Amidst the blessings of Christmas and the joy of the holiday season, the Alvernia University community mourned the loss of a beloved member of our family, Senator Michael A. O’Pake. Collegiate communities have many impressive individuals, but iconic figures heroic in virtue, accomplishments, and reputation are rare. During 2010, Alvernia lost two: our dear Sister Pacelli and now Senator O’Pake, a legendary servant-leader and a member of our Board of Trustees for almost two decades.
Senator O’Pake was an impressive and influential statesman who embodied the best in public service. Most importantly, Mike O’Pake was a genuinely good man, a virtuous man, who never forgot his roots in the Glenside Projects and cared deeply about people regardless of their background. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching were the guideposts of his life. Inspired by his faith and the Jesuit ideal to be “a man for others,” he lived his vocation of service and justice-seeking to the fullest.
A life-long Reading resident, the Senator was elected in 1968 and was the longest-serving member in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Among his legislative achievements, he was best known as a tireless advocate for children, senior citizens, crime victims, and those who could not help themselves. He led the charge to protect children through the passage of the Child Protective Services Law in 1974 and by spearheading efforts to implement the Amber Alert Child Abduction Early Warning System throughout the state. He sponsored legislation to help Pennsylvania’s senior citizens, including property tax and rent rebate and prescription medication assistance. A long-time leader of the Democratic Party, he was the model of a bipartisan statesman who earned universal respect as a man of integrity devoted to the common good.
Mike O’Pake was also a passionate and compelling champion of Catholic education—both for elementary and secondary schools and for Catholic universities like Alvernia. He was explicit about how his education at Reading Central Catholic, where he was valedictorian, and at St Joe’s, where he graduated summa cum laude, shaped his life. As a long-time trustee, he was our most distinguished advocate for the Franciscan charism at the heart of an Alvernia education.
Yet with religion, as with politics, O’Pake was a model for emulation. A daily communicant, with deep religious faith, he carried his beliefs humbly and had special respect for those with values and beliefs different from his own. Another local legend, Albert Boscov, noted that O’Pake’s strong religious faith was one of his most admirable qualities and yet the Senator warmly embraced Boscov, a Jew, and others of diverse backgrounds.
Three personal memories of the Senator stand out for me.
I recall his joy and his public gratitude to his beloved mother when we celebrated the naming of the O’Pake Science Center. A former recipient of the University’s highest honor, the Franciscan Award, he was as loyal to Alvernia as any proud alumnus.
His love of children and commitment to educational opportunity for inner city youth came together in Alvernia’s South Reading Youth Initiative (SRYI), coordinated by the University’s Holleran Center and serving over 50 students daily from St. Peter’s parish. During my first months as president, Mike helped convene some brainstorming sessions at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville that evolved into this major initiative, and he then secured the initial funding to launch the program. Just last month he spoke to the children as part of a Career Exploration Workshop. And as always, he peppered the Alvernia students with questions about themselves—their motivations for service and their aspirations for the future. He was thrilled with the success of this program and will always be remembered fondly as its godfather.
An especially happy memory is the surprise 70th birthday party that Alvernia hosted earlier this year, attended by close friends, some dating back to his high school years, and organized by his loyal staff. Getting the Senator to campus without telling him the purpose of his visit became easy when we told him the event would honor some of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters, for whom he had great affection and respect.
What Mike O’Pake admired in Sisters, like Sister Pacelli, was the same deep spirituality and selflessness that marked his own vocation as a public servant. So it is fitting that we, at Alvernia, will remember both Pacelli and O’Pake not only for their talents and accomplishments but also for their virtue. And we will treasure, too, their same marvelous combination of wisdom and wit, accompanied by their warm, engaging smiles.
May this good, generous, Christ-like man inspire us all for years to come.