Dr. John L. Lahey, university president and preserver of our history, is inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.
President of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut for over 25 years, Dr. John L. Lahey is as dedicated to leadership and education as he is to his Irish ancestry. The burgeoning Quinnipiac campus, its unprecedented Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, and Dr. Lahey’s work with the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee are all testaments to his exceptional commitment and vision.
Born and raised in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Dr. Lahey has roots in Co. Clare on his mother’s side of the family, and in counties Cork and Kerry on his father’s. His paternal grandfather, a stonemason, emigrated from Knockglossmore, Co. Kerry to Canada, eventually settling in New York. Growing up in the very Irish enclave of St. Margaret’s parish, Lahey has often recalled that “it seemed like everyone was Irish.” Even as a boy he was very involved in the Irish community, marching behind Fordham University’s banner in the St. Patrick’s parade, as a student of Fordham Preparatory School.
At the University of Dayton in Ohio, he discovered a deep interest in philosophy, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field, and met his future wife, Judy, with whom he has two sons. Following his time at Dayton, he went on to complete a PhD in philosophy at the University of Miami.
In 1977, after teaching at St. Bernard’s College in Alabama, he returned to New York and earned a second master’s degree, this time in academic administration, at Columbia University. Upon graduating, he was hired by Marist University in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he quickly climbed the administrative ladder, becoming chief operating officer and executive vice president. After ten years at Marist, at only 40 years of age, he became president of Quinnipiac.
The transformation Lahey has ushered in during his 25 years at Quinnipiac is nothing short of remarkable, and is a result of his skill as a leader and innovator. During his tenure there, the university’s academic programs, facilities, enrollment, national ranking and prestige have grown at an unprecedented rate.
When he started at Quinnipiac in 1987, it was still Quinnipiac College – a small, quiet commuter school with one campus, an endowment of $5 million and an application pool of 1,000. Today it has a bustling student population of over 8,000, with close to 6,000 undergrads, 2,000 graduate students, and 500 enrolled in the law school, which was established under Lahey’s lead. The university now runs three campuses, has an endowment of $277 million, and applications for the incoming class exceed 19,000. Lahey has also had a hand in the athletic teams’ entrance into the NCAA Division I Northeast Conference; the establishment of the highly regarded Quinnipiac Polling Institute; and the Frank H. Netter, MD, School of Medicine, which will open in 2013.
The accomplishment closest to his heart and his Irish roots, however, is the creation of Quinnipiac’s Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, which seeks not only to commemorate the people who either died or fled Ireland during the famine, but also to educate the public about An Gorta Mór, to present a comprehensive history of the tragedy and its aftermath.
The focal point of the museum is the extraordinary Lender Family Special Collection. Founded in 2000 following a donation from Marvin and Murray Lender, the collection contains 700 volumes, historic and contemporary texts, and an ever-growing number of works of art that portray or respond to the loss of more than 1.5 million Irish lives between 1845 and 1852. These include pieces by contemporary artists Padraic Reaney, John Behan, Rowan Gillespie, Glenna Goodacre, Niall Bruton and Kieran Tuohy, and period pieces by such artists as James Brenan and Jack B. Yeats.
In a 2011 interview with Irish America, when he was honored as Irish American of the Year, Lahey reminisced about carrying the first piece acquired for the collection, Roan Gillespie’s The Victim, with him on a flight back from Ireland. “It’s such a powerful work,” he said. “I didn’t want to let it out of my sight.”
Away from Quinnipiac’s campus, Dr. Lahey is a director of the United Illuminating Company, Independence Holding Company, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy. In addition, he is vice chairman of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Committee and has been involved with the committee for over 25 years. In 1997, he was honored with the role of Grand Marshal.
Of his passion for the NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade, Lahey told Irish America “It allows us to remember, celebrate and pass on to the next generation what it means to be Irish, and what our struggles and accomplishments have been over the past 250 years in this country.” In his own work and life, John Lahey does the very same.