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Standing by the large, arched window in his office on the second floor of St. Mary Hall, Dan Curran directed a visitor to look at a car parked on University Circle. It was an old, green Buick. Curran said that, when he came to work on Sundays, the car was always there, the only one until he arrived.
To the University of Dayton president, however, the car’s presence was no mystery. It was simply a sign that working in an office in St. Joseph Hall was Curran’s predecessor as president, Brother Raymond L. Fitz, S.M. ’64.
“He’s here every weekend,” said Curran of Fitz, now the Father Ferree Professor of Social Justice in the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community. “He’s a one-of-a-kind person.”
Observers of Fitz’s presidency, which ran from 1979 to 2002, and of his work since then paint a very consistent picture of the hard-working man. He is humble, spiritual, patient and cautious. But at the same time, he is ambitious, practical, stubborn and not averse to taking a well-planned risk.
The person at UD who has known Ray Fitz the longest is his brother, Father James Fitz, S.M. ’68, who serves as UD’s vice president for mission and rector. Jim, as a child, saw Ray taking on the characteristics of their parents, Raymond and Mary Louise Fitz, in their Akron, Ohio, home.
“Dad,” Jim Fitz said, “was strong on integrity. If you gave your word, you followed through. If you were doing a job, you gave your all.”
Flowing from that integrity was a sense of faithfulness, of loyalty. “If you have a problem at work,” said Jim Fitz, talking as much about his brother as his father, “you talk to the people with whom you have a problem. You don’t criticize them openly. Ray is loyal to the church, the Society of Mary, the University of Dayton. He is a good leader because people know he will follow through.”
Mary Louise Fitz brought a different, but complementary, set of contributions to her children.
“Mom had the heart of the family,” Jim Fitz said. “She never knew a stranger. None of the rest of the family was as extroverted as she was, but we learned to look at things with compassion.”
He points to that attribute living on with Ray in his commitment to families and children, especially the disadvantaged. “Ray has a real passion,” his brother said. “He personally feels for the poor and the marginalized.”
Through his father, Ray Fitz encountered another group of people — the Marianists — who would be major influences on his character and on what has been a lifelong passion, his commitment to families and children, to the poor. His father, a 1939 UD graduate, had been a chemical engineering major, a student of Brother William Wohlleben, S.M. ’04, the first American Marianist to earn a doctorate in science, whose contributions to the University — such as founding the chemistry and chemical engineering departments — were recognized in the naming of Wohlleben Hall. Fitz’s first visit to campus was with his father; Wohlleben used to come to Akron for professional presentations.
“I got to know him as someone my dad admired,” Fitz said. “I got to know Marianists who could form people as professionals.”
Fitz also read a UD pamphlet called “Making Leaders,” written for the centennial celebration of three events within a year of each other (the Marianists’ arrival in America on July 3, 1849; the death of Blessed William Joseph Chaminade on Jan. 22, 1850; and the founding of what would become the University of Dayton on March 19, 1850).
The pamphlet’s message about the University’s and the Marianists’ commitment to forming faith-filled leaders attracted Fitz. “And,” he said, “I was impressed with dad’s ability to lead in the parish, at work, in the community.”
After joining the order, Fitz said, “at UD, of the 45 Marianists I was with, I was the only one who was studying engineering; the others were in education, philosophy and theology. But between the conversations I had with others and our superiors saying I had to take the philosophy and theology, I gained a good liberal education.”
He also gained — substantially through the influence of Father William Ferree, S.M. ’28, a Marianist leader in Rome and the province — a strong sense of social justice.
Fitz’s graduate dissertation was on how to communicate with and control satellites. “It was pretty theoretical, mathematical,” he said. It immersed him in a systems approach to dealing with problems.
He began to see connections between social justice and viewing things as systems. As a faculty member at UD teaching electrical engineering, he said, “I was able to apply systems thinking to environmental and urban problems. The biggest thing I learned early on was that, when an engineer looks at something, the engineer is on the outside looking at how the parts of something fit together. The parts don’t have a say in that. Human systems transform themselves through conversations, not because of a grand external architect. So leadership includes how to get the right conversations going, how to guide them, how to get them to touch each other.”
Fitz’s systems approach to social issues while a faculty member influenced his work with the Kettering Foundation, with Catholic Relief Services and with the Marianists in reshaping the methods of religious formation.
Working with Fitz on religious formation was Brother Bernard Ploeger, S.M. ’71, who was later to serve as Fitz’s chief financial officer before becoming president of Chaminade University in Hawaii. Prior to Vatican II, Ploeger said, “formation was on a military model. The novitiate and scholasticate were like boot camp and basic training. It wasn’t working anymore.” Fitz led an effort to develop community-centered formation. That emphasis on community permeates his work.
Another characteristic of Fitz noted by Ploeger and others is that, Ploeger said, “For Ray, ideas really matter. The sense of mystery is not exhausted. His life is moved by big ideas.”
Fitz’s emphasis on social systems and big ideas turned out to be very, very good for the University of Dayton. As Father Raymond A. Roesch, S.M. ’36, was concluding the second decade of his presidency, the University was looking for a new leader. Five Marianists were candidates. Four of the five candidates had “large résumés,” according to Gerry VonderBrink ’66, chief financial officer at the time. The fifth was Fitz.
“But,” VonderBrink, a member of the search committee, said, “those who knew him recommended him strongly.”
One recommendation came from a School of Education assistant professor, later to be provost, John Geiger. In the summer of 1971, Fitz and Geiger were teaching classes in adjacent classrooms. “We realized,” Geiger said, “we were both talking about values.” So they talked much to each other about morality and ethics in the professions.
When Geiger saw that Fitz was a candidate for president, his reaction was like many: “My God, he’s young.” Fitz, 37 when he began his presidency, may have carried the label “young president” even longer than Curran, who is at the end of his first decade at UD, carried that of “new president.” But Fitz was indeed the youngest president in the history of the University, and Curran did succeed men who stayed in the office for decades.
With only three presidents in more than half a century, the University has benefited from continuity of leadership. And with the varying attributes of each, the University benefited from skills that matched the challenges of the times. Roesch calmly guided UD through the turbulent 1960s and ’70s with their economic uncertainty and fluctuating enrollments. From 1979 to 2002, Fitz would guide the University through growth to strength and national recognition. Roesch, Geiger recalled, had a “commanding presence. He’d hear sides. Then he’d make decisions and move on.”
Fitz’s skills lie in the process. “It takes a special person to develop processes,” Curran said.
Fitz has a special ability — expressed in a phrase permanently attached to people’s vision of him — “to stay at the table.”
He was not to be the grand external architect. The parts would have their say.
Fitz came to the presidency with a concern for systems, social justice and leadership. “I saw,” he said, “if we were going to be a great Catholic university, we needed conversations about mission and vision. So we began planning.”
Bill Schuerman, who served as vice president for student development and dean of students under Fitz, said, “He had a vision of what the University could be. He introduced strategic planning, how to work toward a vision of the future.”
Those who have worked with Fitz praise him for being a good listener. When he facilitates a group, his brother Jim said, “he pulls ideas together, even ones at odds. He tries to find a way that the energies of people can be pulled together. If someone throws in an idea from left field, he’ll try to find some truth in it, pull it in, so it doesn’t derail the group.”
For the extended conversations that Fitz led, Pat Palermo, an associate provost during the Fitz years, used a metaphor stronger than staying at the table. He recalled one set of deliberations by the Educational Leadership Council, a body of close to 40 top administrators. The topic he has forgotten. But the process stays clear in his mind. The body usually worked by consensus, but on this topic, the matter came to a vote. It was approved with only three people in opposition.
“Instead of leaving it,” Palermo recalled, “Ray kept with it because of the negative vote. We were like a train. Everybody gets on except for three who stay on the platform. But when the train leaves, Ray stops it and backs it up. We all get off and continue the conversation.”
Impressions of continuing the conversation abound across campus. “If we did anything under Ray, we did a lot of talking,” said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH ’73, director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives. “He wanted to talk until everybody had ownership.”
Zukowski used yet another metaphor to get at the essence of Fitz’s method of continuing conversation, comparing it to working yeast into dough. Working the dough and integrating the yeast into it is not process for process sake. It is done so the dough will rise as a unit. It is done for a purpose.
Zukowski and others are impressed by Fitz’s tenacity, his persistence. Mary Neacy ’83, his long-time assistant during his presidency said he taught her a very important lesson: “At the beginning and end of a project, there is lots of anticipation and excitement. It’s the in-between that is difficult — and the most important.”
She said of Fitz: “He always finishes what he begins.”
His brother Jim noted that all the brothers in the family played football. “Ray was the smallest,” Jim Fitz said, “but the most tenacious.” And like two brothers who went to play in the Big Ten while he was preparing to be a Marianist, he was All-City in Akron.
In recognition of his tenacity, Zukowski and her colleagues once gave him a present — a toy train engine. His favorite childhood book, she said, was The Little Engine That Could.
Some might use the term “workaholic” to describe his tenacity, his embracing of long hours of work. Ploeger does not think that term apt but sees the habit as flowing from, Ploeger said, “zeal — to use the old religious term. He has zeal. He wants to do something.”
Ploeger compared Fitz to the biblical Paul, saying, “You’ve got something to do. You do it. That’s not neurotic; it’s purposeful.”
That sense of purpose may not have been something Fitz was born with but something he acquired early through strength of will and formation of habit. It may be hard for his colleagues to believe, but his brother Jim recalled that “in grade school, he sometimes would get in trouble. He wasn’t as motivated then. The principal told dad, ‘I know you want him to go to college, but if Ray doesn’t get more focused, he may not get out of high school.’”
He obviously got focused. And by the time he received his doctorate, brother Jim said, the principal had lost all memory of the incident.
Whatever the details of the past, “once he believes in something,” his brother said, “he gets focused and does well.”
His sense of focus and persistence and his ambition for the University led him to success in areas that might have been unexpected, given his introverted personality. When he became president, the University’s endowment, certainly in comparison to major national universities, was small. To build it, he committed to a major fundraising campaign. There was, Palermo said, “an enormous amount of skeptics, but he proved correct. He brought people on board, for example, local philanthropist Jesse Philips, who would make the campaign a success. That was a bold act. In many respects, Brother Ray is not a bold person, but he had the ambition and the imagination to see the University as others at the time did not.”
Philips would open doors — some might say kick them down — to prospective supporters that would have remained closed to a more conservative approach. Philips’ strength of personality extended to the planning and construction of the building that bears his name. “Jesse Philips insisted,” said Tom Burkhardt ’70, who succeeded Ploeger as UD’s chief financial officer, “that the humanities center have a certain look and feel, that it be a step up for the University. Ray bought into it; he was able to allow someone to do that. He set a tone for campus, for the look of facilities.”
Fitz early in his presidency had showed he could work with personalities different from his. Ploeger told the story of Tom Frericks ’53 hiring Jim Hoover ’67, an ex-football coach, to bolster UD’s enrollment, weakened by the end of the Vietnam War and the opening of Wright State University. “To Jim,” Ploeger said, “the idea was to go out and win. When someone might complain to Frericks about Hoover’s manner, Frericks had a way of saying ‘he shouldn’t treat you like that’ and doing nothing about it.
“Ray could accept different styles of management.”
East Coast transplants like Palermo and Schuerman were grateful for that. “After I was here six months,” Schuerman said, “he probably wondered what the hell he had done, this introverted guy hiring this flaming extrovert. He had patience. I don’t think we ever had cross words. But he could be a calming influence, putting gentle boundaries on my extraversion.”
“To many in the Marianist world,” said Charles Cottrell, president of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, “Brother Ray Fitz is referred to as a ‘Marianist National Treasure.’ His life of faith and dedication has been characterized by lifelong conversation and collaborative action addressing human development and community building.”
Part of Fitz’s success with various kinds of people may flow from the fact that when he listens to people, he really does hear what they are saying and cares about it. “Talking with him, you always sense he’s interested in you, in what’s going on in your life,” said Mary Harvan Gorgette ’91, who lives in Paris and noted that the last time Fitz visited her family he wanted to know about lay ministry in the Catholic Church in France. “Thanks in part to Brother Ray, I’m a member of an online Marianist community today, 20 years after graduating from UD and living six time zones away.”
Burkhardt, marveling at Fitz’s concern for and memory of people, recalled an incident well before he took the financial post at UD. “We came back here from California for Christmas one year. I was trying to interest my grade school kids in UD. We ran into Ray. I’d met him previously a few times when I worked on audits at UD. He remembered who I was. And, later, when the kids were UD students, he remembered meeting them.”
Burkhardt, like Schuerman, also recollected Fitz’s calming influence. When Burkhardt was returning to Dayton to work, “We — including my wife, my four kids and a cat,” he said, “were at O’Hare Airport. The cat is going nuts in a cage. Brother Ray comes up and says, ‘Don’t worry. There’s nothing you can do.’ He calmed me down.”
Fitz impresses people as being able to balance the mundane and the profound. Gorgette, who said, “He always seems to be chewing on some big question, thinking through some big issue,” also remembers him and his community having students over for Mass and Fitz flipping burgers on the grill.
Father Pat Tonry, S.M. ’55, a longtime member of the same community as Fitz, said, “He was a joy to live with — such a contributor to community life, in spite of all the work he had. The Monday community meeting was always a priority with him. He always took his turn with housework. And he was very prayerful. I always as a fellow brother felt proud of him.”
And, Tonry said, “He always did his own laundry. I told him, ‘You can send your shirts out.’”
Fitz’s sense of balance was observed by Ann Hudock ’90, who worked for him as a research assistant while she pursued a master’s degree. “I saw the way he kept a focus on the important issues and let the small ones go. He never lost sight of the institution he was building and the greater good he was serving.”
And she experienced firsthand his knack for empowering people. When she was an undergraduate, he asked her what she wanted to do after graduation. “I told him I wanted to go to Sierra Leone and I wanted him to send me.”
He did — to a point. He offered to pay for her transportation if she could find funding for a monthly stipend. She did and in the process also found people who provided a network of support. When she returned she worked as a research assistant in the president’s office. “In his quiet way he was giving me a chance to follow my dreams yet connecting them to so much else, making the efforts much more sustainable, community-oriented and successful.”
Likewise, Zukowski recalled him challenging her and the directors of other campus centers “to be entrepreneurs, to be authentic, to make a difference.” There were those who thought that there was no future in distance learning and that a religious sister with a big satellite antenna was a bit odd. But Fitz encouraged her and suggested at one point, “Look at this new phenomenon — the Internet.”
Catholic bishops — including Cincinnati archbishops Joseph Bernardin and Daniel Pilarczyk — admired him, Zukowski said. “They talked of his creative insight and vision for Catholic education.”
Pilarczyk, now archbishop emeritus, said of Fitz, “He is always balanced, always serious, always pleasant, always a joy to be with. You always learn something from him.”
For a man universally considered pleasant, calm and controlled, there is, however, the anomaly of the flying pens and pencils. Geiger recalled one incident — a discussion (what some may have thought an argument) on cutting costs. At a point at which a particularly thorny issue was being hashed out, Geiger said, “a pen bounced out of his hand across the table and landed in front of me. I asked, ‘Is this pen for me?’” The pen returned to its owner, and the discussion continued calmly to its resolution.
To Palermo, this flying writing utensil and peaceable resolution of the issue were not unique occurrences but are illustrative of Fitz’s character: “He was always able to leave it behind. He’s never one to let something fester.”
Fitz’s character, his ability to bring out the best in others, resulted in the University making steady, methodical progress to results that are so solid they might seem inevitable if one did not recall that the tumultuous times of the 1960s and ’70s portended an uncertain future. Under Fitz’s leadership, however, UD not only continued to balance its budgets but also to radically increase its endowment. The long process of buying hundreds of houses and other properties adjacent to the University made a commitment to and ensured the highly residential nature of the University. The Genesis Project, for which Fitz was a driving force, changed a crime-infested area between the University and Miami Valley Hospital into a highly desirable place to live — and made possible the extraordinary development of Brown Street. Fitz took personal interest in curricular developments that entwined professional training and liberal arts education to an unprecedented degree. The University moved from regional recognition to national prominence. And, in a time when the number of members of the Society of Mary declined, he ensured that the laity — a key part of the vision of the Marianist founder Chaminade — would embrace that vision and that the University of Dayton’s mission would continue as Catholic and Marianist.
And then he stepped aside as president — but not before he worked to ensure that the University would continue to thrive and to be true to its mission.
“He’s good at the soft sell,” Curran said, looking back at his first encounters with Fitz.
Curran had been approached by a search firm about the Dayton presidency. But with a good job, a new house and a young family, he passed at looking at the opportunity. As the search stalled, the firm again approached him. He remembers them saying, “You’re a good match for the University of Dayton.”
He replied, “You say that to everyone, don’t you?”
They said, “No.”
And Fitz helped prove them right. Before looking seriously at the position, Curran wanted to come to Dayton with his family and meet with the sitting president. “The week before Christmas,” he said, “I met with Ray. He was gracious and humble. He talked not of his achievement but of community, of the contributions of the community.”
That was the only meeting with Fitz that Curran had scheduled. “But he asked to meet my family,” Curran said. So there was a second meeting — with family. Curran’s wife, Claire Renzetti, and sons, Sean and Aidan, were impressed. And Fitz asked to meet with Curran again. They met the next day.
By Christmas, Daniel J. Curran had applied to become the 18th president of the University of Dayton.
During the decade of Curran’s presidency, Fitz, now 70, has continued to work hard and with purpose. As Ferree Professor of Social Justice, Fitz has been for 10 years a member of the center that bears his name and carries on his commitment to community building. Looking forward, that is not about to change. Although his 13-year-old Buick has recently been retired — replaced by a new Chevy — Fitz himself has no retirement plans. He continues to work quietly and effectively.
Current projects include co-chairing the University’s Mission and Identity Task Force and guiding the University’s hosting this June of the Eighth International Conference on Catholic Social Thought and Management Education: “Renewing Mission and Identity in Catholic Business Education.”
Dan Sadlier ’69, former chair of the UD board of trustees, said it was amazing when Fitz was president “how discretely he went about things so effectively” and that he still does. Sadlier, a longtime area business leader, pointed to the depth of Fitz’s passion and to his understanding of what the Dayton community needs.
Fitz himself sees the principles that applied for him at UD having application in the broader community. “We have to observe,” he said, “the frustrations and barriers to full human life. We have to get into conversations so we see the same thing. Then we ask: If we could create something better than we have now, how would we describe it? What is the good we are trying to create? What options do we have to get there? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Along the way, we find surprises, but we come out more thoughtful, more intelligent.”
Deborah Feldman, Montgomery County, Ohio, administrator, has worked with Fitz extensively on human services issues particularly related to families and children, most recently the important role of education in determining the future of the community’s children.
She remembers clearly her first contact with Fitz. “Five children in the county had died in a short time,” she said. “All had been involved with the child welfare system. The system was not working as a system.” Fitz headed the task force formed to find a way to make the system work; many of its recommendations are still in place.
“I recognized,” Feldman said, “in that contact that he focuses on issues he cares about. He has an undeniable commitment to children and families. He never veers from seeing that the future of our community is our children.“He never lets us stray.”
The last time Tom Columbus wrote about Brother Ray, the story was on Fitz’s work on behalf of the homeless. Columbus ended up serving on Montgomery County’s Homeless Solutions Policy Board.