Brunini retires after 44 years of service to St. Dominic’s

When the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois, first began to contemplate the purchase of The Jackson Infirmary in 1945, they reached out for advice to then Monsignor Joseph Brunini of the Natchez Diocese, later named bishop of the Natchez-Jackson Diocese.  That initial conversation led to a friendship between St. Dominic’s and the Brunini family that has lasted nearly seven decades.
And now, after more than 44 years of service to the hospital, Bishop Brunini’s nephew, Edmund L. (Eddie) Brunini Jr., has retired.050115brunini
Eddie’s father (brother to Bishop Brunini) and his partner Gordon Grantham contributed their time to providing direction and legal counsel to the Dominican Sisters for many years prior to Eddie graduating law school, recalls Eddie Brunini.
“Gordon was providing his counsel as a nice thing for the Sisters and the hospital but was not really spending a lot of time with them,” said Brunini. “I had just started practicing law and didn’t have much to do with the hospital at that point. Sister Josephine was in charge and one day she stopped me and said, ‘I am going to have a real lawyer here.  If you want to be the real lawyer, fine.  If not, I will go get somebody else.’”
Sister Josephine was certainly grateful for the counsel she had received over the years, but she was ready to have a more full-time legal presence, recalls Eddie.
“Eddie was a rookie lawyer not long after I first came to St. Dominic’s,” said Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth, associate executive director of the St. Dominic Health Services Foundation. “Even in those early years of his career, he always gave us solid advice and was always available when we needed legal counsel.”
“We often said, when we had big issues, ‘What would Eddie Brunini say?’ And we often turned to him with difficult and challenging issues that confronted us,” said Claude Harbarger, president of St. Dominic Health Services. “He also had the confidence of the Dominican Sisters in Springfield. They knew they would get objective, good information, always with the best interest of St. Dominic’s and the Dominican Sisters at heart.”
“It is very unusual to find someone like Eddie who has served as an attorney for one organization for so long,” said Lester Diamond, president of St. Dominic Hospital. “He has had other areas of practice, oil and gas among them, but much of his time was spent with St. Dominic’s.  We have been fortunate to have that dedication from him.”
Sister Sondgeroth also commented on how Brunini had a talent with people and with interjecting levity to help relieve tension.
“I remember one time we were in a long meeting and Eddie just stood up, got in a golf stance and began swinging an imaginary five iron as though he wished he was on the golf links instead of in the meeting,” she said.  “It made us all laugh and came at just the right time to cue us to make a decision and adjourn.”
“He has a very likable personality,” said Harbarger.  “He is a master storyteller, and his stories were always well received.  He brought a lot of laughter with him in an upbeat way.”

After 47 years, Francis to retire from Xavier University of Louisiana

By Peter Finney Jr.
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) – Fittingly, the announcement came inside Xavier University of Louisiana’s sleek convocation center, the newest of many green-roofed monuments that Norman C. Francis, the longest-serving university president in the United States, had built through charisma, prayer and personal witness.

Norman Francis, 83, president of Xavier University of Louisiana since 1968, is pictured being honored in 2006 by President George W. Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. (CNS photo/Shealah Craighead, White House)

Norman Francis, 83, president of Xavier University of Louisiana since 1968, is pictured being honored in 2006 by President George W. Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. (CNS photo/Shealah Craighead, White House)

Francis, 83, the patriarch of the Xavier family since 1968, told thousands of students, faculty and staff Sept. 4 that he would step down in June 2015 as president of the only historically black Catholic university in the Western Hemisphere.
“After nearly 47 years, I know the time has come to take the brightly burning torch turned over to me by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and pass it on to new leadership,” Francis said. “I do this with a passionate confidence and absolute certainty that Xavier is better prepared than ever to continue its educational and spiritual mission and to build on its tradition of excellence.”
Francis’ tenure spanned generations and overcame many obstacles, not the least of which was restoring a campus inundated by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
When Francis came to Xavier as a 17-year-old freshman on a work scholarship in 1948, the campus consisted of just a few permanent buildings, several small houses and Army surplus trailers in one city block. Xavier’s burgeoning campus today is dotted with 16 buildings on 63 acres, and the endowment has grown from $2 million to more than $160 million.
More importantly, 20,000 students have earned degrees, and Xavier annually places more African-Americans in medical school than any other college in the country. The school also leads the nation in the number of African-Americans earning degrees in biology, chemistry, physics and the physical sciences.
Francis, the son of a Lafayette barber and homemaker, graduated from Xavier in 1952 and became the first African-American to graduate from Loyola University New Orleans’ Law School. His older brother Joseph was the fourth black Catholic bishop in the U.S., serving as auxiliary bishop of Newark, New Jersey.
After serving in the Army, Francis worked with the U.S. attorney to help desegregate federal agencies in the South. He returned to Xavier in 1957 as dean of men and became the first lay president of the university in 1968, getting the appointment from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament on the same day civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
“His assassination was like blowing up the dream,” Francis said. “I think it dulled our senses. We were in shock.”
Francis often reflected on the many “miracles” produced by Xavier, but the biggest miracle of all, he said, is that it existed in the first place.
Xavier was founded by St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who entered religious life, formed the Blessed Sacrament Sisters and then used her family inheritance to educate blacks and native Americans throughout the U.S.
St. Katharine opened the university in 1925, building an impressive administration and classroom building out of Indiana limestone. Xavier’s initial focus was to prepare African-Americans, who could not get a private school education in Louisiana, for future careers as teachers.
Francis said he was motivated by the example and discipline imparted by his parents, neither of whom graduated from high school.
“But they were as smart as anyone who had completed college,” Francis said. “I was full of dreams and more than a little bit of fear. Quickly, my fears were allayed and my dreams began to be nurtured by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the rest of the caring faculty and staff, as well as my fellow students, who shared many of the same dreams and fears.
“My experience as a student shaped my personal ambitions and ideas for what my role could be in changing the world. My faith guided me to apply the gifts that God had blessed me with to serve others.”
Francis said he had fleeting thoughts about retiring after Katrina devastated the Xavier campus and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. But those notions quickly vanished as he pulled together a small core of administrators, faculty and staff in temporary headquarters in Grand Coteau, Louisiana.
“I thought about it, but not for long,” Francis said. “I couldn’t leave, not just because of who I was, but because I knew that Xavier wasn’t ready to give up to a hurricane. We had 80 people who brought us back in four and a half months, and 75 percent of them had lost their homes. That was not easy. There’s something about adrenaline. There’s something about knowing when it’s time to make a decision.”
Francis had lost his home as well, but even in the midst of the recovery efforts he agreed to a plea from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to chair the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state panel that provided guidelines for how the region would use federal funds to rebuild. In 2006, Francis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.
Michael Rue, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, said there is no true way to measure Francis’ impact on thousands of students and on the New Orleans community.
“There’s not a lot of servant leaders in this world,” Rue said. “This man could have been a politician, a successful businessman, a very successful lawyer. A lot of doors would have opened for him. But Xavier needed him and the nuns needed him.” Rue said board members hope to have a new president in place by July 1.
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