Priest Honored for 50 Years at WJU

WHEELING – The Rev. James O’Brien hopes he doesn’t receive golf clubs on June 23 in recognition of his 50 years of service at Wheeling Jesuit University.

It’s not that he has anything against the sport, but it seems to be a game for retirees – something he doesn’t plan on becoming anytime soon. O’Brien, 85, came to teach philosophy at the school in 1962 and has been in Wheeling ever since.

The longest-serving Jesuit priest in the school’s history, O’Brien will be honored for his service during the President’s Dinner and Award Ceremony at 6 p.m. Saturday on campus. To make reservations, call 304-243-8166 or visit

”I guess it’s unusual. The years go by quietly. … I’ve been blessed,” O’Brien said. ”What would I do if I did retire? I’m not trying to prove anything.”

O’Brien said he still feels “pretty energized” and plans to teach a course this fall, Peace and Justice. Much like he did 50 years ago starting at 35 years old, O’Brien continues to live in the residence halls with the students – a Jesuit tradition because learning isn’t just a classroom activity. Over the years, however, he’s noticed young students’ habits have changed, perhaps to adapt to their current world. Today, he said, they are often connected to their computers and other electronic devices – smart phones used to talk, text and listen to music.

“In my experience, they tend to be more solitary, more private. It’s more natural for them,” O’Brien said, noting such activity appears to make young people “less comfortable interacting with older people.”

And leading a more solitary lifestyle may be more natural because communicating via technology for them has always been the norm. But teachers must find ways to make sure education is not depersonalized because of such devices, he noted. At WJU, use of cell phones is frowned upon while professors are lecturing.

Such technology can connect people to many others at a moment’s notice, but O’Brien is concerned the relationships formed may only be on the surface. Part of the college experience, he believes, includes learning from and interacting with one’s classmates – in person. In the end, the objective is to develop students’ talents and to teach them to think and interact with others. The hope is that what they have learned at the school will be used for good in the world after graduation.

“The idea is that we do some learning together,” O’Brien said of his style of teaching.

He noted the Jesuit tradition of learning by being immersed in service is still strong with many incoming students, but not as much for others. This is mainly because there is a wider variety of people attending the university today than in the 1960s. For example, not everyone enrolled is a Catholic – or even religious in general. They decide to attend the school because of its reputation as an institution, he said.

But the school’s curriculum calls for students to engage in community service, whether it be helping flood victims in Wheeling, gathering firewood for people in southern West Virginia who use it for heating and cooking, or aiding people in foreign countries. The Jesuit mission is “life, leadership and service for others.”

While students’ overuse of technology, such as cell phones, is a concern for O’Brien, he said expansion of new technologies has had a positive impact on the university and its students. For example, online classes are now commonplace, and the university recently started offering courses to refugees in countries such as Africa.

In addition to technology changing how the school educates people, its campus also has changed much over the years. When O’Brien first arrived there were only three main buildings. Today, in addition to several buildings for classes, living space and offices, there are also facilities for various sports teams.

During the past 50 years, O’Brien said, the most noticeable change in the students is the amount of reading and writing they apparently have not done before entering college. He said this became more obvious during the 1990s, when home computers became widely used.

“Maybe it’s due to technology and maybe it’s the fact that students are so visual and watch more TV. … They’re not in the habit of reading,” he said.

And while some may believe working 50 years in one place is a feat, O’Brien said he would talk annually about his future with his fellow Jesuits and each year he expressed he was content to stay in Wheeling.

“This is where God wants me,” he said. “Wheeling is a great place to be.”

O’Brien, an associate professor of philosophy, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Loyola University and his doctorate from Duquense University.