April 11, 2024
On the right, Father William J. Byron, S.J., welcomed President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, to a University fundraiser.

Two years ago, Frank Persico approached Father William J. Byron, S.J., and wanted to re-introduce himself. The two men had worked closely during Father Byron’s 10-year tenure as president of The Catholic University of America, but the priest was now well into his 90s, and Persico, who served in many administration roles at the University, wanted to be respectful. 

Before he could get the words out, Father Byron excitedly greeted him, “Oh, Frank, how are you?”

That was Father Byron, who died at the age of 96 this week. During the last few decades, the priest was a prolific author, economist, professor, and pastor (among many other things). He officiated the weddings of several alumni since leaving the University and remained a close personal friend to so many people who have been part of its community. 

“He was extremely intelligent, but he was also very intuitive,” Persico said. “He could read people, and he could get along with everyone.”

The combination of fierce independence, academic intelligence, and  “street smarts” made Father Byron a formidable and singular figure.

“That’s what made him a great president, in my opinion,” Perisco added. “He could relate to all the faculty, which is really important for a president from the standpoint of understanding their perspective and what they need. He endeared himself to alumni and friends because of the way he was and how he would greet people. When he was talking to you, you felt like you were the only person in that room.”  

During Advancement meetings about how best to expand the footprint of the University, Father Byron would offer ideas, listen to feedback, offer inspiration to the staff, and back away to see what they could accomplish. And his tenure had a big impact on the physical landscape of the campus. He tripled the University’s endowment while fundraising the first $50 million that went toward the construction of the Centennial Village residential spaces, the Edward J. Pryzbyla Center, and the Columbus School of Law building.

Father Byron was a natural at fundraising because he cared about people and had an unrivaled memory recall of past conversations with them. Persico added that the former president was meticulous in his organization, preparing him for any circumstance.

“He had a gift to be adept at working with people both outside and inside the University,” Persico said. “He had connections in Washington that were amazing. He knew everybody, from the Supreme Court people all the way down to Congress and the Senate.”

Not to mention his interactions with then-President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush at a University fundraiser, plus former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Father Byron’s impact has left an indelible mark on campus and on the people of Catholic University.

“He wanted the University to shine and he made a point of getting to know the movers and the shakers to share that light. I think he was successful in moving Catholic U up quite several rungs in notoriety because of his ability to meet with and understand people.”