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The Rev. Vincent M. Cooke, 81, 'visionary' Canisius president

The Rev. Vincent M. Cooke. former president of Canisius College.
 (Provided by Canisius College)

When the Rev. Vincent M. Cooke became the 23rd president of Canisius College in 1993, it was primarily a commuter college clustered around Christ the King Chapel on its central quadrangle.

In 2010, when he retired, it had become a comprehensive private university, the area’s largest, and had expanded through 24 major projects, including eight residence halls for out-of-town students.

He died Thursday night in Murray-Weigel Hall on the Fordham University campus, in New York City, from pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

“Father Cooke was bold, visionary, energetic, optimistic and a true leader in every sense of the word,” said John J. Hurley, his successor as Canisius president. “In his 17 years at Canisius, he charged a whole new course for the college, driven by a vision of Canisius as a top-ranked regional university. He set an incredible standard.”

Under his leadership, Canisius acquired the former Sears Roebuck store at Main and Jefferson Avenue from BlueCross BlueShield, along with its 1,350-car parking ramp, and began redeveloping it as a science center.

The college also turned the former St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church at Main and Eastwood Place into the Montante Cultural Center, restored and updated golden-domed Old Main, the original building on campus, and renovated the former Mount St. Joseph Academy into Lyons Hall, a modern classroom building. On the site of the former Delavan Armory, the college built town houses for 325 students.

He raised academic standards, encouraged the establishment of new undergraduate and graduate major programs, lowered the faculty-student ratio and increased enrollment by recruiting students from outside Western New York.

He also introduced the Employer Housing Assistance program, which encouraged college staff to buy homes near the campus.

He oversaw the college’s first comprehensive capital campaign – “Imagine Canisius” – in 2000 and raised $39 million. A second campaign – “A Legacy of Leadership,” the largest in the college’s history – began in 2007 and raised $66 million during his presidency.

Canisius dropped football as a sport during Cooke's tenure, in 2002, but he stood by the decision that stirred controversy at the time. He quipped upon his retirement that his lasting legacy would be solving the parking problem on campus.

Born in New York City, he grew up in Hoboken, N.J., and entered the Society of Jesus in 1954 after graduating from Xavier High School in Manhattan.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University in 1960 and went on to earn a master’s degree in teaching from Fordham in 1962 and a master’s in philosophy there in 1965. While pursuing his advanced degrees, he taught for two years at Regis High School in Manhattan and was an instructor at Fordham.

He earned advanced theology degrees from Woodstock College in Maryland and Yale University and was ordained into the priesthood in 1967. He completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1971. His specialties were ethics, the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of language. Father Cooke returned to Fordham to teach undergraduate and graduate philosophy courses from 1971 to 1976, then became vice provincial for higher education for the New York Province of the Society of Jesus. He was promoted to provincial for the New York Province in 1978 and held the post for nearly six years.

He returned to Fordham as an associate professor of philosophy in 1985, then was appointed executive and academic vice president for John Carroll University in 1991. He served for three months as acting president of John Carroll in 1992.

After retiring from Canisius, he returned to New York City to become assistant to the provincial for higher education for the New York Province of the Society of Jesus. Later he served as assistant for strategic planning for the Maryland, New England and New York Provinces.

He was a delegate to the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1983 and 2008. He was a member of the board of directors of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and served as president of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference from 1996 to 1998.

He was named a Buffalo News Outstanding Citizen in 2001, the same year he was ranked as the second most influential leader in a Buffalo News poll. Also in 2001, he was named Citizen of the Year by the Erie-Niagara Chapter of the New York State Society of Professional Engineers and Executive of the Year by the Buffalo Niagara Sales and Marketing Executives.

In 2003, he was recognized by the Preservation League of New York State for Excellence in Historic Preservation for the renovation of campus buildings. He also received the Renaissance Man Award in 2003 from the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation, the Humanitarian Award from the Niagara Lutheran Foundation in 2005 and the Citation Award for Community Leadership from the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York in 2007.

Canisius recognized him upon his retirement in 2010 with an honorary doctorate and its Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award.

Plans for services are incomplete. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at Fordham University in the coming days. A Memorial Mass will be held later at Canisius on a date to be announced.

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