A foremost Catholic scientist, remembered


Author: Richard Conklin ’59M.A.

Thomas P. Carney, the second chair (1982-86) of Notre Dame’s lay board of trustees who died December 7 at age 94, led by intellect. He had a baccalaureate degree from the University in chemical engineering and went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in organic chemistry before forging a distinguished career in pharmaceutical chemistry at Eli Lilly and G.D. Searle.

Carney, class of 1937, had an incisive mind, honed on research and development, as well as an equally formidable sense of humor, one that made him a comfortable conversation companion. His attenuated need for sleep was legendary. For those who accompanied him on overnight fundraising events in various cities, he was remembered as one who could close the bar after his presentations and appear at early breakfasts with the same energy he displayed when he signed the tab.

Even before he became chair, his voice was greeted with quiet respect in trustee deliberations, whether the subject was co-education or faculty development (both of which he spurred). He relished the university as a place of inquiry leading to understanding, and he did not shy from defending its core values. When some African-American students pressing grievances threatened to disrupt a trustees’ meeting, he and black trustee Bayard Rustin led a peripatetic discussion around a campus lake, calming the protestors.

He played a key role in several capital campaigns, in one traveling down to campus weekends from Chicago in his precious Studebaker Avanti to steep small groups of potential benefactors in the University’s academic aspirations. For one particular campaign, he was paired on the road with fellow alumnus George Shuster, class of 1915, who had returned to campus from a recent presidency of Hunter College. At the time, Shuster was arguably the premier Catholic humanist in the country and Carney the foremost Catholic scientist. When they were also paired at the bridge table during private jet flights between cities, you did not want to be on the opposing side.

Belying a common stereotype of the graduate of his era, Carney accepted football as part of Notre Dame’s legacy but had a more focused interest in enhancing its teaching and scholarship, in keeping with Father Theodore Hesburgh’s vision of a Catholic university in the front rank of American academe. When he was president of the Alumni Association, he was instrumental in establishing the Alumni Senate, drawing graduates from the University’s widely admired network of alumni clubs into closer contact with Notre Dame’s educational and service missions.

His own association with Notre Dame was a story he liked to tell. Growing up in western Pennsylvania the son of a railroad worker, he was offered a college education by a generous maiden aunt — if he attended Notre Dame. With tuition money pinned inside his coat, he rode his father’s employer, the Baltimore and Ohio, to South Bend. Carney eventually beneficially touched every facet of Notre Dame in the era of lay governance that began in 1967, earning virtually every award Notre Dame had to offer such a patron, including the Laetare Medal, given him and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, in 1986.

Dick Conklin retired as associate vice president of University Relations at Notre Dame and now lives in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.

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