A couple of years ago Dr. McGowan was working on a eulogy for a close friend, another of Louisville’s great civic leaders. I told the presi-dent I don’t really like eulogies because a human life is too rich and full to capture in words. “The whole concept of eulogies is preposterous,” I said. “You can’t encapsulate a whole person in a speech. You can’t do a person justice!” Dr. McGowan let me go on until I had finished, and then he just said: “Of course, that’s true. But you have to try.”
I remembered that conversation last month when, shortly after the president died, Fordham University called Bellarmine’s communications office. They were working on a story about Dr. McGowan, who had served Fordham as vice president for Student Affairs and dean of Students for 26 years before coming to Louisville. The writer at Fordham didn’t need anything as difficult as a eulogy, just “some color.”
I knew I had to try, and here is what I sent Fordham:
Dr. Joseph J. McGowan had a brilliant intellect; a loving heart; an impatient drive for perfection; an abiding sense of humor; and a fantastic singing voice. All of these qualities were simultaneously and relentlessly present. He used to joke that “at my deepest level, I’m pretty shallow,” but no way. Dr. McGowan was a complicated, impressive, wonderful, passionate human being, a giant, and he occupied enormous emotional space in each of our lives.
He was off-the-charts demanding when it came to “the pursuit of excellence in everything we do,” and he told us more than once that “a university president is someone who walks around campus with a worried look on the vice presidents’ faces.” But if you had a real worry—or something great to celebrate—he could not possibly have been more present or more caring.
Joseph J. McGowan was a visionary genius. He was a transformational university president. He was presidential.
And, he was Elvis. Once, when I called him an “Elvis impersonator,” he curled his lip and said: “Not impersonator! Tribute singer.”
And he did sing—at the staff and faculty Christmas party every year and sometimes at other events. He sang some Elvis, but what always got the crowd going was his tour de force cover of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. Good times never seemed so good.
As a descendent of County Donegal, Dr. McGowan was proud of his Irish heritage and thrilled to be named the Irish Person of the Year by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 2014, an honor that included serving as the grand marshal of Louisville’s 41st annual St. Patrick’s Parade. That love of culture and heritage helped to explain his connection to his signature song, which was said to have been written with Caroline Kennedy in mind.
“When the first Irish American Catholic became president it was very impactful. I was just fascinated with the whole Kennedy lore and the personalities. … I was so happy and proud of that. That was key to Caroline. Plus I like the whole feel of it: ‘hands touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you’—that sense of connection.”
Dr. McGowan did connect. And that enormous emotional space in our lives? It’s still occupied, and it always will be. In Veritatis Amore.
By Dr. Hunt C. Helm, Vice President for Communications & Public Affairs