Skip to main content

'Father Jack O’Brien was a game changer'

In the wake of Saturday's memorial service for the founder of Canadian communication studies, read eulogies by Donat Taddeo and Sandra Gabriele
November 30, 2015
By Donat Taddeo and Sandra Gabriele

Father O'Brien in a Communication Arts ad in Time Magazine, 1967. | Photo courtesy of Concordia Records Management and Archives Father O'Brien in a 1967 ad in Time Magazine. | Courtesy of Records Management and Archives

These two eulogies for Father O’Brien — professor emeritus at Concordia and founder of Canada's first Department of Communication Studies — were delivered at a memorial service on November 28. The euologies were by Donat Taddeo and Sandra Gabriele

Donat Taddeo's eulogy for Father O'Brien

Donat Taddeo (BA 67), assistant to the president at Loyola High School, a former student and a long-time colleague

Good morning and thank you all for being here.

It is a daunting task to do justice, meaningfully and creatively, to all that Fr. John O’Brien contributed in his life as teacher, researcher, administrator, innovator and visionary.

Much has been written and said on this topic in recent years, be it at the ceremony held in 2011 when he received Concordia University’s highest honor, the Loyola Medal, be it the articles that appeared in the Concordia University Magazine leading to the Department of Communication Studies 50th anniversary, be it the obituaries published and tributes expressed subsequent to his death this past November 7, 2015.

I shared this concern with my wife Brigitte a few days ago and her immediate response was: “What’s so complicated with preparing this eulogy? He changed your life – talk about that.” And she was right.

Fr. Jack O’Brien was a game changer, an impactful one, and there can be no stronger manifestation of this than the resonance generated over the years and in the last few weeks by all who had the chance to study under him, or work with him or benefit from his personal, professional and spiritual direction.

As Fr. Jack related during his Loyola Medal acceptance speech in 2011, the idea of pursuing a PhD in Communications was put to him when he was doing his Jesuit training in Wales in 1958.

He was more interested in studying spiritual direction, but upon research, reflection and the due discernment that is so fundamental to Jesuit thought and practice, he decided to venture into these new uncharted waters and headed off to the University of Southern California in the Fall of 1959 to begin his doctoral studies in communications, with enthusiasm and optimism

I felt that enthusiasm and optimism when I registered in his first course ever in September 1964. Offered at Loyola College as an alternative to the second year English course that was mandatory for the bachelor’s degree, I was only too happy to seize the opportunity to take this new “communications” course as my hope at the time was that it would lead me eventually to the Canadiens play by play booth where I would one day succeed Danny Gallivan.

Instead, the priest with the Hollywood smile and no-nonsense attitude tasked us with a comprehensive review of mass media research and a detailed analysis of the beginnings and development of the CBC. It was a challenging and stimulating course in which I ended up doing my best work that year and in which I got the highest grade.

As a result, I was tempted to switch my major from classics to communication arts. Fr. Jack and I had a few conversations to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a transfer but in the end, he made it clear the decision was mine to make.

More important than my decision to stay in classics was the process he put me through for arriving at this conclusion – a process rooted in reflection and discernment that stayed with me throughout and helped me immeasurably in my personal and professional development, as it did for so many others.

So I headed off to Stanford University in September 1967 and returned to Montreal in June 1972 with my PhD in classics – looking for work.

In October, I received a call from Dennis Murphy, a lifelong friend and colleague, who had been a fellow student in that first communications class. Dennis, had just launched his teaching career in communication arts and told me that Fr. Jack was looking for an administrative assistant and wanted to talk to me about that position.

And so we did – at the Nun’s Island driving range. We talked between practice shots as Fr. Jack explained that he wanted to train someone to help him manage the department, and especially, to make sure the administration of the department stayed on the rails while he was on sabbatical in 1973-1974.

“We have great faculty members but none will accept to be acting chair unless they have solid backup – that will be your main job”.

I readily accepted the opportunity and asked what he had in mind as a starting salary to which he replied, without breaking his swing: “How much do you think a PhD in classics is being paid these days?”

The chuckle was followed with a very fair offer.

More important than the salary were his patience and mentorship as I learned the job. He introduced me to the principles of accountability and responsibility in management; he engaged me in the process of making decisions when dealing with difficult administrative and personnel problems – looking at all sides of the issue, developing different scenarios and rolling out the pros and cons for each of these and above all, looking beyond the surface and getting to the substance of the matter at hand.

And when I was spending a bit too much time conversing with the students in the department, he would remind me that I was there to help him!

In essence, his mentorship was a game changer for me, as it was for many others.

Between 1967 and 1972, the Department of Communication Arts more than doubled its faculty contingent. The divergence in the backgrounds and interests of the new hires was a study in sharp contrasts:

  • Charles Gagnon – filmmaker, photographer, artist, poet;
  • Denis Diniacopoulos, whose courses in the dynamics of visual representation exploited the full realm of his knowledge in mathematics, chemistry, physics and the human psyche;
  • John Buell, who brought McLuhan to life and whose classes were a “must attend” for department students;
  • Dennis Murphy, who brought San Francisco State back to Montreal in 1970 and whose musings put the Delphic oracle to shame;
  • Marc Gervais, whose impassioned classes on the great masters of cinema endeared generations of comm arts students;
  • Gail Valaskakis, who broke new ground in communications and the Canadian North and laid the foundation for studies in Native Peoples and communications; and of course,
  • Dr. Miroslav Malik, whose compulsory course on Communication Analysis challenged – meaning drove crazy – every first year student in the department at the time.

This unusual mix of academics, creators and professionals could have represented a recipe for disaster given the different vantage points from which they viewed this new discipline. Instead, what developed was a positive tension and dynamic that nurtured the department’s growth.

It took courage and vision to recruit so diversified a group and a great amount of faith and conviction to channel their talents to the common cause that was the creation of something that was not only unique but that would pass the test of time.

That is what game changers do.

Le succès et la renommée du département de Communication à Loyola se sont vite répandus dans le milieu francophone. Dès le début des années soixante-dix jusqu’au milieu des années quatre-vingt, bon nombre d’étudiants francophones ont choisi de poursuivre leurs bac en communication à Loyola – à un certain moment, le contingent québécois représentait presque 40 pourcent des étudiants inscrits.

Cela posait certains défis, surtout dans l’ambiance surchauffée de cette époque où le débat linguistique et le sentiment nationaliste étaient à leur apogée. Je me souviens trop bien de l’assemblée générale de l’association des étudiants quand l’assemblée a voté en majorité pour que le département devienne officiellement bilingue. Je me souviens car il revenait à moi d’aller annoncer la bonne nouvelle au père O’Brien!

Le département n’a pas changé son statut officiel, il va sans dire, et il a continué à ouvrir ses portes aux francophones, car le père O’Brien, en dépit du fait qu’il soit issu de l’époque des deux solitudes, croyait fermement que ce mélange culturel était une occasion rêvée pour le département et ses étudiants. En effet, loin de devenir une poudrière culturelle explosive, le département est devenu un terreau fertile pour les étudiants, et le domaine des communications au Québec et au Canada.

Et ce, grâce à l’enthousiasme, à l’optimisme et à la vision du Père O’Brien.

Over the last 32 years, many of us had the occasion to chat with Fr. Jack about the good old days. The conversation would inevitably turn to how the Department had evolved over the years and the extent to which it reflected his original vision.

For Fr. Jack, this was not a concern. He always reasoned that he had done the best he could at the time and simply hoped those who followed did likewise.

The spirit that has infused the department’s 50th anniversary shows clearly that the original vision lives today, à sa façon. And a crucial element of that renewed and invigorated spirit is Nicolas Zavaglia’s recently completed documentary – A Journey to Ithaca – which brilliantly and poignantly captures the essence of that original vision through interviews with Fr. Jack, Fr. Clair Fischer, Fr. Marc Gervais, John Buell and several alumni.

To observe Fr. Jack and alumni of different generations reacting to this film at its showing on September 26 during Homecoming illustrated without a doubt the vitality of the ties that binds them all together.

For some, this has been a matter of destiny and fate; for Fr. Jack, I have a feeling it is more a question of faith and providence that what he established in 1965 lives on today.

I like to think that what Fr. Jack did for communications as a discipline mirrors what the Jesuits did for Loyola as a college and what Loyola College did for Concordia as a new university: impart a vision based on innovation, display an openness that embraces the unique cultural diversity of Montreal and Québec, promote a respect and concern for the intellectual, personal and socially conscious development of the individual for the betterment of society and above all, in the spirit of Fr. Jack, be a game changer on the Canadian university scene.

Sandra Gabriele's eulogy for Father O'Brien

Sandra Gabriele is chair of Concordia's Department of Communication Studies

I had the privilege of spending the better part of the day with Fr. O’Brien when he was here in September for Homecoming. Department coordinator Sheelah O’Neill, Fr. O’Brien and I were among the last ones to leave the President’s Dinner that night and before we left, I said to him that I was sorry we didn’t have more time to talk. I told him, “I have a lot to learn from you, now that I’m chair.” He smiled at me with that characteristic grin and said, “Come see me anytime in Toronto.”

We never did have that talk, but I’ve spent a lot of time this week digging through the archives downtown and our own papers in the department to see if I might hazard a guess at what he might have said to me, based on all that he accomplished.

As many of you here will know, the Vatican issued a papal decree on communications media in 1963. This led Fr. O’Brien to return to Loyola with the idea of beginning the first communication arts course with a view towards harnessing the power of media for the “social teachings of the Church.”

The department developed with a specifically humanist and Jesuit foundation that was geared toward social justice, but also creative exploration of a variety of media forms. There were experimental courses in radio, cinema and television, the latter taught by Fr. O’Brien himself. The department rigorously defended its place within the humanities, insisting that communications were part of a total environment that touched on technologies of course, but also countless other sectors of society.

As a 1975 essay by John Buell on the Communication Arts as a Comprehensive Discipline made clear, to study modern communication meant not only studying these technologies and the arts of their manipulation, but also to understand how they fit into larger structures and why. In other words, the Department of Communication Arts, as witnessed by its faculty who came from vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, was ferociously interdisciplinary. And this was perfectly in keeping with the Jesuit tradition of rigorous intellectual study that pursues a broad range of knowledge. No doubt, Fr. O’Brien would remind me of these roots to remind us to work collaboratively with our colleagues across the university in the pursuit of continued excellence.

In his first proposal (April 4, 1964) to establish the program, Fr. O’Brien laid out four purposes for beginning the department. The papal decree was one; the second and the “most obvious purpose, even though essentially a long-range endeavor, is an attempt to exert a positive Christian influence in the mass media.”

These first two purposes led Jack to remark in his third reason that “the public relations dividends from [possible institutes for training priests within the department] could be extremely valuable for Loyola”. Finally, he suggested that with no other programs or department as yet established in Canada, despite there being many in the US, this was a prime opportunity to be the first in Canada.

So, what does this proposal have to do with the advice he would have given me? No doubt he would have told me to look around me constantly, to be strategic and to seize every opportunity! The program began when it did for a reason: the time was ripe and Fr. O’Brien had the acuity and foresight to act on those ready conditions.

Don (Taddeo) talked about Jack being a game-changer and he was at every turn. But, he didn’t always get it right the first time. He saw opportunities, and eagerly reached for them. But, even Jack had to submit a second proposal (April 18, 1964) before the founding of the Department of Communication Arts was successful. While we value his accomplishments and all that he succeeded in doing, there is much to be learned by his failures, missed attempts, and mistakes as well.

No doubt, many of you know the sower’s parable. In it, Jesus describes the various conditions under which seeds might grow and encourages his followers to cast their own seeds widely because one can never be certain where they might take root and grow.

Many communications scholars have suggested this is a perfect metaphor for broadcasting since it about the sending of a message without concern for its receipt, and for a Christian approach to communication – one, based in the teachings of Jesus, that aims to be democratic in its sharing of a message and open to the inclusion of as many as possible (cf. Peters 1999).

Though this may be the case, this did not fully capture the approach that the department took with its students. As humanists, the early faculty were concerned with individual students, with taking care to mentor, to shepherd.

Time and again I’ve heard so many alumni – some of you here today – remark on the influence that Fr. O’Brien had in their lives. Jack could see the potential in students because of the openness that came with his humility. He asked students to produce and when they did, he asked for more. He expected great things of the people around him, including his students and that expectation set the ground for new possibilities to emerge. By believing in his students, they come to believe in themselves.

The demand to do all that we can with our lives was the hallmark of Jack’s influence as a mentor for it was not enough for one to just believe in oneself. Of course, as a Jesuit, the exercise of building up the mind and spirit of students was not meant as an individualistic exercise; rather it was collective.

To know oneself, and to question oneself, is the foundation for knowing one’s place in the world, for knowing where one could best effect change, for recognizing one’s responsibility to one’s communities and the broader world.

In a video interview Fr. O’Brien did with some students on the occasion of our 25th anniversary, he reflected on the kind of place he wanted communication arts to be, he said:

“We weren’t interested in giving an education that would turn out technicians. You could get technicians everywhere else. What we were interested in doing with our students was to … help them to develop a sensitivity to values in our society, to the kind of quality of life we all really want to lead, to a basic ethical response to the key questions that are around us and to release the creative potential that was in them …” — (Video recording, ca. 1990, Dept. of Communication Studies).

Jack’s project as an educator always came back to this point: ennobling the human spirit is always in service to the world around us. A study of technique was only a start, for to truly communicate demands self-reflection, cooperation, negotiation and a willingness to see past one’s own view to alternate points of view.

Communication, in Jack’s view, is an ethical responsibility. The world’s problems today are many and complex. For many there is a large gap between the “quality of life we all want to lead” and the one we actually lead. As the Department of Communication Studies continues to grow and change, we can do no better justice to Fr. O’Brien legacy than to challenge our students to think of these problems as their own; to face them bravely, creatively; and, to imagine that they have the capability to change the world around them. Much like Jack did.

Find out more about How Father O'Brien's vision transformed Concordia.


Back to top

© Concordia University