Keep the door open

For teaching and advising and a ministry that’s blessed this place for 48 years—paying tribute to Charles Phipps, S.J.

Keep the door open
Ease and breath: We strode down the open corridors together. Photo courtesy SCU Archives

Charles Phipps, S.J., an associate professor of English, taught his last class at SCU during winter quarter, a survey of American poetry highlighting favorites that include Longfellow, Whitman, Dickinson, Robinson, and Frost. Like their Mission Campus predecessors for 48 years, Charley’s students came away with deep appreciations for literary excellence and for this quintessential man for others.

Ordained in 1961, Charley arrived at Santa Clara in 1965 fresh from receiving his doctorate from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Soon he was settling into the roles constituting his rich ministry: teacher, administrator, priest, and Jesuit community member. Throughout, Charley has understood this as a variation on a single theme: “Seeing God in all things—you’re always promoting the Apostolate; you’re always serving God.”

Charley’s life journey includes a good deal of literal travel. Charley spent his three sabbaticals in London (twice) and Oxford. During spring quarter of 1991, he lectured and tutored on American literature at Donetsk State University, in Ukraine, through the SCU-DSU Exchange Program. Living with a non-English-speaking family in the coal-mining and steel-making city during the waning months of the Soviet Union, Charley developed nonverbal skills he didn’t know he had: “It’s amazing how much you can communicate when you don’t know the language.”


While Charley himself is reluctant to rank-order his roles, fellow Jesuits are quick to emphasize the classroom work. Gerald McKevitt, S.J., is the University historian and the Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Professor of History. “Charley’s life has centered on his teaching,” he says. “And he has always wanted to do it well.”

Chancellor William J. Rewak, S.J., who first arrived on the Mission Campus to teach English in 1970, adds that “as a teacher, he has been cura personalis personified.”

Charley has also seen dramatic change in colleagues’ priorities of what and how to teach. Keeping up with his discipline’s permutations and paradigm shifts, Charley welcomes the contributions of newer approaches like New Historicism, feminism, and deconstruction. Still, he ascribes value to traditional surveys of British and American literature, lamenting their loss in high school curricula: “You’re always starting from the beginning now. You presume nothing.”

His favorite class to teach has been California literature: Frank Norris, Robinson Jeffers, Wallace Stegner, and the Beats. Father Rewak marvels at the range of Charley’s poetic interests: “He can with ease and in the same breath deliver lines from both Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’” Tellingly, Charley has spent a good deal of class time on Beat poetry because “students love it.”


Gift outright: He finished the quarter with Frost’s inaugural poem for JFK. Fr. Phipps himself remembers FDR. Photo by Charles Barry

Charley’s service work for the University has fallen in 12-year increments—as residence hall director in Swig, director of the honors program, and chairman of the English department. For half a dozen years he directed academic advising in the College of Arts and Sciences. As head of the honors program, Charley relished the company of Santa Clara’s brightest, most dedicated undergraduates. Honors students “took their education very seriously.” Charley served as academic advisor for all 30, including Janet Napolitano ’79, former governor of Arizona and now secretary of Homeland Security; Robert Finocchio ’73, chair of SCU’s Board of Trustees; and fellow Jesuits Jack Treacy ’77, Th.M. ’90 and Art Liebscher ’69, M.Div. ’84, MST ’86.

Secure in his commitments, Charley guided the English department through a period of dramatic evolution. Claudia MonPere McIsaac, a senior lecturer in English, arrived at Santa Clara more than 25 years ago, and she recalls Charley’s generosity toward her as a newcomer—and his “kind, calm manner as he welcomed me to the department.” Charley takes special pride in having hired the next seven department chairs: Diane DreherDick OsbergPhyllis BrownTerry BeersEileen Razzari ElrodJohn Hawley, and Simone Billings.

Thinking back on his time as director of academic advising, Charley hastens to say, “That was wonderful. I enjoyed that very much. I was trying to continue the tradition of John Drahmann, who was beloved by everyone.”

Drahmann was a longtime dean of sciences and a professor of physics. He was known as someone generations of students could count on and respect.

Typical for Charley, that sense of respect is something he is quick to share: He waxes eloquent on the staff support he received as director of advising, as well as when he chaired the English department: “Ultimately, they know more about it than we [faculty] do.”


Charley has seen great change in Santa Clara over the decades. Asked to name the most important development, he immediately replies, “Fewer Jesuits.” A delicate, fraught dynamic develops as to how to maintain the school’s religious, Catholic character as Jesuits play less of a role.

Charley also notes problems of scale, especially the loss of intimacy: “You knew everyone on campus, but not now. Academic specialization and the pressure for tenure and promotion tend to isolate people very much. They spend less time on campus.” Gains accrue to the University through the higher publishing expectations on faculty, but Charley recognizes that “a lot of the excellent teachers of the past would not be getting tenure today, for lack of publication. It’s a different world.” In an endearingly self-effacing aside he concedes, “It applies to me.”

Such throwaway lines capture the man admired and loved by fellow Jesuits. Charley has served as both minister and assistant minister in that community. Fred Tollini, S.J., a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, is moved by how Charley serves and “prays for all.” Father Rewak asks rhetorically, “How can you not respect someone who laughs at his own bloopers, be grateful to someone who grows tomatoes for our dinner table, and honor someone who gets up at 4 a.m. to take you to the airport?”

Impossibly youthful at 84, Charley glows when talking about his three nephews (Chris ’88, M.A. ’04Charley ’84, and Rich ’83, all Santa Clara graduates), their children, and the students he has mentored, intellectually and spiritually. Seeing Charley in the fullness of his ministry, Art Leibscher, himself a longtime resident minister in the freshman and sophomore residence halls, is prepared to say that Charley Phipps “comes close to embodying ‘Jesuit Santa Clara.’” Closing out his service to the English department, Charley left his office door open for colleagues to come take his books, shelf after shelf of the best British and American literature. Gifting Santa Clara with beauty—and a message to colleagues that concluded “Grateful to all!”—seems just the right parting gesture for Charley Phipps.

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