Fr. John Lo Schiavo, S.J.

The Fr. Lo Effect

Still Making a Difference: Fr. Lo Schiavo Going Strong at 85.

Written by Jim Muyo, Photos by Barbara Ries

Over a span of 60 years, John Lo Schiavo, S.J., has done more good, raised more money, and had a greater impact than anyone ever associated with the University of San Francisco. What’s more, he’s still here, still working, and still touching lives as only he can.

Walk into the office of John Lo Schiavo, S.J., and you'll be surprised by what you don't see. Photos of “Fr. Lo” with San Francisco's captains of industry? Not there. Schematics of the many USF buildings he either purchased or raised money to build? Nope. Pictures of Fr. Lo with mayors, governors, and even presidents? Well, just one (and that's a story all its own).

What you will find mixed in with images of saints and landscapes of his beloved Florence, Italy in his fourth floor office in the Rossi Building on Lone Mountain (the campus he purchased in 1978) are dozens of small snapshots, family photos really, lining his windowsill. Fr. Lo with a husband, wife, and their children, many or all of whom he baptized. Fr. Lo with a bride and groom, whom he likely just married. Fr. Lo with a young girl at her first Communion. It's images such as these that at once belie the scope of his impact at his university and in his city and yet paint a picture of this Jesuit priest who, in his association with USF that dates back 60 years, has touched more lives than anyone in the institution's storied history.

To say that he is universally loved, revered, respected, and cherished is not an overstatement. He possesses an underplayed and subtle sense of humor that surprises and disarms even the toughest adversary. And, now 85, this former USF president and current chancellor maintains a regimen that rivals that of any modern day corporate CEO.

Officially in the office three days a week, Fr. Lo's schedule also includes Thursday golf games with fellow Jesuits or friends at San Francisco's prestigious Olympic Club. Though he's not obligated to work on Fridays, he's often back in the office. “What am I going to do?” he asked with a smile. “I don't want to just sit in my room.” Add to that saying Mass at 7 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Carmelite Monastery of Cristo Rey across the street from St. Ignatius Church, attending a variety of university and civic events, anointing the sick, presiding at funerals, weddings, and baptisms, and you've got a schedule that makes it hard for Fr. Lo to even set up a simple lunch date, or, more to the point, for others to set up a lunch date with him.

“I'm a busy person, and it's harder for me to get a lunch date with him than for anyone to get a date with me,” laughed long-time friend Dede Wilsey, president of the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the entity that includes the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, and a sought after fundraiser for hospitals.

“He's a community leader and an inspiration,” said Wilsey, who, along with her late husband, Alfred Wilsey, has been a long-time supporter and USF donor. “There are not many people like him and there are not many people like him coming up and that's a tragedy for us. He's one of the great people I've met. He's been a good sounding board for me when I've asked him what I should do about things regarding museums or hospitals. He's a person of great wisdom and he gives great advice. He's an important person in the city. If you don't know him, you should know him.”

Simply put, those who do know him, or at least know him well, love him.

“Everybody loves John. Everybody,” said USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J. “I think in many ways John is USF to the public. He embodies the university. I think he enjoys that stature among alumni and I think he enjoys that with the city and it's well placed and well deserved. He represents the kind of intelligent, compassionate, hopeful approach to reality that is very characteristic of Jesuit education. He's a very engaged individual with people and their lives. He does hundreds of baptisms, funerals, and weddings. The first person they call for is John. He's the person they want to be at those important moments in their lives.”

To his credit and to his advantage, Fr. Privett recognized the respect and affection that Fr. Lo engenders even before the former assumed office in 2000. That is why Fr. Privett asked Fr. Lo to move his office from the main campus up to Lone Mountain, just down the hall from his own. “I thought given how closely identified John is, the reverence and affection that he enjoys in the city, I wanted him to be closely associated with the administration of the university,” Fr. Privett said.

Fr Lo wth Students 1960s
Fr. Lo interacting with his charges as vice president of student affairs in 1967.
Fr. Lo at the 1986 commencement
Fr. Lo at the 1986 commencement.
Fr. Lo Koret Swig 1987
Fr. Lo with former board chairman Mel Swig and a rendering of the proposed Koret Health and Recreation Center in 1987.
Fr. Lo with Angelo Sangiacomo
Fr. Lo with long-time friend Angelo Sangiacomo ’48.
 

 

So how did this outpouring of affection and range of influence come about? What is it about Fr. Lo Schiavo that has touched generations of San Franciscans and 60 years worth of USF students, alumni, and their families? The answer, in part, lies with his longevity not just with USF but the city itself.

Born to Italian immigrants in 1925, John Lo Schiavo grew up in a house on Lake Street in San Francisco. He attended Sutro School until his parents thought it time he received a Catholic education and he transferred to Star of the Sea School. He later attended St. Ignatius High School (SI) where he was an accomplished basketball player, earning all-city honors. It was during his junior year at SI that he started to entertain thoughts of the priesthood. By the end of his senior year, he was convinced, in part through the example of the Jesuit scholastics that taught him and the visiting priest from the novitiate that came to visit each year, that joining the Society of Jesus was for him. He entered the novitiate upon his graduation from SI in 1942, at the age of 17.

JOHN HAS ALWAYS BEEN A DEAR, CLOSE, LOYAL, INTELLEGENT FRIEND. HE'S TOUCHED OUR CHILDREN'S AND GRANDCHILDREN'S LIVES. WE'RE EVER SO GRATEFUL FOR HIM.

—Helen Hennessey

Following his tertianship in Florence in 1947-48, Fr. Lo went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy from Gonzaga University and a licentiate of sacred theology from Alma College in Los Gatos. He was ordained a priest in 1955, but his association with USF began in 1950 when, as a Jesuit scholastic, he was hired as a philosophy instructor. He was interested in administration and left USF to serve as vice principal of Brophy College Preparatory School in Phoenix in 1958. He returned to USF as dean of students from 1962-66 and as vice president of student affairs from 1966-68. He went on to Bellarmine College Preparatory School in San Jose in 1968, serving as president there while also joining the USF Board of Trustees for much of that time. (It was at Bellarmine that he first met a freshly ordained Fr. Privett, whose first assignment was as assistant principal.) Following a stint as chairman of the USF Board of Trustees from 1970 to 1973, Fr. Lo was appointed rector of the USF Jesuit Community in 1975. Two years later, he was named the 25th president of USF and served in that capacity until 1991. His 15-year presidency remains USF's second longest, eclipsed only by William Dunne, S.J., who served as president from 1938-1954.

During Fr. Lo's tenure as president, USF completed the REACH capital campaign in 1982 that brought in $26.8 million, the largest capital campaign to that date. The funds were used to add a wing to Kendrick Hall, home of the USF School of Law, and purchase Lone Mountain. A second campaign was launched and completed to allow USF to build the Koret Health and Recreation Center in 1989. In addition, significant endowment growth occurred (rising to $38.7 million by May 1991 from $4.6 million in May 1976), expanded academic offerings became available, and the Center for the Pacific Rim was established. All of those events to this day have an impact on USF's students as well as all future students.

What Fr. Lo may be best known for outside of USF is his decision to suspend the men's basketball program in 1982 amid recurring NCAA violations (some of which took place before Fr. Lo became president). It was national news as USF was among the nation's top programs at the time, routinely playing in the NCAA Tournament. While the decision made national headlines, he says it wasn't the greatest challenge he faced as president (a tiny endowment and a dysfunctional business office were, he says).

“I thought it was the right thing at the time and I still do,” said Fr. Lo, who had previously gone to the NCAA to acknowledge violations, apologize for them, and pledge compliance. When violations surfaced again, Fr. Lo was determined not to go back to the NCAA with “hat in hand.” “I talked it over with the trustees and we unanimously agreed—with the exception of one trustee—that it would be good to drop basketball because we had to make the point that we mean what we say and we intended to be good citizens.”

Though longevity often does breed admiration and foster influence, it is not enough to explain the tremendous affection and respect that people feel for Fr. Lo. That may be attributed to his personal approach to every one he meets, the sincerity that people feel when he's speaking with them, and his ability to connect with them on a personal level.

“One cannot over estimate the number of alumni and friends of USF who just plain love Fr. Lo,” said David Macmillan, vice president of University Advancement. “He has helped so many students and families and others in the community—some just once, some for a lifetime. He is a caring priest, a wise counselor, a genuine person, and an elegant man.”

Sally Dalton, USF associate vice president for development, tells a story of just how well connected Fr. Lo is and how well people connect with him. Early during her tenure at USF she was going downtown with Fr. Lo (who was president at the time) to meet with Fernando Gumucio, CEO of Del Monte USA. Not surprisingly, it was Fr. Lo who personally called Gumucio and secured the appointment.

“This was my first call at that level of executive with Fr. Lo and I was very nervous as you might imagine,” Dalton said. “Fr. Lo was as cool as a cucumber.” On the drive downtown, Dalton started to worry that she might not have enough money for parking. “So I say to Fr. Lo, ‘You know, I just realized that maybe I'm not going to have enough money for parking.’ “He says, ‘Oh, don't worry about that.’”

I KNOW PEOPLE HAVE BEEN CRITICAL OF ME, TOO, SO YOU ADD IT ALL UP AND YOU SAY IT'S HALF GOOD AND HALF BAD

—John Lo Schiavo, S.J.

They arrived at the parking garage only to find a sign that read, “Full.” “My heart sinks. Fr. Lo drives the car in. At least three people come down, ‘Hey, Fr. Lo. Hi. How are you doing?’ ‘Hi John, how's everything? Gee, it's good to see you...’ The next thing you know, the car is whisked away to a special spot. There's no ticket or anything given, and then we exit the garage and we're in downtown.

“We're in the heart of downtown and we cannot get 10 feet before someone goes, ‘John Lo Schiavo, is that you?’ It was like being with a movie star. Everybody who saw Fr. Lo wanted a few minutes of his time, and Fr. Lo was incredible...gracious, funny, friendly.

“So then we get into the elevator and we're going up to the CEO's office. I noticed this very well dressed young man and he keeps looking (at Fr. Lo). He keeps looking and he says, ‘Are you Fr. John Lo Schiavo?’ And Fr. Lo says, ‘Yes, I am.’ And the guy says, ‘When I went to USF and I needed some help, you helped me and I'm here to tell you that I named my first son John after you.’ It brought tears to my eyes, and Fr. Lo said to him, ‘I am so honored and flattered. Tell me about your family.’ It's like when you're with Fr. Lo you're the only person in the world. He has that knack for making people feel that way. And then, we go in and meet with Fernando Gumucio and we get a big gift from Del Monte.”

It's that knack for connecting with people that gives Fr. Lo such a special place in the hearts of so many people, including some of his former students. Rick Curotto '53, JD '58, had multiple scholarship offers out of high school but chose USF because he wanted a Jesuit education. In his sophomore year at USF he registered for Fr. Lo's epistemology class, and the impact it had on him remains to this day.

“He had extensive knowledge of the subject which impressed me and laid the foundation for my success in all my future classes,” Curotto said. “He started me on my way to my goal of going to law school and becoming a lawyer.”

In addition to epistemology, the study of the origin and limits of knowledge, Curotto also took Fr. Lo's philosophy class on theodicy, a vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil. Curotto remembers Fr. Lo as a tough but fair grader. “You really had to show an interest in the subject matter and let him know that you were taking it seriously. He was very patient and he explained the subject very clearly,” said Curotto. “He clearly showed an extensive background in what he was teaching. But, he was not an ideologue.”

Fr. Lo Young JesuitThat student-teacher relationship led to a life-long friendship with Curotto, who went on to become a USF trustee on and off for 18 years with Fr. Lo and later John P. Schlegel, S.J., as president. What's more, Fr. Lo's teaching has stayed with Curotto. “To this day, I remember a lot of philosophers and what they stood for and it all goes back to those classes. He was a very good instructor.”

Though he's not a former student, San Francisco real estate developer Angelo Sangiacomo '48 has known Fr. Lo nearly all of his life. They grew up just a few blocks from each other on 9th and 10th avenues in San Francisco and met when they started attending Sr. Serena and Sister Anastasia's catechism classes together at age 7 at Star of the Sea School.

The friendship quickly took hold as the two would spend time playing handball and basketball together before or after class.

“We made our first Communion, Confession, and Confirmation together,” Sangiacomo said. “Plus, he married my wife and I. That was John's first wedding. He baptized all (seven) of our children and I was at his ordination.”

They've stayed in close contact since then, with frequent visits, weekly golf games, Fr. Lo saying Mass at the family home at Christmas, and even sharing the occasional ride to doctors appointments. “If I had a brother I don't think I could be any closer,” Sangiacomo said.

“He's just a dedicated person. He has a great way with people. He's very intelligent and has brought a lot to the university,” he said.

Just how much he's brought to the university is an interesting question. Ask Fr. Lo how much money he's raised for USF over the years (it's millions, many of them), and he'll tell you that he never thought about it too much, but that it's not just him that raises the money but usually a combination of him and others working together.

“That's very much typical of John,” said Mario Prietto, S.J., rector of the Loyola House Jesuit Community. “It's not about him. It's not about his accomplishments, which are considerable. It's always about USF and for matters ministerial and Jesuit. It's not about John Lo Schiavo.”

Fr. Lo has not limited his fundraising activities to corporations, foundations, and alumni or friends of the university. He's personalized it on a grand scale to include significant contributions from his late sisters, Lena and Josephine, who hold a dear place in his heart.

Lena, 13 years his senior, was especially close to Fr. Lo, often advocating on his behalf to get him out of whatever jam he got himself into at home and at school. “When I was in high school I did get in trouble a couple of times and my dad went to bail me out (figuratively),” Fr Lo said. “He let it be known that was the one and only time he was going to come to my aid. Luck would have it that I got in trouble again sometime and my sister went and spoke on my behalf, so she had that kind of role.”

That role also had included going to Sutro School to get Fr. Lo skipped a grade. Lena went on behalf of the family because of her better command of the English language. Fr. Lo's mother was too self-conscious about her broken English and heavy Italian accent.

Fr. Lo's parents came to the United States from the tiny island of Salina, northeast of Sicily. Like most immigrants of the time, they came with little in their pockets, but with determination and a work ethic that helped give them an improved quality of life. Fr. Lo's father, Joseph, ran a successful restaurant, Tee Pee, at 253 California Street (the name came from the initials of his uncle, a partner in the restaurant), and his mother, Anna, worked hard at home raising the three Lo Schiavo children.

When Josephine died in 2003, following Lena's passing in 1992, the accumulation of the family home and other assets the sisters left to USF totaled approximately $2.5 million. At the urging of their younger brother, the sisters had earmarked their funds to support Catholic education. Thus, the Joseph and Anna Lo Schiavo endowed chair was funded in the USF Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought.

When Fr. Lo discusses how his parents worked their way up and how his sisters saw fit to support his university, the words are difficult to vocalize.

“We had an uncle who lived with us and he left some money to my sisters, but in a sense my sisters controlled those funds,” Fr. Lo starts. “They invested in the stock market, kept working, and they were never big spenders. My dad came over here with just a few dollars in his pocket…” The words trail off, the emotion of how his family immigrated to this country with little other than a thirst for opportunity is too much to overcome for a moment.

Fr. Lo with Dianne Feinstein
Fr. Lo Schiavo with former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein with a proclamation celebrating USF’s 125th anniversary in 1980.
Fr. Lo Mass
Fr. Lo celebrating Mass at the Loyola House Jesuit Community.
Fr. Lo with Pope John Paul II
Fr. Lo with Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1985.
Fr. Lo with USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J.
Fr. Lo with USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J., when Fr. Lo received the lifetime achievement award named in his honor in 2004.
 

 

To this day Dalton sometimes relies on Fr. Lo and his relation- ships to get her into the doors of some of San Francisco's and the Bay Area's largest corporations and foundations. “Sometimes, it's just a phone call to say, ‘Sally Dalton is going to be calling you. We have a proposal pending with your foundation. I hope you will take the time to talk with her.’” Without that call from Fr. Lo, Dalton said, “they wouldn't be talking to me.”

Those relationships and occasional advice also benefit Fr. Privett, especially on matters of USF's and San Francisco's history. “He's an encyclopedia of San Franciscana,” Fr. Privett said. “He's an expert on all things San Francisco—people, places, events, history, and so on. He's a real gold mine in terms of a knowledge base. I think he's the most respected and loved clergy person in the city at this point. His name is like magic. I've never heard anybody say anything bad about John.”

Though he's happy to give advice when asked, Fr. Lo doesn't use his proximity to Fr. Privett's office to interject whenever he likes. “My thinking is that I had my turn, my chance to do what I thought what was good for the university. Now, it's up to him and so I don't want to interfere or go in and say, ‘This is not right or this should be done this way or the other way.’” Fr. Lo said.

What he's not shy about sharing are his political views, and this is cause for some lively discussion at Loyola House, home to many of USF's Jesuits.

“I'm the only Republican,” Fr. Lo said. “I take that back, I'm the only outspoken one.” Fr. Privett said that Fr. Lo actually is the only Republican in Loyola House “because most of us are well educated and well informed,” he laughed. “He is a voice crying in the wilderness. He's not quite Tea Party, but he's getting there,” Fr. Privett said with a grin.

And this is where that photo in his office of Fr. Lo and a president comes in. It's not a photo of him and Ronald Reagan or Presidents Bush I or II but him and Bill Clinton, actually taken when Clinton was governor of Arkansas. “He had come here to speak at commencement for our School of Law,” Fr. Lo said of the photo. “His speech went on and on. Several of us heard that he wanted to be president one day. I thought ‘He'll never make it giving speeches like that.’”

John Koeplin, S.J., a USF business professor and member of Santa Clara University's board of trustees, is a frequent golfing partner of Fr. Lo's and he sees the divergence of political views in a comic light. “He has a good gift of teasing, especially those of us who might, shall we say, have different political views than he,” Fr. Koeplin said. “Of course, it works the other way. He is an excellent target.”

“I like to tease him because I'm a Latino boy from Los Angeles, and I remember saying to him one time, ‘You know, John, the only problem with you is that you're from San Francisco, that you're Italian, and that you're a Republican,’” Fr. Prietto laughed. “Without blinking, he said to me, ‘That's what's right about me.’”

Fr. Lo St. Ignacius 1942Annette Anton '69, MA '83, USF's director of alumni relations, has also seen and been the good-natured target of that subtle humor. “He'll ask me how many people we're having at the Spring Gala, and I'll tell him 350 or 400,” said Anton, referring to USF's annual alumni awards presentation. “He'll say, ‘That's not so much,’ with a smile.” The joke is that in 2004 when Fr. Lo was honored at the Spring Gala, more than 750 people attended to see him receive the lifetime achievement award named after him (he remains the only recipient of the award). “That's the largest one we've ever had and will be the only one of that size—unless we honor him again,” said Anton, who first met Fr. Lo when she was a student at USF in 1965.

In the years since he stepped down as president in 1991 to become chancellor, a title that for him comes with no official job description, Fr. Lo has been able to devote more time to his ministerial duties, something he tried to maintain as president but couldn't due to the demands on his time. In addition to the two Masses a week he says for the Carmelite nuns, Fr. Lo maintains a busy schedule of funerals, weddings, and baptisms. It's not uncommon for him to have presided for these milestones for generations of one family. Case in point the family of Helen and the late Edward Hennessey '74. Fr. Lo married five of their six children and has baptized all of their grandchildren.

“I THINK IN MANY WAYS JOHN IS USF TO THE PUBLIC HE EMBODIES THE UNIVERSITY. I THINK HE ENJOYS THE STATURE...AND IT'S WELL PLACED AND WELL DESERVED.”

—Stephen A. Privett, S.J

“He's wonderful,” Helen Hennessey said of Fr. Lo. “I've known him since he played basketball at SI with my husband. John has always been a dear, close, loyal, and intelligent friend. He's touched our children's and grandchildren's lives. We're ever so grateful for him. All ages love him. He's a wonderful example for my children and my grandchildren. He's very comfortable with himself and other people are comfortable with him. He's so real and that's hard to find.”

That comfort with himself is not lost on others. Many people have noticed it and say it is among the qualities that make Fr. Lo so likeable, so endearing.

“I think he's a very elegant, self assured individual without a hint of arrogance,” Fr. Privett said. “He's very comfortable in his own skin and he's very comfortable in any number of situations because he knows who he is.

“In many ways, in the California Province he has the status of elder statesperson. This is somebody who does it right, who has preserved his equanimity through it all, and seems to enjoy his current status. He's not a guy who's looking back. He's not nostalgic for the good old days. He's very much in the present. And he's very gracious and graceful about it all in many ways so younger Jesuits look up to him and say, ‘This guy's the way I want to be when I'm 85.’”

So what does Fr. Lo think about all of this adulation? “I almost fell over not too long ago,” he said with a smile. “Someone said to me, ‘You're the heart and soul of the university,’ and I said to myself, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I guess we all like to be stroked. You know, humble Jesuits still are human. And it's nice to hear that we are accepted. So, I know people have been critical of me, too, so you add it all up and you say it's half good and half bad.”

Others are not as tough graders as Fr. Lo. “He is a cornerstone of this place and we have a lot to be grateful for in terms of what he's done and who he's been for USF,” said Anton. “I can't imagine how much he's done and how much he continues to do. He's still going strong, God bless him.”

Fr. Koeplin summed it up this way when asked what life's lessons he's learned from being around Fr. Lo. “If you are a person of integrity, you can live your life with your head up. Don't be afraid to speak up and make difficult, even unpopular decisions. Be a loyal person.”

For an association with USF that dates back 60 years and continues to touch so many lives, Fr. Lo has done just that.