Editor's note: This column was originally published on Feb. 13, 2011.
After nearly a half-century at the same Omaha high school, he quickly dismisses accolades. “All I do, ” says the Rev. William O’Leary of Creighton Prep, “is show up.”
Oh, he has shown up all right, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. But that’s hardly all. He’s served as teacher, advocate, adviser, confessor, disciplinarian, friend and more — including diligent shirttail-checker.
A beloved figure to most of the 9,000 or so students who have attended the all-male Prep since he arrived in 1964, the soft-spoken “Father O” plans to retire March 1 and leave Omaha.
He will be feted from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. next Sunday at a campus open house that, at his insistence, will be simple. No gifts, he instructed, because all the people he has met over the years are the gifts in his life.
“If we could keep this guy, we would, ” said the Rev. Tom Merkel, Prep’s president. “Bill O’Leary is the most recognizable face of Creighton Prep.”
But superiors in the Society of Jesus decided that at 82 years old, this native of Milwaukee should come home to the Jesuit community in Wauwatosa, Wis., where his assignment will be to pray for the order and its works.
That job seems appropriate enough for a guy whom many at Prep, without the slightest irony, call a saint. By O’Leary’s reckoning, a saint he ain’t.
“I’m a first-class phony, ” he says. “I have all kinds of temptations.”
Messages from alums, e-mailed to the school since the announcement of his impending departure, make clear he’s seen not as a phony but as a man of kindness and sincerity.
A grad from the 1970s, now living in Indiana, said he was on the verge of expulsion before O’Leary straightened him out.
An alum from the late 1960s, now in Southern California, said O’Leary opened his eyes to other religions through meetings that included non-Christians.
An Omahan who graduated long ago said the world would be better off if more “showed up” in the sense that O’Leary does, seeing “the face of God in all their fellow human beings.”
Others told of the priest’s humor, manners and pleasant demeanor that, under tough circumstances, has bordered on miraculous. “Being around teenage boys for 47 years and still maintaining your positive outlook, ” said one grad, “is a miracle in and of itself.”
Said Merkel, the school president: “Bill could discipline with love. He was the champion of the underdog. If a student faced dismissal, he was often the advocate.”
Until stepping away from the classroom four years ago, O’Leary taught European, world and U.S. history, as well as English and theology.
He gave demerits for misconduct but announced at the start of each term that he expected his classroom to be a DFZ — a demerit-free zone. The closest he came to cussing was the phrase “sunken ditch, ” which he used primarily so students would ask, “What did you say, Father?”
He was known for often wearing a powder-blue jacket. At a Prep golf fundraiser in recent years, members of the winning foursome have donned the same kind of blue jackets and raised a trophy called “the O’Leary Cup.”
An informal “O’Leary Fund” at Prep, which started with an outside donation in honor of the priest, helps students or families with utility bills, eyeglasses or even lunch tickets.
Besides his duties at Prep, O’Leary has celebrated Mass at parishes throughout the community. He also has attended countless funerals of grads or their relatives, saying that each service is important because “there are people dying today who have never died before.”
At school Thursday, he said he misses the classroom but has stayed busy. His nightly ritual is to walk through the school checking that lights are out and doors are locked. He also monitors JUG, a before-school detention whose acronym wryly stands for “Justice Under God.”
When O’Leary arrived at Creighton Prep, the school had about 800 students and tuition was about $350 a year. Last fall Prep enrolled 1,066 students, a record for its 132-year history. Tuition is about $8,300, and 46 percent of students receive financial aid. Fundraising makes up about $1,800 more per student, some of it withdrawn from a $17 million endowment.
With tuition rising to $8,720 next fall, O’Leary said, he admires the sacrifices that parents make to send offspring to private schools, and sympathizes with the difficulties of raising children. “It’s a lot tougher to be a parent than to be a priest.”
The Jesuit community at Prep has shrunk since he arrived, from 30 to 11. Only six priests are teachers out of a faculty of more than 80.
As students walked the halls after an all-school convocation Thursday, O’Leary said they are much the same as the boys of 1964, “great kids, though probably with a little more freedom.”
Just then, seeing a shirttail out, the priest motioned to a student to tuck it in. The boy, lacking the freedom to dress sloppily, smiled and quickly complied.
At a Christmas party in December, O’Leary received a Prep letter jacket with five chevrons, one for each of his five decades at the school. Giving things to Bill is always risky, Merkel said, because he usually gives them away.
O’Leary likes his life simple and so lives a simple life. “I have three pairs of pants and three shirts. I have plenty.”
Physically, he feels good for the most part, he says, except for more aches and pains as he ages. Superiors tell him he’ll get good care at his new assignment.
Merkel says the outpouring of e-mails from alums about O’Leary “tell the story of a man whose heart is fully engaged.”
Part of Prep’s mission is to turn out “men for others, ” and Principal John Naatz said O’Leary’s educational and pastoral work at the school is legendary. “He may be the only living saint that I’ll ever know.”
Some night soon, the humble priest in the powder-blue jacket, a guy who has fought for the underdog and says, “We’re all called to be saints, ” will walk the halls of Creighton Preparatory School one last time.
He’ll turn out the lights and lock the doors on a career and a school where he just kept showing up — day by day, year by year, helping boys become men.