleds were returned that Monday morning, and when John Garvey opened his front door he found a collection of small snowmen lining the steps up to Nugent. He was amused, as he often is, by the ways in which students show affection for him and his wife, Jeanne.

As Garvey prepares to step down after 12 years as President of The Catholic University of America, his list of accomplishments has assured a solid legacy. But it is perhaps these little moments, nestled among all the weighty priorities, that he will remember — and miss — the most.

Becoming President

Garvey became Catholic University’s 15th President on July 1, 2010. Previously, he was dean of the Boston College law school, and was known for his distinguished career in higher education and law — he is a nationally acclaimed expert in constitutional law, religious liberty, and the First Amendment. 

He received his A.B. summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1970 followed by his law degree from Harvard University in 1974. In 1976 Garvey began teaching law at the University of Kentucky, an appointment he held until 1994. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Michigan and a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. For three years, he served as assistant to the solicitor general of the United States, arguing several prominent cases before the United States Supreme Court. 

In 1999 he was appointed dean of Boston College Law School. During his 11 years as dean, he hired 20 new faculty members, established an alumni association and board of overseers, rebuilt the administrative infrastructure, and bolstered the school’s Catholic identity.

In 2010 he got a call from Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who was then chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. “We were visiting our daughter, Katie, who lived in London at the time. I was playing with my granddaughters when the phone rang. I listened to the archbishop for a half hour, more out of politeness. I was happy at Boston College and ready to put in several more years in that position,” recalls Garvey. He agreed to talk to the search committee and liked what they had to say. 

Next came a trip to D.C., where Garvey was interviewed at the Willard Hotel. Learning more about the University, which included a quiet cab ride around campus at 4:30 in the morning, he began to want the job. “I got to the point where it would have been a letdown if I didn’t get it,” says Garvey. 

“I care deeply about Catholic higher education. That’s one of the reasons I went to Notre Dame and then Boston College in the wake of Ex Corde Ecclesiae [Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities]. I had a personal interest in building up a contemporary vision of what a great Catholic university could be. As I learned more about The Catholic University of America, I realized there was no better place in this country to promote and enhance the Catholic intellectual tradition,” explains Garvey.

In his letter last September to the University community announcing he would be stepping down, Garvey stated, “I became President of The Catholic University of America in 2010 hoping I could contribute something to building up the institution. I did not foresee how much I would fall in love with it.”

That love for Catholic University translated to more than a decade of transformation and growth. 

“President Garvey’s clear vision for leading Catholic University forward was grounded in the Church’s vision for Catholic higher education as expressed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Veritatis Gaudium,” said Victor P. Smith, J.D. 1996, chairman of the Catholic University Board of Trustees, in a September letter announcing Garvey’s decision to step down after 12 years.

“He hired faculty and staff who embrace this vision, ensuring the advancement of the Catholic intellectual life on this campus for generations. He also was instrumental in the transformation of the Board of Trustees that expanded lay participation and leadership, which has led to a stronger and increasingly diverse board.” 

Smith also lauded Garvey for leading the most successful era of fundraising in University history, resulting in new schools, institutes, research, and scholarships; expanding access to a Catholic University education by establishing new locations in Alexandria, Va., and Tucson, Ariz.; revitalizing campus with an increased commitment to sustainability; improving student retention; and deftly leading the University through the pandemic. 

Scott Rembold, vice president for University Advancement, says the accomplishments of Garvey’s tenure can be traced back to his deep commitment to the University. “John can articulate the vision and mission of Catholic University like no one else. He has built relationships with donors by authentically sharing his first-hand accounts of everything from student life to Catholic identity to scholarship and research. His love of the University is sincere and is the foundation for the University’s growth all around, most especially in philanthropy.”

Faith and Family

To know John Garvey and to understand the way in which he led and cared for the University starts with learning about his upbringing in a family rooted in Catholic faith.

“I had the good fortune to be born in that period right after the war. The country was united in wanting to live a peaceful life and raise families,” says Garvey. “My father went to Harvard Law and had offers from firms in Philadelphia and New York, but chose to buy a house next door to his parents in Sharon, Pennsylvania. It was a wonderful life; a very uncomplicated childhood in a small town.”

Garvey was the second of eight children — all of whom went to Catholic school. They attended Mass every morning and afterward, their dad walked them to school and then crossed the street to arrive at his law office. After school the children often visited their grandfather’s office on the same main street. Garvey says his grandfather, Hugh Garvey, was “the kindest man I have ever known. He would listen to you like you were the most interesting person in the world.” 

Family photos adorn his office in Nugent Hall. Among the most prominent is a framed photo of his brother, Kevin, that sits next to his computer.

Kevin died of leukemia 50 years ago at age 13, when Garvey, then 23, was in law school. Kevin was treated at Roswell Park Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. His treatments would last up to 10 days at a time and his parents would stay at a hotel to be near him. The families that could not afford hotels and slept in their cars or in the hospital waiting rooms did not go unnoticed by the Garveys. When their son died, they bought a house across the street from the hospital. Kevin’s Guest House was the first of its kind in America and would become the inspiration for the well-known Ronald McDonald Houses.

Garvey says his parents’ faith and generosity ensured that Kevin’s short life would have meaning and bring hope to thousands of families, and would serve as an example for him and his brothers and sisters.

“My siblings and I are all close. We talk several times a week,” says Garvey. “We take vacations together. We gather on our mother’s birthday. Several of my siblings have served on the board of Kevin’s Guest House, and many of our kids have worked there during the summer. We remark often about the example set by Mother and Dad and Kevin, and how their faith and courage guide us through the challenges of raising our own families.”

John and Jeanne Garvey are parents to five children and grandparents to 25 children. They love to include them in University life. A favorite activity is the annual “Light the Season” event, at which the youngest gets to push the button to light the University Christmas tree.

When he prepared to become President, Garvey said he initially was hesitant about following in the footsteps of Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., (now Bishop of Trenton) who served for 12 years. “Father O’Connell could celebrate Mass with the community. I had to think about my role as the public face of Christian witness,” says Garvey. 

“I realized my faith as a lay person would be integral to the job. Being married is a central part of that. Our marriage is a sacrament in the Church and gave life to our children. Jeanne and I attend Mass every day along with our students. We chose to live on campus to be part of their daily lives. Our roles as husband and wife and as parents would become an important part of how we model our faith life to our students,” says Garvey.

Students Come First

When he first arrived on campus, Garvey noted that students needed more places for recreation. A new basketball court was installed, and that was just the beginning. The Garveys joined their students for service days and the annual March for Life. They were in the stands for games and in the audience for plays and concerts. They invited students to come by and walk their dog, they ate at the Pryz and invited students over for lunch, and they left their sleds outside in the winter.

Patricia Andrasik, associate professor of architecture, says one of the best ways to see Garvey’s commitment to students was to watch him at University Research Day. “He spends so much time at the poster presentations, stopping to ask students questions about their projects. He takes his time and he leans in with interest and listens."

John McCarthy, dean of the School of Philosophy, recalls listening to Garvey speak to parents of incoming freshmen soon after he became President. 

“Two things struck me at the time. It was evident that he took the good of our newly arrived students to heart. It clearly mattered to him that they flourish during their time here, not only academically but also more fully, in their God-given callings. I was also impressed by his ability to articulate, with conviction and no little grace, our distinctive educational mission.”

Garvey began his presidency with the inaugural theme “Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University.” The theme centered on the principles in St. John Henry Newman’s 19th-century exposition on Catholic education, The Idea of a University, in which he held that religious belief is central to intellectual life. 

In his inaugural address, Garvey said “A Catholic university should be concerned with the formation of its students. Campus ministry, residence life, service opportunities, athletics, student activities, are an integral part of our mission. The measure of our success is how our graduates live their daily lives: do they pray and receive the sacraments; do they love the poor; do they observe the rest of the beatitudes?”

Those words would become the guiding force of his presidency. With a belief that “the intellectual life depends on the moral life,” Garvey became known for focusing on a particular virtue in his address to students at Commencement and other major University events such as the Mass of the Holy Spirit. He covered the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love; the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence; and lesser-known virtues such as humility, truthfulness, and mercy.

Garvey taught a popular course each spring semester to first-year students on the topic of virtue.

“President Garvey would dive deep into the questions with us,” says Javier Mazariegos, a junior with a double major in English and philosophy. “He really cared about our thoughts. I met with him during his office hours to talk about my final paper. I stayed for an hour. He asked me about my family. I told him my parents were from Guatemala and how my father started a business from nothing. He wanted to hear about my family’s journey as if nothing else mattered at that moment,” says Mazariegos.

Matalyn Vennerstrom, a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate in political theory, served as Garvey’s teaching assistant for the past five semesters. She says the experience has helped her become a better teacher. 

“John never puts words in the students’ mouths. He leads them gradually to a conclusion. He taught me to have confidence in the students. They will get there. Patience is a skill in teaching and it is one of John’s gifts,” says Vennerstrom.

The Garveys have been role models for young faculty, she adds. “They were both able to pursue careers and have a large beautiful family. That’s something that I want to do. John encouraged me to bring my baby to class when I didn’t have a sitter. And he advocated for a part-time tenure track so faculty members can have children without sacrificing careers.”

Leader and Listener

At Commencement 2021, Garvey chose the virtue of gratitude for his address to the graduating class. In typical Garvey style he delivered his remarks with impeccable timing, artfully working in quotes from the likes of Snoop Dog, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas says that one who confers a benefit gives two things: the affection of the heart and the gift,” Garvey told the graduates. “So too with one who receives. He should return the affection immediately. But he should also return the favor itself, in greater measure if possible, and at a time when it will serve the benefactor. True gratitude moves us to practice the generosity we ourselves benefit from.”

The choice of “gratitude” for his address could not have been more apropos. 

He was speaking on an NFL football field. An unprecedented venue for unprecedented times. More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone at FedExField in Prince George’s County, Md., was grateful to be together for an in-person graduation ceremony. When it became clear in spring 2021, that restrictions in D.C. would prevent the University’s traditional on-campus ceremony with guests, Garvey was determined to find a viable option. 

Garvey has been hailed as a leader who gathers facts, listens to all sides, and makes decisions that he stands by. It is those traits, says University Provost Aaron Dominguez, that made him the right person to lead the University through its biggest crisis

“John was an incredibly steady leader throughout the pandemic,” says Dominguez. “He charted a course that allowed us to open in a safe way, while other universities chose a more short-sighted path of maximum risk avoidance. He led by setting up a structure of management guide posts that kept safety of students and employees at the forefront, and the financial health of the institution as a priority.”

Joe Carlini, B.M.E. 1984, served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees during the pandemic. “Right before the pandemic, the University was on a roll,” he recalls. “We had just gone through a successful accreditation. Enrollment was going up. We were in the midst of the most successful fundraising campaign in University history. The campus was being revitalized. We were ready to set the world on fire.

“Then came the ‘lockdown’ in March 2020. ‘Deflating’ is the best word that comes to mind. But John didn’t dwell on that. He rose to the occasion and never flinched in making decisions that he knew could have grave consequences.”

Carlini’s daughter graduated from the Conway School of Nursing in 2021. “At the end of the day, I’m a parent. And it was very reassuring to know that a person like John was our President and that he was looking out for our students.”

Looking Ahead

Carlini says Garvey’s best role is dad and grandfather. “Sure, John’s comfortable meeting with cardinals at the Vatican, but nothing compares to how he lights up when he is with Jeanne and his family. It’s the same way he shines when he’s with students and their parents.”

Indeed, Garvey says his immediate plan after his last day on June 30 is more time with his grandchildren. He wants to step back from the University for a while in order to give the new President the space to make his own way. And then the Garveys plan to live in Rome for a period while he teaches at the University’s Rome Center.

“My fondest hope for the University is that it continues to maintain and improve its Catholic character and fosters the Catholic intellectual tradition, serving the Church and raising good citizens,” says Garvey. “I hope we continue to grow as much, if not more, than we have in the last decade, both financially and in enrollment.

“And I’m dying to come back to see the new nursing and sciences building. Seeing that building open will fill my heart."