He was born in Macon, Ga., in 1834 -- when it was illegal to teach black people to read or write. Yet he grew to become president of Georgetown University, and is credited with changing the course of Catholic higher education in the United States.

He was Patrick Healy, a Jesuit educator, and this year marks the centennial of Healy Hall, the massive, spired building on the Georgetown campus which bears his name.

Father Healy was the child of educated parents -- Mary Eliza Healy, a one-time slave, and her Irish husband Michael -- who was determined that their 10 children would not be locked into ignorance by the bigoted conventions of the antebellum South.

Young Patrick and his brothers were sent to the Flushing Quaker Academy in Long Island, N.Y., for their education, and later attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. He went on to earn a Ph.D. -- he's thought to be the first black ever to earn one -- from the University of Louvain in Liege, Belgium.

In 1974, Georgetown published a booklet about Healy with the subtitle "A Black Man's Dream Comes True." But John Reynolds, special collections librarian at Georgetown, says Healy played down his heritage and could not actually be considered a black leader of the time. Healy was a fair-skinned man whose race was not readily apparent.

Reynolds pointed out that black students were not admitted to Georgetown until the 1950s. Before then, "this was very much a southern town with southern ways of thinking in terms of race."

Although Healy was not an activist within the black community, Reynolds says "a very strong case" could be made that Healy was perhaps the most important president in the history of Georgetown.

Having examined most of Healy's remaining papers and letters, Reynolds characterizes him as an innovative, but sometimes "tough and irascible" educator.

Healy became Georgetown's president in 1874. Under his leadership, Georgetown's curriculum was expanded and the focus on both liberal arts and sciences was intensified. Since Georgetown served as a model for Catholic colleges and universities throughout the country, Healy's ideas, which were heavily influenced by his European education, soon became the standard.

Besides upgrading the Georgetown curriculum, Healy was also instrumental in changing the campus life style. He thought the university needed more space for classrooms, laboratories and a library, and that older students at the school should have more spacious living quarters, with privacy and an atmosphere conducive to study.

With that in mind, he devoted himself relentlessly to raising funds for the building which bears his name: Healy Hall.

After a hard-fought battle with church officials in Rome, permission to begin work on the massive structure was granted in 1877. It was two more years before the central tower of the building was completed.

Though the latter part of his life was devoted to raising funds and pressing for the building's completion, failing health prevented Healy from attending the first commencement held there in the summer of 1879.

Poor health forced him to resign the Georgetown presidency on Feb. 16, 1882. He spent his retirement years traveling, and for a brief time was spiritual father at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia.

Healy died at Georgetown in January, 1910. "He had a definite impact within the university," Reynolds said, "and through that, a definite impact on the community."