Obituary and funeral details for Dr. Joseph J. McGowan

March 3, 2016

Funeral arrangements have been finalized for Bellarmine University's president, Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, who died on March 1, 2016, at age 71. 

Visitation will be held on Sunday, March 6, from noon to 8 p.m. in Knights Hall on Bellarmine's campus. A mass in celebration of his life will be on Monday, March 7, at 11 a.m. at St. Agnes Church, 1920 Newburg Road.

On Monday, the university will be closed and all day and evening classes are cancelled.

OBITUARY: Joseph J. McGowan, visionary leader of Bellarmine University, dies at 71
Joseph J. “Jay” McGowan Jr., visionary president of Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, died suddenly and peacefully at his home on Tuesday of a pulmonary embolism.  He was 71. 

Joseph McGowanHis tenacious pursuit of academic excellence and sustainable growth at Bellarmine developed for Louisville a pre-eminent private university that serves the public interest and has gained national renown. His personal grace, compassion and lightning-fast wit brought energy and light to all who met him.

When Dr. McGowan assumed the leadership of then-Bellarmine College in 1990, the school was a largely commuter liberal-arts college with 15 mostly yellow-brick buildings and 2,500 students. Today Bellarmine is a distinguished, bustling university with 46 buildings and it attracts 4,000 students from all over the world to its stunning Italianate campus and its curriculum steeped in the Catholic tradition of academic excellence and ethical awareness.

Dr. McGowan was the third and longest-serving president of Bellarmine, which was founded in 1950.  

“Jay McGowan was a visionary leader who took Bellarmine from college to university, from a local learning institution to an international destination for innovation and knowledge,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. 

Joseph J. McGowan Jr. was born to Joseph and Joan McGowan on Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, LA, but moved with his parents to Scranton, PA, as a child. He spoke about growing up in Scranton, where he played little league baseball with Vice President Joe Biden and once turned an unassisted triple play. 

After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Notre Dame, he earned his doctorate in higher education from Columbia University. He later graduated from Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Management. 

Before taking the reins at Bellarmine, President McGowan served for 21 years at Fordham University in New York City as vice president of student affairs and dean of students.

"The world of higher education has lost a giant in Dr. McGowan,” said Joseph M. McShane, SJ, president of Fordham University. “A man of great vision and integrity, his transformation of Bellarmine was nothing less than miraculous. He left a lasting mark on the field, and on the institutions he served so loyally, including Fordham. With his family, loved ones, and colleagues, today we mourn the loss of a great and gentle soul." 

At Bellarmine, Dr. McGowan shook off the culture shock of moving from Manhattan to Louisville and sought to instill a “vision built on hope,” which was the title of his 1990 inaugural address. (A fan of New York’s nightlife, he later remarked that he had some initial dismay at his Louisville colleagues’ custom of reporting for work promptly at 8 a.m.) 

His vision for Bellarmine included faculty development, intellectual and personal growth of students, a firm commitment to the liberal arts, new and renovated facilities and the intellectual and spiritual presence of Thomas Merton, whose spirit “inspires the development of Bellarmine as the intellectual center of the region considering such issues as peace and justice, world religions and East-West and North-South dialogues.”

The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University is the official repository of Merton’s artistic estate, and it archives more than 50,000 Merton-related materials.   During Dr. McGowan’s presidency the Center became a vibrant destination for international scholars, and an inspiration for all on the campus at Bellarmine, which finds its Catholic identity in Merton’s inclusive spirit.

In 2005, Dr. McGowan launched Vision 2020, his plan for Bellarmine to become “the premier independent Catholic university in the South, and thereby the leading private institution in the Commonwealth and region.” He envisioned growing Bellarmine into a nationally pre-eminent private university of significant size and stature. He knew that in order for a regional city to thrive and compete, it would need a strong culture of support for private higher education, and a strong private university to go along with the large state institutions. 

His vision gave birth to Bellarmine’s first doctoral programs and graduate programs in fields like education and social change, analytics, physical therapy and digital media, as well as a reinvigorated liberal-arts undergraduate academic core to form an exemplar of today’s cutting-edge higher education. The fruit of his labors includes the thousands of Bellarmine alumni recognized in this region and beyond as uniquely qualified to excel as citizens and leaders. 

Similarly, Dr. McGowan displayed a passion for architecture. Remaking Bellarmine’s hilly campus in the style of his beloved Tuscany (birthplace of school namesake St. Roberto Bellarmino), Bellarmine today is a vibrant archetype of the 21st century college campus. The Siena residential complex – widely acclaimed as one of the nation’s most beautiful, the Bellarmine Farm – a working demonstration garden and orchard, Our Lady of the Woods Chapel and the new hilltop Centro are just a few of the projects that routinely drop jaws among alumni and friends who visit after a time away.  The newly erected St. Robert’s Gate at the school’s main entrance on Newburg Road is a beautiful archway that is emblematic of the University’s culture of hospitality, and its welcoming of new people and new ideas.

A longtime virtuoso of student-life leadership at Fordham, Dr. McGowan recognized the need to invigorate the quality of residential life at Bellarmine, and he more than tripled the number of students living in residence on campus. Accordingly, Bellarmine was classified as “primarily residential” and has since added 24 intramural sports, as well as NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse, Division II swimming, diving, women’s soccer, golf and track. To the thrill of “Knights Nation,” and Dr. McGowan, the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship in 2011. 

Under his leadership, the university routinely brought prominent guest lecturers to campus, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Ken Burns, Andrea Mitchell, Bob Woodward, Michael Pollan, Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Wendell Berry, E.O. Wilson and Isabel Allende. 

Throughout the stunning growth, President McGowan zealously safeguarded Bellarmine’s values, integrity, small class sizes, independent Catholic ideals and respect for all people. Today as always, Bellarmine students and faculty embody the school’s Latin motto, in veritatis amore, in the love of truth. 

Dr. McGowan’s accomplishments in higher education extended far beyond the universities he served. His professional service included terms as chairman of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities and Kentuckiana Metroversity, along with service on the board of directors of the American Council on Education and the Council of Independent Colleges. He also served on numerous boards and executive committees, including Norton Healthcare, Greater Louisville Inc., The Frazier History Museum, Speed Art Museum, Greater Louisville Health Enterprises Network and the Metro United Way. 

Among his scores of honors were being “Knighted” by the Bellarmine Board of Trustees in 2010 and being named the Ancient Order of Hibernians 2014 Irish Person of the Year. 

Famous for his competitive spirit and ability to spot opportunities others overlooked, President McGowan will perhaps be missed most for his sense of humor. “Jay was brilliant, charming, hilarious and always exciting to be around; the rare university president known for an Elvis impersonation,” said US Rep. John Yarmuth. 

The Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh, CSC, STD, who was president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, was a mentor to Dr. McGowan and wrote to him on Bellarmine’s 60th anniversary, the 20th year of Dr. McGowan’s presidency:  “Under your leadership, Bellarmine has thrived in every conceivable way,” the Rev. Hesburgh wrote, “and the Academy, the Church, and our Nation, are better and stronger because of your inspired vision.”

Dr. McGowan is survived by his loving wife, Maureen McRaith McGowan, and their fraternal twin sons, Joseph and Matthew; their daughters-in-law Emma and Heidi; and five adoring grandchildren, Alessia, Sofia, Neve, Fiona, and Luke; his sister, Mary Hoban (William); his brother, Timothy (Theresa); his uncle, Thomas J. Rittenhouse, Jr. (Joyce); and a large extended family.

Visitation will be held from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday at Knights Hall on the Bellarmine campus. A Mass in celebration of his life will be 11 a.m. Monday at St. Agnes Church, 1920 Newburg Road.

Memorial gifts may be made to Bellarmine University in honor of Dr. Joseph J. McGowan.


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