Bellarmine University president Joseph J. McGowan dies unexpectedly after brief illness

Bellarmine University president Joseph J. McGowan dies unexpectedly after brief illness
Published: Mar. 1, 2016 at 3:16 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 8, 2016 at 3:16 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Bellarmine University president Dr. Joseph J. (Jay)  McGowan died unexpectedly at home early Tuesday morning after a brief illness with his wife Maureen by his side. He was 71 years old.

"I know you will join me in reflecting deeply not only on the magnitude of his accomplishments in this life and the gravity of our loss, but also on the good of this place, and our love for each other," Bellarmine University Board of Trustees Chair Pat Mulloy said in an email to alumni and others. "Especially, we send our love and support to Maureen and their twin sons, Joseph and Matthew, at this most difficult time."

[RELATED NEWS: Bellarmine campus expansion includes $25M Centro building]

McGowan became Bellarmine's third president in 1990, replacing Dr. Eugene V. Petrik. He guided the institution's transformation from Bellarmine College to Bellarmine University ten years later. According to the school's media relations office, the name change was part of a growth trajectory tied to McGowan's vision that Bellarmine become the premiere independent Catholic university in the south, and thereby the leading private university in the commonwealth and region.

McGowan came to Bellarmine after 21 years at Fordham University in New York, where he served as vice president and dean. Prior to that, he was an admissions and financial aid officer at the University of Notre Dame, according to his biography on Bellarmine's webpage.

Under McGowan's leadership, Bellarmine's enrollment has increased from approximately 2,500 in 1990 to nearly 4,000 today, while maintaining the school's 12-1 teacher-student ratio, his biography states. The school's faculty has grown from 85 to 167. McGowan also added schools of education, communication, continuing and professional studies, and environmental studies, and the university awarded its first doctoral degrees during his time as president.

Bellarmine also has seen an increase in the number of buildings on campus since McGowan's arrival, from 15 in 1990 to 57 in 2016. including the Siena residential complex - regarded as one of the nation's most beautiful - and a new stadium and chapel.

Further expansions are in the works at Bellarmine, including the $25 million Centro, which will house both classrooms and office space. McGowan believed Centro, which almost completely alters the face of the campus from Newburg Road, will attract more local students to the private, liberal arts college. Centro is scheduled to open this summer.

At Centro's groundbreaking in November 2014, McGowan teased a number of other future projects. "We're completely renovating the whole technology for teaching and learning here," McGowan said. "There will be a... recreation sports building. There will be a new residence hall coming up, and at some point we have to expand things a little bit down at our field."

"Jay McGowan was a visionary leader who took Bellarmine from college to university, from a local learning institution to an international destination for innovation and knowledge," Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said. "He led a physical and educational transformation on campus that challenged his staff, faculty and students to set high goals and achieve them. My thoughts and prayers are with the McGowan family, and the entire Bellarmine community. Jay will be sorely missed."

"I've long held Dr. McGowan in high esteem," University of Louisville president James Ramsey said. "He has been a transformational leader at Bellarmine, leading the university through its own period of tremendous growth, campus beautification and an increase in its stature, both in the community and around the world. I want to express my condolences to the McGowan family, friends and the greater Bellarmine community. This is a sad day for Bellarmine University, for our city and for me personally. Jay's contributions and legacy will live on."

"Jay McGowan was a giant in this community and touched the hearts of many, not just Bellarmine students," said alum Sid Abramson, whose mother, former Louisville first lady Madeline Abramson, is a first cousin of McGowan's wife Maureen. "He brought motivation to anyone who ran into him on or off campus and always had that funny sense of humor to put a smile on your face. He will be tremendously missed."

"Bellarmine has been ranked as a top regional school for several decades, and we owe Dr. McGowan great thanks for his visionary leadership and for his deep commitment to the students and faculty of this university," Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said. "It has been a privilege to collaborate with Dr. McGowan for the good of Catholic higher education, and I will miss him.

"Please join me in praying for the repose of Dr. McGowan's soul and for his family.  May he rest in peace."

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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