Since 1878 in Omaha, the president of Creighton Prep has been a Jesuit priest. The Rev. Andy Alexander might be the last in the unbroken line.
As the all-boys high school on North 72nd Street prepares to welcome 1,017 students to the start of classes on Tuesday, headhunters from an executive search firm are scouring the country in search of a new leader.
If the person eventually hired by the Prep board is a Jesuit, it will be a major surprise. The Jesuit provincial in Milwaukee, the religious order's leader of a region that includes Nebraska, has said he has no Jesuit priest who is qualified and available.
“I love the Society of Jesus,” said Alexander, 64, named Prep's interim president for one year. “I love my Jesuit brothers. I wish the provincial had said ‘I've got the perfect guy' and we would celebrate as a new Jesuit walked in. But that's not the way it worked.”
It might not seem unsettling to hire a lay person to head the school — some other Catholic schools in Omaha and about 20 percent of the 54 Jesuit high schools in the U.S. are led by lay people — but Alexander said some Prep traditionalists “have a hard time imagining it.” Part of his job in this transition year, he said, is to prepare folks for the likelihood.
“People worry about change,” Alexander said. “We looked hard for a Jesuit. My job is to help people be confident.”
The Jesuit tradition will remain strong, he said, even if a non-Jesuit man or woman is named president. Whoever is selected can't just give lip service to that tradition but “has to show it, live it, act it, be it.”
Andy Alexander grew up west of downtown, almost in the shadow of Creighton University. His Sicilian immigrant grandfather's surname was Allesandro, but he changed it to Alexander for his children and “was very proud his kids were Americans.”
Andy's dad, a World War II veteran, was a manager for Sears, and in retirement became a church deacon; his mother was active in the church and counseled prostitutes, teaching them to shop, cook, care for kids and, she hoped, change their lives.
Jesuits visited the Alexander home often for home-cooked meals and conversation. Andy took part in speech and debate before graduating from Prep in 1966, and entering the Society of Jesus. He was ordained a priest in 1979.
Through the years, in the U.S. and Canada, he worked with addicts and the mentally ill, served as a pastor and ministered on Indian reservations. In the mid-1990s he returned to Omaha to serve as vice president for university ministry at Creighton.
He helped create a university website for Jesuit spiritual exercises as part of an online weekly retreat. It is said to receive 20 million hits a year, in 140 countries.
While at the university, Alexander has served two stints on the board of the high school, so he was a natural to be asked to serve as interim president when the Rev. Tom Merkel, Prep's president since 2003, stepped down at the end of the school year.
Among other accomplishments, Merkel was praised for spearheading a $37 million capital campaign, including $20 million in construction projects — a new gym, a baseball plaza, an artificial turf field, a new school entryway, renovated classrooms and a new auditorium and classroom center.
Until the late 1950s, the high school was near downtown at Creighton University. The first graduating class on the 72nd Street campus was a half-century ago, in 1962.
The school has 13,000 alumni, in every state and in 17 countries. Enrollment has held steady for years; Prep graduated 247 in May, and will welcome about 20 more than that as freshmen.
Tuition averages $9,020, which Prep says is second lowest among Jesuit high school in the U.S. About 45 percent of Prep students receive tuition assistance, totaling $1.8 million. The school said 11 percent of its students are minorities.
Academics are important, but Alexander said Prep's motto, that students become “men for others,” is crucial, as are faith, scholarship, leadership and service. He added: “We form spiritual men, we form leaders and we form people.”
Teenagers anywhere are not fully formed, and Prep has endured occasional stumbles and pranks.
Last fall, about 50 members of the football team planned a risque scavenger hunt that included “a group photo with a topless chick” and “a pic with a fat chick.” Administrators learned of it, and most of the objectionable activities were headed off.
The players received in-school suspensions and were barred from practice. Merkel turned it into a teaching moment with an impassioned talk to the student body, reminding all that they represented Prep at all hours.
Alexander said the incident became a learning experience for the entire Prep community.
“The expectations are high for us,” he said. “We don't guarantee nobody is ever going to fail.”
Two weeks ago in Boston, Alexander attended a first-ever international gathering of Jesuit secondary school leaders — 300-plus participants from more than 40 countries.
He met a woman who succeeded a Jesuit as president of a school in Venezuela. The woman said there were concerns at first, but she has been warmly accepted, she said, because “I love and embrace the mission of our school.”
The Omaha priest said he is confident that can happen at Creighton Prep.
As for the transition, he said it won't be a mere caretaker year.
“We are going to grow this year,” Alexander said. “We're not going to be sitting around waiting. There's a lot happening here, and we have great stories to tell.”
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