Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Legacy of Leadership

While names like Nintendo, Jordan, and O.J. were making headlines in 1994, the groundwork for major headlines to come was being quietly laid at St. Thomas University. Twenty four years ago, on April 19, 1994, Msgr. Franklyn M. Casale began his first day of work as president of St. Thomas University.

“St. Thomas became his second family the moment my brother stepped on campus,” said Gail Casale, Casale’s younger sister. “It’s a family to him because he personally knows so many people that work and study there.”

Casale is hard to miss when he’s on campus. On any given day he can be seen chatting with students, faculty, or staff, a chat that is usually punctuated by his unique laughter. He makes it a point to be as accessible as possible to students. This is something that stems from the days he was interviewing for the position at St. Thomas. Students were part of the interview process, and he asked one student what he would like to see in the university’s next president, “more on-campus presence and interaction with students” is what the student told him.

“He’s not your typical president,” said Pam Loconto, executive assistant to President Msgr. Casale. “He’s accessible to everyone. To put it in perspective, he has a secret entryway to his office that he never uses because he prefers the longer way, which allows him to interact with others, and to see what’s happening on campus.”

And according to his friends and family he has always been that way.

Casale, a former Boy Scout, was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey during the 1940s and 50s, a time when children roamed the streets until their mothers would call them in for dinner.

“It was different back then, the streets were our playground,” said Casale. “We would spend hours upon hours outside playing pick-up basketball, baseball, and football on the streets or empty lots.”
Although he was an excellent student and loved by everyone around him (even his teachers), he wasn’t void of mischief. He was also a typical older brother. With Gail being four years younger than him, he was mortified every time his parents would make him take his sister places.

“He would make me walk two blocks behind him, and make me sit rows away from him and his friends at the movie theater! But I love him to death and we’re best friends,” said Gail.

Up until high school, Casale wanted to become a lawyer to fulfill the dream his father couldn’t because of The Great Depression. But according to his sister Gail, Casale always had an inclination toward clergy leadership.

“Our grandparents, who emigrated from Italy to the U.S., were very entrepreneurial, so it’s definitely in his blood. And while other little boys his age were making airplanes out of clothespins, he was making crosses.”

Young Casale was active in the church, starting off as a mass server at the age of 10, and as a result he grew very close to the sisters and ministers of his parish St. Francis Xavier in Newark. The pastor was a dominant and positive figure in the area who inspired Casale to start thinking of a leadership role within the clergy. 

He attended Seton Hall Preparatory School, where he started giving serious thought to going into the priesthood. He then went to Seton Hall University where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities. He also has a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Catholic University of America, and a master of divinity degree from the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, New Jersey.

After being ordained a priest by the Catholic Church in 1967 and receiving the title of Monsignor in 1979, Casale thought he would be a parish priest his whole life, but God had different plans for him.

Prior to joining St. Thomas, Casale was the secretary, chancellor and vicar general of the Archdiocese of Newark, where he worked for 20 years, and met his mentor and life-long friend Archbishop Peter Gerety.*

“I have been fortunate to work with a number of wonderful priests, especially Archbishop Peter Gerety,” said Casale. “He was a man of great integrity and honesty. Tremendously respected man with a wonderful disposition. I learned a lot from him.”

As vicar general, not only did he have the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II, but he learned the inner workings of the church. The position suited him well considering his love of math and numbers (a vicar general is much like being the COO of a company). His tenure at the Archdiocese of Newark prepared him for his next career endeavor – St. Thomas University.

“We [the family] were surprised when he told us he wanted to be the president of a university, but it was right in line with his experience in fundraising, community service, and leadership positions in several higher education associations,” said Gail.

Over span of two decades, Casale developed and nurtured St. Thomas into a better and stronger university. By engaging and encouraging those around him – students, faculty, staff, and alumni – Casale has invigorated the Bobcat spirit.

But as president, especially president of a university, you do almost nothing on your own. There’s a lot of team work and meeting halfway.

“Together we have strengthened the University’s position as the leading Catholic university in the southeast. We have had a transformational journey in renovating, reinventing and strengthening many aspects of the academic, physical, and student life at St. Thomas. And I could not have accomplished these things alone.”

Although there are many milestones he is proud of, he is proudest of the Law School’s Human Trafficking Academy. Casale’s voice is unwavering when speaking against human trafficking. He is the spokesperson on human trafficking for the Institute for Intercultural Human Rights at the St. Thomas School of Law, and has testified before the United States Congress on the reauthorization of the Human Trafficking Act. Casale may be retiring, but he’ll continue to have a leadership role in the strengthening and expansion of the Human Trafficking Academy.

“We want to empower and educate on a national level, to collaborate and be the hub for our nation’s efforts in eradicating human trafficking while providing dignified care to victims and survivors.”

When he’s not at St. Thomas University, 76-year-old Casale can be found swimming laps in a pool, sprawled on the floor playing with his grand nieces and nephews, engrossed in a book, or in the kitchen practicing his culinary skills. And come this January, St. Thomas University’s longest serving president of 24 years, will be doing a lot more swimming, playing, reading, and especially traveling.

“The job of president is never-ending, the job of building a great university is never done. Did I accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish? No, but I accomplished a lot, and I’m satisfied. It has been an honor to be part of an institution that changes the lives of people for the better, both intellectually and spiritually.”

Now, we celebrate the legacy he will leave behind.

 *Archbishop Peter Gerety, the oldest Catholic bishop in the world, passed away Sept. 20, 2016 at the age of 104 – 77 years after his ordination as a priest and after 50 years as a bishop.

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