That “Wheeling Feeling”: Alumni & Friends Pay Tribute to Wheeling Jesuit University

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On Saturday, May 4, Wheeling Jesuit University (located in Wheeling, WV) hosted its final commencement ceremony as an institution affiliated with the Society of Jesus. We invited alumni and friends of the school to share memories from their time as students and/or employees, and to describe the impact that Wheeling Jesuit made on their lives.

Rev. James O’Brien, S.J.

Rev. James O’Brien, S.J. (photo courtesy of Wheeling Jesuit University)

Rev. James O’Brien, S.J. (photo courtesy of Wheeling Jesuit University)

Wheeling Jesuit College (now University) was a blessed and privileged place to be for the fifty plus years I was missioned there (1962-2015). A main reason for making such a claim was what we refer to as "the Wheeling feeling." This runs much deeper than merely an occasional emotional high; rather, it is firmly rooted, integrated and very personal. Our self-contained campus and relatively small population brought students into close contact with an ongoing line of "persons for others" among faculty, administrators and staff—lay, Jesuit and other religious.

Over the years, as I watched energized, idealized students become responsible, involved adults, I was privileged to behold a beautiful growth into their family lives and professional dedications. Their warm, loving friendships are especially manifest in times of celebration, as well as crisis and loss. They are just "there" for each other. Rev. John Coll, S.J. (one of the “first-generation” Jesuits at Wheeling), voiced the observation that perhaps our most valuable work was in providing the space for students to get to know each other and become, if you will, a second faculty for each other. Many of these people are now practicing the ways of justice, encouraged by their experience of service during their campus years, as they express solidarity with the poor and marginalized, and practice a public advocacy. In short, Wheeling Jesuit has been a great gift in the Lord for all of us and, I'd like to think, for those with whom we come in contact. I hope and will surely pray that we continue to be grateful for it as we carry that "Wheeling feeling" with us wherever we go.


Dan Haller ‘61

I am a member of the third Wheeling College / Wheeling Jesuit University graduating class: the class of 1961. I am very grateful for the education I received and, more important, the personal encouragement and support I received from a dedicated and inspiring faculty, both Jesuit and lay. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my four years at Wheeling were the most formative of my life. Yet, there were no ivy-covered walls, no famous (as yet) alumni, no sacred traditions – nothing that would remind you of an established college, nothing except an excellent faculty that opened our minds and broadened our limited horizons. Our interactions with them occurred not just in the classroom, but also in the cafeteria over meals, as well as over coffee, cards and conversation. After graduation, I was fortunate to be able to retain and benefit from continued contact with many of them over the years.

The campus in those early days consisted of three architecturally undistinguished buildings: one for classrooms, another for administration and the third for the Jesuits. However, out of necessity, the second floor of Swint Administration became a freshman male dorm while the second and third floors of Whelan, the Jesuit residence, were used to house sophomore and, later, junior men. The women lived in two houses off campus during those first few years. The lack of actual dorm facilities during my first two years saw the Jesuits turning over their Whelan residence to us and moving to an orphanage a few miles away. Every morning at 7:30, they would return to campus crammed into a Volkswagen bus that came chugging up the campus drive.

While my own accommodation in Whelan, a nice room with a bath and cross ventilation, seemed perfect at first, I was soon jolted awake one morning by a jackhammer blasting away just under our back window. Coal had been discovered on the property. Its removal soon became a major operation with heavy equipment tearing up large sections of the campus well into the evening every day. In addition to the constant roar of heavy machinery, we soon had to deal with a sea of mud. Nevertheless, the education process and our class bonding proceeded well.

In all, 86 people graduated in my class. Most of us went on to graduate or professional schools at the urging and insistence of Rev. Jim Muldowney, S.J., a sociologist who, in addition to his many other endeavors, taught a seminal course on race relations in the United States that shattered so many of our complacent illusions. Our class produced one Rhodes semi-finalist, one Woodrow Wilson scholar, one White House Fellow, two foreign service officers (one of whom was killed while on a peace mission to Namibia), two medical doctors, two attorneys and numerous graduate degrees. My class was not unique—those same success stories have come out of all of the subsequent classes over the ensuing years. All this from a little Jesuit college founded by a bishop who, in the early 1950s, had invited the Jesuits to come west to Appalachia and establish a college to educate his people. And that they did so very well these many years.


Michael Galligan-Stierle, Ph.D. (President, Association of Catholic Colleges & Universities)

A highlight of the 2019 ACCU meeting included a Mass featuring a choir comprised of friends and alumni of WJU (© 2019, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Image by Peter Cutts Photography)

A highlight of the 2019 ACCU meeting included a Mass featuring a choir comprised of friends and alumni of WJU (© 2019, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Image by Peter Cutts Photography)

My years at Wheeling Jesuit University as director of campus ministry and adjunct professor in theology (1990-2001) were some of the most meaningful years of my life. Accompanying students as they grew in wisdom and grace was an honor and privilege. Developing the leadership of our students through campus ministry, the EXCEL program, academics or athletics was central and life-giving. I thoroughly enjoyed the colleagueship in student affairs and the wonderful collaborations that emerged with faculty and the campus ministry staff. Whether during a noontime basketball game, the Christmas chapel concert, or Wednesday night Mass, the love of life, proclamation of the good news, and the care of the human person was central. Thanks, one and all, for journeying together. You will forever be etched in my soul.


Lou Volpe ‘70

Despite the rather challenging times in the late 1960s or, rather, because of the challenging times, Wheeling College (later Wheeling Jesuit University) proved to be for me and others a place of dialogue, discernment and possible direction for our lives. Very small and intimate in personality, the college was actually where we “lived” as well as studied; a place where we often ate with our professors; sat in the “snack bar” (how quaint a word and place it seems now with our super-everything society) discussing our philosophy, theology, chemistry and political science courses; and watched movies or heard scholarly talks in Troy Lounge. Many of us were wrestling with the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War; a good many of us were involved in service and the burgeoning issues of racial justice and world peace; and almost all of us were learning how to be friends and human beings on a deeper level. Surrounded by those lovely green hills in a fairly serene neighborhood, we were blessed with the gift of time and place to reflect a little more deeply and listen to that inner voice inside us—a combination of reason and intuition—which assured most of us that existence was a gift and a gift worth living well.

And on this rickety-rackety journey called “growing up,” we were blessed with faculty—lay and Jesuits alike—who impressed us with their intelligence and compassion. They accompanied us beyond the classroom, their conversations encouraging and challenging us to think and to act a little more for others. Quietly and diligently, without much fanfare, they brought home to us the importance of reading widely, writing clearly and perceptively and, most significantly, living ethically and spiritually. I still remember most of my professors’ names and faces; I still recall their kindnesses to us, even when we disagreed. They stretched themselves beyond their vocations as “academics” to reveal themselves as persons who were as alive and alert—and sometimes as agonized—as we youth ourselves. They, and this place called Wheeling College, introduced me to a certain kind of mature learning and loving which I have tried to gratefully bring to my own vocation.


Kelly Swan ‘04

Wheeling Jesuit University students, alumni and staff at the 2018 Ignatian Family Teach-In For Justice in Arlington, VA (photo courtesy of Vince Sirianni)

Wheeling Jesuit University students, alumni and staff at the 2018 Ignatian Family Teach-In For Justice in Arlington, VA (photo courtesy of Vince Sirianni)

There is something very powerful to be said about being educated in a place like Wheeling, WV, particularly through the lens of a Jesuit education. Wheeling Jesuit’s sense of place, in a small, Appalachian city, allowed for an intimate view of many of the issues facing post-industrial American society, including unemployment, poverty, addiction and issues surrounding the environment, race and class—but also community, innovation and creativity. The small size of the campus and surrounding community provided ample opportunities for accessible engagement in justice issues and leadership roles for students seeking to address them, in a very personal way not as easily found in larger cities. WJU’s location drew a diverse student body, its appeal enhanced by the low cost of living in the community compared to larger urban centers, creating a campus community that was, in many ways, a microcosm of American society. All of this, experienced through the lens of a person-centered, paradigm-challenging Jesuit education, offered those of us fortunate to spend our undergraduate years at WJU, an education deeply rooted in Jesuit spirituality and Appalachian realities, forming dynamic, educated, thoughtful, faithful adults in a space known most for its challenges.


Patrick S. Cassidy ‘70

Calendar cover courtesy of Patrick S. Cassidy

Calendar cover courtesy of Patrick S. Cassidy

The photograph seen here is from the cover of a 1969-1970 school year calendar prepared by Wheeling College. I don’t know who came up with the language of describing our education as “The Quiet Revolution,” but I can attest that during those years, that’s what we all believed about the education we were receiving at Wheeling. The school was out to change the world for the better, and we were expected to learn how to do it by using, as our only weapons, “inquiring minds” and “rational judgments.”

We thought the weapons sufficient, despite the deaths just the year before of Bobby Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., by weapons of hate. We were, the school promised, “moving liberal arts education into a new dimension of learning,” with an objective “to educate young men and women who will improve America’s social and economic vigor.”


Vince Sirianni ‘01

Top: Vince Sirianni with WJU classmates in 1999, Bottom: A recreation of the same photo in 2015 (photo courtesy of Vince Sirianni)

Top: Vince Sirianni with WJU classmates in 1999, Bottom: A recreation of the same photo in 2015 (photo courtesy of Vince Sirianni)

I am a graduate of the class of 2001 of what was once called Wheeling College, then Wheeling Jesuit College and, finally, Wheeling Jesuit University. Attending WJU remains one of the top five decisions of my life. I emerged from WJU with a strong sense of who I was and what direction I wanted my life to take. I also acquired quite the pile of lifelong friends who have since become family.

In 2013, circumstances offered me an opportunity to return and reengage with WJU. For the next 6 years I worked in the Enrollment Management and Marketing areas at a highly critical time for the University. During that time, I worked with some of the best people (staff, students, alumni, faculty, coaches) and developed deep bonds similar to those I made with my classmates. I was afforded the opportunity to lead Advent and Lenten employee prayer groups, student immersion experiences, and instruct in the school’s Honors program. I feel very blessed and grateful for my time there, working to advance the mission of the school. Specifically, being a part of the school’s Mission Priority Examen committee from 2017-2018 was one of the most life-giving and fulfilling career and spiritual experiences of my life.

In January, I flexed my Jesuit-influenced discernment muscles and determined it was time for me to move on from WJU to a new career opportunity. During the 5 months since that exit, I have watched, sadly and frustratingly, as academic and co-curricular programs have been cut. Earlier this spring, the Jesuits themselves determined it was time to end their 60+ year relationship with the school. It is a tremendously unfortunate end to a place that has been a source of hope, love and faith development for so many for more than half a century.

In spite of all of these events, I know confidently that I, countless classmates, and many former mentors and co-workers will continue to live lives of purpose and faith influenced strongly by Ignatian values learned in Wheeling. Hopefully, this will allow us all to carry on the spirit and goodness that was WC, WJC and WJU, forever.


Tim Cogan ‘69

Tim Cogan and his mother at his graduation from West Virginia University Law School in 1980 (photo courtesy of Tim Cogan)

Tim Cogan and his mother at his graduation from West Virginia University Law School in 1980 (photo courtesy of Tim Cogan)

What I got out of Wheeling College was enormous: a very good education and lifelong connections. After graduate school, I returned to Wheeling, WV, as did a cadre that diminished one by one as most left for greener economic pastures. I still frequented the campus, eventually returned to church there, attended some sports matches (the University’s sainted volleyball team won the NCAA D-II Women’s National Tournament in 2015), and even adjuncted at the University.

We recently lost the Jesuit affiliation of our alma mater, apart from campus ministry and the Appalachian Institute. That loss is like someone died. As one teacher said, WJU beautifully integrated its service mission throughout the institution. I maintain a vestigial loyalty to “Jesuit,” keeping a scholarship there for this coming academic year. One of my dearest moments was interacting with recipients of this particular scholarship. One lived at the Mother Jones House, a home for students who chose to live together “intentionally” as a community. That program was affected by budget cuts over the years, along with programs and faculty in the liberal arts. With little basis, I hope the Jesuit connection will continue beyond 2018-19 and might, somehow, some day, be expanded.