Remembering Father Panuska: Papa Bear, Our Loving Steward

“Of all the greetings I have received as president, none sound so sweet as ‘Papa Bear.’”

"Pa-pa Bear! Pa-pa Bear! Pa-pa Bear!”

The University of Scranton crowd stood and chanted as Rev. J.A. Panuska, S.J., then University president, entered a New York City gym at halftime of a women’s Final Four basketball game. This was just the kind of enthusiasm Fr. Panuska inspired in the community.

“Of all the greetings I have received as president, none sound so sweet as ‘Papa Bear,’” Fr. Panuska later wrote in a letter to the student body.

Fr. Panuska, the longest-serving president in the history of the University and the institution’s first president emeritus, died on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Philadelphia. He was 89. Fr. Panuska became the University’s 22nd president on July 1, 1982. He succeeded Rev. William J. Byron, S.J., and served as Scranton’s president until July 1, 1998. His devotion to students was legendary, as was the University’s growth under his leadership.

“The marks of Fr. Panuska’s tenure are indelibly left not just on the campus of the University he served so long and so well,” said University of Scranton President Kevin P. Quinn, S.J., in a notice informing the campus community of Fr. Panuska’s passing, “but in the hearts of all who knew and loved him.”

And love him they did.

Walking Among the Students

“Fr. Panuska was president when I graduated from The University of Scranton in 1984, and he was still president when I was hired as a tenure-track professor in 1998,” said Matt Reavy ’84, G’92, associate professor of communication. “When I bumped into him in the hallway not long after my hire, he still greeted me by name and asked about my family (also by name). I remain forever in awe of this great man, who was such a loving steward of our dear community.”

This “loving steward” propelled the University ever-forward during his 16-year tenure. He broke ground (on 15 new buildings). He raised money (quadrupling the Annual Fund). He raised the University’s profile (accolades poured in), and expanded its reach and appeal. He increased student applications and faculty head count. His list of achievements goes on.

During and after his presidency, he had easy conversations with the pope, a future saint, a Saudi prince and a Pulitzerprize winning composer/musician, among others. But his smile was widest when he was among Scranton students. A man of many talents — a polymath — and many grand ideas, he did not sequester himself behind a desk in Scranton Hall. He was on the Commons and in the cafeteria, and supporting students at their games and plays.

“I don’t believe presidents can stand apart from the people with whom they work, and especially for whom they work, and I consider my primary responsibility to be to the students,” he said in 1997.

During commencement ceremonies, he proudly shook the hands of more than 17,000 students, “citizens of the world,” as he called them. But it was often before they crossed the stage that he touched their lives.

“I had a falling out with my parents after freshman year, and they withdrew their financial support for my college education. I was 19 and scared for my future,” remembered Deirdre Dana Savarese ’97, who went on to get her master’s at the University of Pennsylvania and then work in higher education. “My situation was brought to Fr. Panuska, and he had his staff work with me to ensure I could continue my education at Scranton. I am forever grateful for that because without his help, my life would have taken a different path.”

In the days following his death, Savarese and other members of the alumni community paid tribute to Fr. Panuska on Facebook. They remembered him as “a visionary” and “a people’s man,” who was “always smiling, always listening,” and described him as “compassionate,” “lovely,” “kind,” “brilliant,” “talented” and “humble.”

Wisdom and Grace

It was clear from the start that Fr. Panuska would spread “wisdom and grace” during his presidency, a phrase he often used to inspire those around him.

“Wisdom and grace, to me, represent what an institution should accomplish in its students,” said Fr. Panuska in an article from The Scranton Journal published in 1997. “To grow in wisdom and in grace implies not only intellectual and professional development, it implies an internal development. That’s the most difficult to achieve, but it has to happen if we are to accomplish our mission.”

During his inauguration on Oct. 27, 1982, he spoke of “broadening the minds of these young people” so that they understand that they are “a small part, but an important part of a very broad world.”

To aid him in this mission, he enlisted the faculty, reducing the student-to-faculty ratio by adding nearly 100 members to their ranks during his tenure. He also worked to ensure that they had the resources and freedom to do research and focused on preserving the University’s identity and sense of collegiality as faculty numbers grew. In addition, he helped start the faculty-student research program, now in its 26th year.

Academic improvements paid off in the form of Fulbright Scholarships and other prestigious opportunities for students. Admissions applications continued to rise, as did average SAT scores of incoming students, and U.S. News & World Report ranked the school among the top 10 master’s universities in the North — a distinction that remains unbroken to this day.

“It’s the growth in the intellectual life of the University that gives me the greatest satisfaction because that’s what is really going to affect students as they move out into the world,” he said in an interview with The Scranton Journal in 1997.

Breaking Ground

Fr. Panuska had an educational background in the sciences, specifically physiology, biology and cryobiology. But he was also devoted to the arts. He seldom missed a concert, often telling the story from his youth of his once-ever appearance as an extra with a major opera company. He supported the founding of the World Premiere Composition Series, sketched plans for University structures and illustrated his own Christmas cards.

In an interview with The Catholic Light, he said that his passion for environmental biology had always put him “in awe of the beauty of nature. . . . I really wanted this campus not just to have good teachers and good classrooms and good chapels,” he said, “I wanted it to be an environment that is inspirational.”

Case in point: He was once caught weeding the flowerbed outside Scranton Hall.

Not only was he a good gardener, he was a talented fundraiser. In 1989, the University received the largest private gift in its history from Harry Weinberg, which went to support the Judaic Studies Institute and to build The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Memorial Library, evidence of his commitment to both intellectual and campus growth.

Francis and Elizabeth Redington Hall, the University’s first suite-style residence built in 1985, was Fr. Panuska’s first major addition to campus. The building recognized his dear friend and former trustee, the late Elizabeth Redington H’92 and her husband, Frank, whose generosity also established the Redington Scholarship Fund.

Redington Hall was quickly followed by the William J. Byron Recreation Complex in 1986. Many more buildings and campus improvements followed.

Fr. Panuska also became known for buying and renovating local churches, including what would eventually become the Houlihan-McLean Center, Rock Hall (home of Madonna della Strada Chapel) and Smurfit Hall. He was proud of beautifying the campus in this unique way, and — as an artist — he was proud of the sculptures he commissioned on campus as well.

"No one guarded the legacy of the past or enriched it with more vision than Fr. J.A. Panuska."
-Rev. Jospeh McShane, S.J.

“Putting the sculpture of St. Ignatius (Metanoia) right in the center of the campus is one of the best things I’ve been able to do,” he said in The Catholic Light interview. “People are always being reminded of the need for transformation.” Fr. Panuska also designed the crucifix atop Redington Hall.

“This drawing has special meaning for me because it illustrated in a graphic way my understanding of life. I trust that my drawing manifests a view that is expansive, comprehensive and sympathetic to other perspectives of the world we experience in common. Most of all, it reflects personal discovery,” he wrote of the cross.

His Legacy

“No one guarded the legacy of the past or enriched it with more vision than Fr. J.A. Panuska,” Rev. Joseph McShane, S.J., who succeeded Fr. Panuska as president, said in an article in The Scranton Journal in 1999. He consistently referred to Fr. Panuska the University’s “second founder.”

In recognition of his service, the Board of Trustees renamed the College of Health, Education and Human Resources, which was established during his tenure, the J.A. Panuska, S.J., College of Professional Studies.

Fr. Panuska’s presidency ended at the close of the 1997-98 academic year. “We have been bold in aiming high,” said Fr. Panuska as he reflected on his presidency, which he called the highlight of his life. “I never saw The University of Scranton as being a school with limited ambition.”

Thank you for aiming so high, Papa Bear.

Inaugural Remarks Oct. 27, 1982


"What we do here is like a pebble dropped in the sea; the effects spread, the waves grow. . . . I dream of the growth of the Scranton wave through the education of students who are not only fully qualified to succeed competitively, but who know that they have brothers and sisters all over the world. I dream of seeing our excellent faculty enabled to spend even more time with our students and with their research, of seeing our community spirit intensified so that alienation is truly alien to our life, of seeing Jesuit-lay collegiality as a full reality. . . . We can dream because we are the children of God, endowed with His power. Of course, dreams are not fulfilled by dreaming, but by planning and by hard work. I happily take up this tradition of our University."

Scroll to Top