As the campus celebrates various Georgetown traditions, one person who has seen many of these traditions firsthand is Fr. Thomas King, S.J. For over 35 years, King has served as a teacher, mentor and priest at Georgetown University.
His arrival in 1968 coincided with the height of the Vietnam War demonstrations in Washington, and King recalls an atmosphere of unrest on campus, due to the growing anti-war sentiment, assignations and the riots at the Democratic convention. He remembers vividly how one aspect of the war – the draft – directly affected students on campus.
“The lottery would be on the radio in the morning and they would start calling out birthdays like July 21 or March 3,” he recalls. “I remember, because I was on a dormitory floor, and you would hear shrieks from down the hall.” King also recounted how one night, antiwar protesters had gotten permits to demonstrate on a park near the Mall, but were later driven out by the police. While other universities in the city had forbidden protesters to stay on their campuses, Georgetown didn’t, and ended up with over 5,000 marchers sleeping all over campus that night.
Though recognizable when compared with Georgetown today, the university in the late 1960s and early 1970s lacked a lot of what would be considered indispensable parts of life here. Yates Field House, Villages A and C, Alumni Square, the Leavey Center and the Intercultural Center did not exist, and construction had just begun on Lauinger Library. Georgetown was organized into the Yard, which distinguished between classes and students affiliated with the College of Arts and Sciences, and those affiliated with East Campus – the other schools. The division was necessary because women were not admitted into the College until 1969.
Though Father King is in his 70s, he is one the most active Jesuits on campus and has instigated several Georgetown traditions himself. He has lived as a chaplain-in-residence in various dormitories for over 20 years and serves as the moderator of several student groups. He usually teaches Problem of God and an upper-level course on the works of Teilhard de Chardin and was honored last year with Georgetown’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
Over a third of freshmen take the Problem of God class in order to fulfill their first theology requirements. Although King’s seniority would allow him to opt out of teaching this introductory course, he maintains that he enjoys exposing young minds to the intricacies of theology. “Freshmen come and they are very open to new things,” he explains. “They have some of that extra vitality.”
But his presence also extends beyond Healy Gates; he has authored eight books, serves as a “Superstar” teacher for the Teaching Company and serves as the president of a faculty pro-life group.
In 1969, King began the tradition of giving Midnight or “Last Chance” Mass as a way to allow busy Hoyas the opportunity to take time out of their day to reflect and develop spiritually. Some students come regularly, while others simply stop by every few months when they feel the need to sit in the candlelight and remove themselves from the academic and social life at Georgetown. He considers these Masses one of his most important responsibilities at Georgetown, he says; they provide a chance for him to reflect and help others slow down and find comfort, direction or repose.
Father King describes Georgetown as a “mom and pop university.” The school was smaller, he notes, with more interaction between the many members of the community. Growing in size, he says, offers more choices and resources for students, but the campus also loses some of its close-knit feeling. He describes the change as “more people that you can meet, but fewer people that you know.”
He adds, however, that despite this growth, Georgetown has managed to retain an atmosphere of caring about its students. With an administration that tries to provide students with academic assistance and extracurricular activities and a Jesuit community available for spiritual and social support, Georgetown manages to provide a fairly helpful and compassionate environment.
The Jesuit community in particular is important as a tradition, King notes. “I think there is something very good about having people like myself who stay,” he says. “I think they give the university a certain stability. They give the university a memory.”