Robert J. Wickenheiser, the first lay president of St. Bonaventure University, died Wednesday in Olean General Hospital. He was 72.
Wickenheiser was the 19th president of St. Bonaventure and appointed to head the school traditionally led by Franciscan friars.
He was known for his scholarship, exuberant leadership and financial guidance, but also for the NCAA scandal that ended his tenure in 2003.
“I found in him a sort of unique personality who wanted to engage people on the level of excitement,” said the Rev. Dan Riley, president of the Mount Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Retreat. “It would not be unusual to have met over a cup of coffee at a meeting and immediately plunge into something that was exciting for the university.”
Wickenheiser was born in Bismark, N.D., and was a Benedictine monk for four years.
He earned his doctorate in English literature from the University of Minnesota and specialized in the works of 17th-century English poet John Milton, which he kept in a special library addition at his house in the woods outside Olean. The collection, one of the largest of Milton, is now at the University of South Carolina.
Early in his career, he was an assistant professor at Princeton University for seven years and later president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. During his 16 years there, he was the youngest college president in the United States and recognized by the Maryland State Senate for “exemplary leadership.”
His nine years as St. Bonaventure president were described in the school’s online history as “leading the University into the 21st century.”
Wickenheiser was credited for developing a new curriculum, described by experts as “groundbreaking” and a “national model,” according to his online St. Bonaventure profile.
He solved the school’s “grave financial problems,” it said, and expanded the school ministries program and established an arts center and the Franciscan Center for Social Concern.
He resigned because, in spite of warnings, he allowed a basketball player on the school team who was not eligible to play, a violation of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
This led to sanctions that included St. Bonaventure’s forfeiture of a dozen games. The athletic director and coach also were forced to leave.
“I’ve always ached over that,” said Riley, a former campus minister at the school. “I think that was a personal tragedy for him and a time of great sadness and difficulty for the university.”
He is survived by his wife, Patricia Akers; three daughters, Kari and Kathryn Wickenheiser and Kristin Halpin; two sons, Kort and Kyle; one sister, Alice Muckenhirn; two brothers, Alvin and James; and nine grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at noon Tuesday at St. John’s Parish, 931 N. Union St., Olean.