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Scanlan showed true leadership

The Rev. Michael Scanlan, TOR, a Franciscan friar who rose from the driven life of an East Coast lawyer to a life of leadership in Catholic education and church renewal, has, at last, ended his journey on Earth.

Scanlan, “Father Mike” to all who knew him best, died Jan. 7 at the age of 85.

He grew up in New York City, obtained a law degree from Harvard and was practicing in the judge advocate corps of the Air Force and engaged to be married when he heeded a long-tugging call to give his life to God. He went to St. Francis Seminary instead of pursuing a career and took the vows of the Third Order Regular of the Franciscan friars of the Province of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Loretto, Pa., in 1964.

And his life, and Steubenville, were changed forever.

His first round of work at the college included community activism in the early 1960s to address the racial divide in the city.

Scanlan’s life as a friar eventually put him in the president’s chair at the then-College of Steubenville, circa 1974. The Catholic college founded in the post-World War II era to serve returning GI’s had moved from a collection of downtown buildings to its hilltop campus roughly a decade or so before, and it was in poor shape.

Scanlan often told the story of arriving on campus under the cloud of a national survey saying the college was one of 13 that would close in the coming year. There was a “for sale” sign on the St. Thomas More dormitory tower. It was said the presidential search had been one seeking a friar to come find the best way to close the school.

Scanlan removed the sign from the dorm, spent lots of time with the students, found the school in dire need of an increase in the basic faith that makes Catholics supportive of one another as brothers and sisters and set about changing the culture of the college and the lives of its students.

There were divisive years when longtime faculty left and the student body underwent changes. But there was, always, the smiling, faith-filled leader, Father Mike, who saw where he believed God would take the school.

From fewer than 1,000 students in 1974, the now-Franciscan University of Steubenville has more than 2,100 full-time students, a thriving online program and a campus markedly different from what it was 42 years ago. Indeed, Scanlan was part of a turnaround that is nothing short of a miracle for Steubenville. The Catholic college where students didn’t even attend Mass when Scanlan arrived is now an internationally recognized leader in the Catholic faith, known to popes and cardinals and people in the pews around the world.

Some cynics used to say all Scanlan did, back when he was seeing early success, was to find a niche for the school. That ignores the man himself, his evangelism, and the air of faith exuded in his presence.

To be in Scanlan’s presence was to sense a closeness to God, a belief that all things were possible and that it might just start with you and your talents and listening to what you were being called to do. He could welcome anyone with all their faults, all their hopes and dreams and all their talents and make them understand that there is a purpose to everything. Despair and worry weren’t part of the plan, ever.

That’s not some marketing niche. That’s faith and using one’s leadership talents and abilities to bring out the best in others as God called Father Mike to do. He was too humble to ever say this, but he was what he prayed others would be: A man who asked for God’s vision to lead his life. That is why there is a completely new campus on that hilltop bluff north of the city compared with what it was in 1974. That is why there are faithful students instead the ones who slept through Mass now filling its halls.

Friends who saw him in failing health in the care facility in recent times say he still thought of God’s purpose for him, which he said was to pray for all the people in the facility.

All of that (and fantastic abilities on a tennis court) is what friends and colleagues and students and casual acquaintances know of the Rev. Michael Scanlan, TOR, and how he is the reason the Franciscan University of Steubenville survived dark days to become a light of Catholic thought.

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