Father Hartke touched the lives of more people than any other man I have ever known. Throughout my life I have heard about people with charismatic gifts, able to evoke loyalty, gratitude, admiration and affection. I really knew only one, but I knew him for 35 years. Father Hartke, who died recently at age 79, was gifted and unforgettable.
I first met him in the summer of 1950. I came to him to explore the possibility of graduate study at Catholic University, and told him my story: I wanted to study, but had only one semester left on my GI Bill and, consequently, could not afford to complete a graduate degree program.sw,-2 sk,2 After hearing my plight, Father Hartke looked at me and said, quietly and compassionately, "Son, the list is legion." He invited me to risk the one semester and then "we'll see what might be done" to help me get through.
In the second semester, he arranged a graduate assistantship for me. The list went on and on each year, as Father Hartke continued to find the means to help one of his "kids." Although he retired from the chairmanship of the drama department in 1974, he sustained his involvement, his concern and his generosity to the day he died.
Father Hartke created opportunities for faculty, staff, students and, at the mention of a need, even for persons he didn't know who happened to cross his path. He took genuine delight in helping people, in serving them, whether it meant using his influence to help someone make a vital connection with the White House or bringing sticky buns to a group of students rehearsing a play.
Through the years, many people have told me how impressed they were with the magnitude of his personality, his renown and his achievements, but I knew no one who was more impressionable than the impressive Father Hartke. In the early '50s he took me to the National Press Club, because Jimmy Stewart was going to be there. He hustled me out of breath as we jockeyed for position in a huge crowd for the opportunity to "say hello to Jimmy."
Everyone who knew Father Hartke for more than 10 minutes would know why he often was referred to as a massive name-dropper: He mentioned names because he was really impressed to have the opportunity to talk with people, whoever they might be. He remembered most of those he met, whether at the White House or in the corridors of his drama department -- including the janitors -- and most of the people he met remembered him. If he had a chance to chat with a new acquaintance he would nearly always come away knowing something about the life, the work and/or the family of that person -- and could recall it years later.
Within the past two years, Father was a guest on Larry King's radio show. Calls came in from around the country; Father not only remembered names, he related details about the lives or family of the callers he had known years ago, as if each were a dear and current friend.
Father Hartke was a visionary with tenacity. Once he set his mind on an objective he would pursue it with relentless enthusiasm. Those who live in the earthbound lane were inclined to remind Father that he should live in the real world, but for him the possible, if good and desirable, was always real. If an idea was a good one, it was worth risking failure.
Most people who knew Father Hartke are very aware of his accomplishments; those who lived and worked with him knew that he was keenly aware of his failures as a human being, a priest, an administrator. He knew he lacked patience, and he abhorred most meetings unless they dealt with innovation.
He also knew that his shortcomings sometimes created problems for those with whom he lived and worked, which was one of the reasons he was always doing something -- some little thing for them, as a gesture of reconciliation. His strength, however, was his dogged dedication to whatever he had as a vision at the moment. He dreamed dreams and he infused in others the commitment to make those dreams come true.
In 1937, he envisioned a first-class drama department at a Catholic university. There was no such drama department in existence at the time. In 1987, the Drama Department of the Catholic University of America, which he founded, will offer its 50th season of plays for metropolitan area theatergoers.
In 1949, he envisioned the establishment of a national touring company. His National Players group is now the oldest classical touring company in the country, traveling through 30 states or more for eight months. Since 1949, more than 500 young talents have been members of National Players and traveled more than a million miles performing plays for more than 2 million people in universities, colleges, high schools and community arts centers.
In 1950, the president of St. Michael's College in Vermont asked him to operate a non-Equity summer theater. He said yes. He seldom said no to an opportunity for young people to use their talents and hone their skills. That operation led some 20 years later to the spawning of a fine arts department and an affiliated professional theater operation under the leadership of graduates of the CU drama department.
In 1951, he envisioned the creation of an overseas program of entertainment provided by university students. The most recent touring group returned a month ago, after spending six weeks entertaining U.S. troops in Turkey, Italy and Spain. Scores of other universities have followed the path overseas that Father Hartke created.
In 1953, C.Y. Stephens, owner of the Olney Theatre, came to Father to invite him to take over the operation. Although he was unfamiliar with producing plays in professional theater, he accepted the invitation without hesitation -- naturally. A few years ago, Olney Theatre, an independent corporation affiliated with Catholic University, was declared the State Summer Theatre of Maryland by the Maryland General Assembly. The 1985 season was the most successful in 32 years.
In 1967, the roof fell in on the World War II GI building that had served as the university theater since 1950. Once more he conjured a vision of a ld,10 new, modern facility with offices, classrooms, work spaces and two theaters. After three years of his tireless efforts to raise funds, the building was completed and on the opening night of the first production (Cyril Richard in Shaw's endcol "The Devil's Disciple") the president of the university announced that henceforth the theater would be known as the Gilbert V. Hartke Theatre. He envisioned it -- he built it.
bat10 In nearly every one of these and many other "visionary" projects, Father was counseled by well-meaning, realistic people to "stay away from it, it won't work."
It's true, of couse, that scores of those projects didn't "work," but a good number of them did because he would not give up. If the going got particularly rough and, of course, it did with considerable frequency throughout the years, Father nearly always would say, "We'll lick it, Bill, we'll lick it."
Just how optimistic was he? During the past 12 months he had been in and out of hospitals quite a few times -- several heart attacks and an operation for a malignant tumor. After one of those heart attacks several months ago, I visited him at Providence Hospital. He was on his back, with tubes running into various parts of his body. With an ashen face and hoarse voice, he told me what he was thinking about: "Bill, we just finished the best season we've ever had at Olney, the touring company is beginning to blossom again, and the Hartke Theatre had its best season in many years -- Bill, we're on a roll!"
But ultimately the measure of his life was not in his strength or his frailty, not in his popularity or his notoriety, but in his faith.
Nearly every article about Father Hartke or the drama department mentions recognizable names of stage, screen and television who are former students. Seldom is it mentioned that each year for more than 25 years, at least one student from the drama department entered the priestly or religious life. Talk about role models! Nothing about his life has moved me more than that extraordinary record. He was a Pied Piper for generosity of spirit and dedication to service.
In recent months, aware of his mortality, he spoke with a sense of gratitude for the wonderful gift of faith that he had been given and for the privilege of having spent his life in the priesthood.
I am only one of many who thank God for having known him. I won't forget.