Fr. Patrick Heelan, S.J., loved to smile. In the midst of any disagreement or serious discussion, Heelan’s smile refused to fade.
Heelan was the William A. Gaston professor of philosophy at Georgetown as well as a Jesuit priest, a university administrator and an esteemed philosopher and physicist. Heelan always had open ears and a large grin. He died Feb. 1 in his native Ireland. He was 88.
“Can you imagine a guy, vice president of the university, who does not at all become hostile when contradicted, smiles, and then settles down to an extremely pleasant discussion of the question?” professor of German and friend of Heelan Fr. G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., asked. “To me that just showed you how deeply gracious he was — deeply gracious. It overcame hostility and fostered friendship in the midst of disagreement.”
Friend and associate professor of theology Fr. Stephen Fields, S.J., said that Heelan’s smile was an essential part of who he was.
“I would say he had a delightful Irish sense of humor,” Fields said. “He was consistently smiling. He would come across many times as the absent minded professor — there was a certain charm in that.”
Heelan originally came to Georgetown University in 1992 and, in his more than 20 years at the university, served as vice president for the main campus and oversaw academic and administrative affairs, as well as being the William H. Gaston professor of philosophy.
Heelan, during his tenure as vice president, oversaw drastic change to the university in the merging of the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics into the College in the early 1990s under the direction of university president Fr. Leo O’Donovan, S.J. A significant number of faculty and students resisted the merger, which made Heelan’s task especially challenging.
“Once it’s done, it’s likely to seem obvious to people,” colleague and philosophy professor Fr. John Langan, S.J., said of the merger. “But when it’s still in the stage of negotiating, it’s quite difficult. And that stirred up quite a bit of anxiety.”
Fields said that overseeing the merger was the most difficult task Heelan took on in his role as university administrator.
“He met a great deal of resistance,” Fields said. “And that took its toll on him. So he really had to step down because he met so much resistance. I think it took him a while to recover from that.”
University President John J. DeGioia sent a campus-wide email Feb. 11 announcing Heelan’s passing and paying tribute to the work that the former provost and philosophy professor did for Georgetown.
“Fr. Heelan’s leadership strengthened our community in so many ways and was integral to bringing us to where we are now,” DeGioia wrote in the email.
Before arriving at Georgetown University, Heelan served as vice president at the State University of New York at Stony Brook during the ’70s and ’80s, a time when public higher education was experiencing rapid growth.
“When he was working in Stony Brook, there was a sense that this might be a new wave connected with an increasingly leftward movement in American society, preferring public institutions as more egalitarian than private institutions,” Langan said. “So, he had done pretty well as an administrator and that was in a politically charged environment.”
Aside from his duties as an administrator, Heelan was a renowned scholar of philosophy and physics. His interests encompassed a wide breadth of subjects ranging from quantum theory to music to Islam. Heelan was educated by three Nobel Prize winners, including the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum physics, at his alma mater, the University of Vienna.
Heelan published dozens of articles and multiple books throughout his lifetime.
Langan said that Heelan was not only interested in philosophy but in Catholic and Jesuit traditions. Heelan was especially skilled at bridging the gap between science and religion.
“When you talk about relating science and religion, he had a foot in each camp,” Langan said. “Very frequently in those discussions, the people who are comfortable in one camp are quite uncomfortable in another camp. … He was able to be comfortable on both sides of that and to encourage the science people to take religion seriously and to encourage the religious folks not to simply deny the results of modern science.”
Heelan will long be remembered for his contributions to the world of academia, but to those who knew him, he will also be especially remembered for his uniquely Irish disposition in life. Heelan, whose birthday was St. Patrick’s Day, was born in Dublin in 1926.
“To me what’s most memorable and what I will always carry is when he and I would talk about Ireland — Ireland’s history and its history of troubles, which he lived through, so I could always talk to him about [them],” Fields said.
Murphy said he would also regularly talk with Heelan about Ireland and Heelan’s Irish heritage.
“I felt I could always talk to him,” Murphy said. “I could always joke to him about Irish things. Maybe being a Murphy, that gives me the right. Even if I hadn’t been, he always thought it was funny to hear things like that.”
During Heelan’s last few years, he fought a long and difficult struggle against dementia, which forced him to leave Georgetown in 2013 and return to Ireland, where he lived out the remainder of his life surrounded by loved ones.
Notes of condolence can be sent to Jesuit Provincialate, Milltown Park, Sandford Road, Dublin 6, Ireland.