Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who graduated from USF in 1955 with a history degree and four decades later founded the McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, died Feb. 5 from a kidney ailment.
McCarthy was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1930 and immigrated with his family to California when he was 4. The son of an Irish bar owner, he was raised in San Francisco’s Mission District and attended St. Ignatius College Preparatory. He began his political career as the youngest member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1963 before serving on the California Assembly from 1969 to 1982. He was elected to a record three terms as lieutenant governor before retiring in 1994.
“Leo combined a compassionate sensitivity for the most vulnerable members of society with intelligence and extraordinary political savvy,” said USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J.
In 2001, McCarthy said he instantly recognized the importance and potential of the center, which he helped establish with a $1 million gift to the university. “There is a burning idealism among young people and it needs to be reached and it needs to be challenged,” he said. “There isn’t a student on this campus in any major who could not be an effective force in public decision making if they bring to the fight a personal commitment to build a more just and humane world.”
The McCarthy Center has initiated several programs to pursue those aims. The activities include academic courses, public panels, and faculty-led projects that engage students in the analysis of social and political issues. In 2005, McCarthy taught a seminar about the political process for students interning in federal, state, and city offices.
McCarthy witnessed protracted and bitter disputes during his years in office, particularly as speaker of the assembly from 1975 to 1982. Every politician or policymaker, he said, has a choice to buckle to powerful lobbyists or pursue a more moral agenda.
“(Students) are going to have to get in the middle of the political struggle to see if their character traits stand up or are blown away,” he said. “But I have more confidence about the graduates from USF than other campuses.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said McCarthy was a friend and mentor who encouraged her to go into politics, described him as a statesman and champion for justice.
“Leo promoted a values-based agenda to educate our children, grow our economy, and protect our environment,” Pelosi said in a statement. “After he left office, as the head of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco, he used these skills to teach students about promoting justice according to the highest ethical standard.”
McCarthy, 76, is survived by his wife, Jackie, four children, and 11 grandchildren.