Genuine John Jenkins

Author: Ed Cohen

It was another cold winter morning, early and still dark. Helen Jenkins was driving her son John to high school swim team practice.

“Mom,” he told her, “I want to quit the team.”

“You can’t,” she responded. “You’re too good, and they need you.”

Her son never mentioned the desire again. The following year, as a senior, he became captain of the swim team at Creighton Preparatory School, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Omaha, Nebraska, and one of the top swimmers in the state.

Helen Jenkins and others familiar with the story say it reveals much about the attitude and values of her son, now Father John Jenkins, CSC, president-elect of Notre Dame. From an early age he understood not only the importance of obedience but of contributing one’s talents where needed by others.

Dutiful is one word people use to describe John Jenkins. Others include humble, sincere, warm, friendly, selfless, thoughtful, genuine.

“You generally know where John stands. He’s without pretense,” says Provost Nathan Hatch, for whom Jenkins worked as a vice president and associate provost from July 2000 until April of this year, when the University’s trustees selected him to succeed Father Malloy a year from now.

Because of his academic specialties—ancient and medieval philosophy and philosophy of religion—people are likely to assume Father Jenkins would be deadly serious. He is plenty cerebral. Yet he also smiles easily and enjoys clowning with children. At a fancy dinner some years ago with his family, for instance, he chose to sit at the children’s end of the table. He and one of his young nieces could be seen melting butter and sugar over a candle flame, mixing concoctions and laughing.

At age 50 Jenkins looks youthful and fit. He still swims, mostly in the winter. In warmer weather he prefers to run. He and John Affleck-Graves, his friend and former colleague in the provost’s office and newly appointed executive vice president, last fall completed a marathon together in Chicago. (It was Jenkins’ first, the lanky South African’s 93rd.)

Affleck-Graves concurs with the impression most people have of his future boss as warm and welcoming but says there is more to him than that.

“When you first meet John, you see him as a very soft, kind and gentle person, and he is. But when you work with John you realize that there’s an inner toughness that isn’t always readily apparent.”


John Ignatius Jenkins was born and raised in Omaha, the third of Helen and Harry Jenkins’12 children. It was a perfectly balanced brood: six sons, six daughters. Harry, a gastroenterologist now retired, served on the faculty of the medical school at Jesuit Creighton University in Omaha, following in the footsteps of his own father, Harry Sr., a surgeon and general practitioner who also taught at Creighton.

The parents, now both 75, wed just after Helen finished nursing school and when Harry was in his first year of medical school. By the time Harry was an intern they had four children.

The neighborhood where the Jenkinses settled was populated by Catholic families. First-born Maureen says the seven houses on their block produced a combined 49 children. That made for a ready supply of participants in backyard football and driveway basketball. Maureen literally married the boy next door, Dick Kizer, one of nine Kizer children. Another Kizer, John, became one of John Jenkins’ best friends. They would travel around Europe together for three months after their freshman year of college.

In an article prepared for the Creighton Prep alumni newsletter, John Kizer recalls that as kids all medical problems he and his siblings experienced were handled by simply walking next door to see Dr. Jenkins.

Those who knew him say John Jenkins was as outgoing and competitive as any kid in the neighborhood. He differed from many in that he also cherished his time alone. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear into the basement for long periods of time to read or study, a habit that earned him the nickname “the rodent” from his maternal grandfather. He also could focus intently on whatever interested him. Helen Jenkins remembers her son spending hours arranging toy army men in a corner, just so. “No one was allowed to disturb them,” she says.

John Kizer says that as he and his neighbor grew it became apparent that his friend possessed an intellect and maturity beyond the norm. One time in eighth grade, Jenkins was accused of and punished for organizing a boy-girl party at his parents’ home, a violation of the rules at their Catholic junior high. A gathering did take place, Kizer says, but his friend had nothing to do with it.

“He led his own defense, held his ground and was not in the least intimidated,” Kizer remembers. Jenkins was eventually cleared of the charges. “It was the manner in which John handled this situation that made me realize John was clearly a cut above the rest of us.”

In high school at Creighton Prep, Kizer says, Jenkins was involved in many activities and had many friends, no enemies and was universally respected. “He would never start trouble but was the first to jump in the fray to break things up if someone was getting hurt.”

The Jenkinses enjoyed free tuition at Creighton University as a benefit of their father’s employment, so that’s where many of the children went. Maureen was the first to enroll, eventually earning a nursing degree like her mother. Then came the next in line, Tom Jenkins. At the urging of a friend attending Notre Dame, Tom later decided to transfer.

Maureen says their parents said Tom could go to ND if he could find the money for tuition. With so many children coming up for college, they couldn’t offer much help.

“They would drop him off at the Interstate with a suitcase, and he would hitchhike from Omaha to Notre Dame,” Maureen Kizer recalls.

When their time came, the two Johns (Jenkins and Kizer) enrolled at Creighton too, but John Kizer says they became disillusioned at registration. They had been next-door neighbors and had gone through grade school and high school together. This felt too much like more of the same. That, coupled with the frustration of waiting in line and finding classes full, led them to make plans to do something different the following year. After freshman year and a summer of working, they took off on their European adventure.

Kizer says he picked such destinations as golf’s fabled Old Course at Saint Andrews in Scotland and the beaches of San Tropez. His traveling companion led them to the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, and the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Along the way, they spent a lot of time discussing what they wanted to do with their lives, he says.

“John made it very clear to me . . . that he was not interested in fame or fortune but wanted to do something very significant with his life that would somehow make a contribution to society.”

After returning to Omaha the friends re-enrolled at Creighton, but Jenkins had decided to transfer. At his mother’s urging, he settled on joining his older brother at Notre Dame. Things hadn’t improved much financially, so, like Tom, he sometimes had to thumb his way across the country. In 1976 he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy then stayed on another two years to earn a master’s in the same subject. (After earning his bachelor’s in finance in 1974, Tom went back to Creighton and earned a law degree.)

While studying toward his master’s, John Jenkins worked as a teaching assistant. One of his responsibilities involved grading papers. Among the freshmen taking an introductory philosophy class John’s second year as an assistant, 1977, was Paul Weithman ‘81, now chair of Notre Dame’s philosophy department and a close friend of Jenkins.

Weithman says he remembers how conscientious Jenkins was about grading, providing criticism where needed but also encouragement. He even recalls a short paper he wrote about Sartre and existentialism that Jenkins graded. Weithman says he felt insecure about the paper and, at the time, university life in general.

“I can almost recite vertabim what he [Jenkins] wrote: ‘This is an excellent paper, keep up this very fine work.’”

Weithman did, eventually earning Ph.D. from Harvard.

Jenkins’ decision to pursue a religious vocation came as no great surprise to his family. Though he had dated in high school and was even voted Prom King (his date now has a son at Notre Dame), it was clear to many that deep issues occupied his thoughts. In high school, Maureen Kizer says, “he would spend time journaling and doing other things that none of the rest of us would ever dream of doing.”

“I always had the idea that John was trying to figure out life,” John Kizer says.

At Creighton Prep he had participated in a group that met regularly to discuss religious questions. Harry Jenkins says it was a religion teacher at the school, Father Bill O’Leary, who still teaches there, who encouraged his son to consider a religious vocation.

Add his father, “His mother, of course, always wanted him to be one.”

* * *

Maureen Kizer says that if she had been asked to predict where her kid brother would end up spending his priestly career, she would have guessed missions work. She said as much to one of the older Holy Cross priests, Father Bill Lewers, CSC, at her brother’s ordination ceremony in the Basilica in 1983. As she recalls, Lewers, who was among Jenkins’ closest spiritual advisers before his death in 1997, responded, “I think they have other things planned for John.”

The CSCs may not have projected John Jenkins as a future president of Notre Dame, but he had clearly been pegged as a star scholar.

After his ordination the order dispatched him to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, where he earned a Master of Divinity and licentiate in sacred theology. Then came Oxford University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1987 and a doctorate two years later. While at Oxford, he also taught in Notre Dame’s London Program.

Jenkins joined the philosophy faculty in South Bend in 1990 and over the years has taught such courses as Faith and Reason; Wisdom: A Study of the Concept in the Bible, Plato and Nietzsche; and Human Inquiry and Divine Revelation. He is the author of Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas, published by Cambridge University Press in 1997. Last year, while on sabbatical, he continued work on a book about Saint Augustine.

Besides teaching philosophy, from 1997 until he joined the provost’s office in 2000 Jenkins served as religious superior of Holy Cross priests and those brothers assigned to Notre Dame. One of the responsibilities that goes with this post is to serve as an ex-officio or non-elected member of the highest governing bodies of the University: the Board of Trustees and the Board of Fellows. The latter is a 12-member oversight body made up of six lay persons and six CSCs. It elects the trustees, among other functions. Jenkins relinquished those posts when he became vice president and associate provost four years ago.

Heading an institution as large and visible as Notre Dame entails many daunting challenges: One of the most vital and time-consuming for any college president is raising money. The goal for the University’s next capital campaign is expected to exceed the record $1 billion raised last time. More particular to Notre Dame, many alumni (and all subway alumni) demand that the football team contend, at least occasionally, for a national championship. And then there’s the delicate balancing act of preserving Notre Dame’s Catholic character and traditional strength in undergraduate education while fortifying research and scholarship and graduate study.

Hatch thinks his former associate provost has “a very clear sense” of what Notre Dame should be. It’s a vision in line with that of his predecessor, Malloy: High academic standards. Strong research. Excellent teaching. A religious identity that helps form students’ character.

Those who have worked with the priest say that besides being a decisive administrator, he’s a “uniter” and a “reconciler” and possesses other qualities essential to peace-making.

“He’s a person that you very quickly feel a deep sense of trust in,” Affleck-Graves says, while Arts and Letters Dean Mark Roche observes, “He’s one of those persons who just has a capacity to win people over.”

His sincerity is bound to be an asset in other aspects of his job. Weithman, who once benefitted from Jenkins’ pastoral approach to grading papers, predicts that when Domers meet his friend they’ll feel like they’re the most important person in the world to him. “And for that moment they are. It’s genuine.”

* * *

Asked at the news conference announcing his appointment if when he started at Notre Dame as a student he dreamed of becoming president, Jenkins said, “What I have dreamed of is to serve at this great university.”

Maureen Kizer says she and other family members keep telling people that being president is the last thing her brother would aspire to, “but he’s certainly capable of it.” She immediately adds, “It’s definitely not about the power. It’s about the service.”

It is often said about a priest at Notre Dame, usually in remembrance of him, that he was first and foremost just that, a priest. Weithman says the same applies to the makeup of his friend, that he is a good and devout Catholic priest who through prayer will try to discern what he is called to do, what is needed from him.

This time it won’t involve staying on the swimming team.