Two years later, Bernie and Jim were married by an Episcopal priest who was a good friend. They petitioned to be allowed to be married in the Church but were denied twice.
“On the third time, I think they realized that I wasn’t coming back. Bernie was pregnant with our second child. So finally, they said ‘Yes.’”
Purcell was increasingly doing work counseling people in the community, so he enrolled in a master’s in social work program at Catholic University of America. He returned to the Bay Area and went on to direct counseling services for San Jose Catholic Charities and later San Mateo County, then as overall director of Catholic Charities in San Jose. It was in that role that he began collaborating with SCU’s Eastside Project. He worked for the Diocese of San Jose to raise money for its cathedral. After that, Hope Services, which supports people with developmental disabilities, approached Purcell about serving as its CEO. He led the organization for five years and helped them develop a strategic plan for the next five. That’s when he got another call—from SCU President Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60, asking whether he would be interested in coming to SCU. Purcell told him he was happy at Hope Services.
“But Paul insisted, and Paul could be very persuasive,” Purcell says. “In our first meeting, he didn’t talk one word about fundraising. He talked about his vision for the University, educating men and women with competence, conscience, and compassion to make this a better world. I realized, ‘This is a bigger stage for making a difference in the world.’”
He cites the 2000 campus talk given by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, as one of the defining moments in his work. “He spoke about how a Jesuit, Catholic university needs to really have its students encounter the gritty reality of life. Well, the gritty reality of life is all about stories.”
One of the programs that Purcell is most proud of is a project working with 21 socioeconomically diverse Catholic high schools in Los Angeles—involving SCU staff and alumni to counsel students who otherwise might not even imagine it was possible to study at Santa Clara.
“That first class graduated in 2013; 18 out of 19 of those students graduated in four years. Some went to law school. I got an email from one today. She’s in Texas, working at an alternative school for the learning disabled. I’m so proud of the students who got that Santa Clara education that made it possible for them to do great things for the world.”
A Jesuit, Catholic university needs to really have its students encounter the gritty reality of life. Well, the gritty reality of life is all about stories.
Martin Sanchez ’02 helped run the program early on. As Purcell tells it, “One day, he gets a phone call from a student that he’s following up with. She hadn’t filed a FAFSA, the federal form for financial aid. So he says, ‘How come?’ She says, ‘I can’t file a FAFSA. My parents are undocumented.’”
Sanchez called the agency that controls FAFSA and asked how to fill out the form if one’s parents are undocumented. He was told, “Just put all zeroes in the Social Security codes.” The FAFSA went through. The student obtained a Pell Grant and was able to come to Santa Clara.
A LITTLE CONTEXT
Purcell stepped down as vice president in 2009 but stayed on until last year as a special assistant to the president. In that role he worked to support the Jesuit School of Theology—which has special meaning for him. “When I studied theology, the only people in the classroom were seminarians studying to be ordained. At the Jesuit School of Theology, not only is it more than half not Jesuits, but it’s laymen and women studying for an ecclesiastical degree that will help them serve the Church and the world. And the way they teach theology there, they talk about contextualizing the understanding of theology—a faith that’s lived in a culture.”
For Purcell, part of living has meant becoming a father and grandfather. He and Bernie celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary in April 2017. After 25 years in Fremont, they now live in Los Gatos. Their son, Larry, is married and is the head of a middle school in Palo Alto. Their daughter, Jamalle, lives with her husband and their four boys in Southern California. “Her name is Arabic,” Purcell notes. “It means beautiful inside and out.”
Purcell may no longer have an official post at SCU, but along with playing a little golf and strumming guitar for his grandkids, he is still involved with the Society of Jesus. He was part of the task force advising the two provincials about the joining of the California and Oregon provinces. And he has helped John A. Sobrato ’60 and the recently opened Cristo Rey High School in San Jose with mentoring its director of development.
For Santa Clara, he’s also looking forward to seeing how STEM education takes shape. “Fundamentally, it’s about interdisciplinary learning—the whole understanding of what it means to be a human being in today’s world. Take the issue of sustainability: That’s an interdisciplinary issue.”
Some years ago, Purcell wrote a piece for this magazine in which he quoted Microsoft founder Bill Gates on how we need both compassion and science. “To me, that’s what Fr. Kolvenbach means by educated solidarity,” he says. “We have a great chance to do that here at Santa Clara. It’s about figuring out how to ask the right questions.”