Reflections on Jim Reites, S.J.
By Philip Boo Riley
Along with family, friends, colleagues, students, I had a chance to reflect on Jim Reites' passing in April, during the services SCU's Jesuit community put together to mark their fellow companion's passing. I am happy to continue those reflections here, more from the perspective of Jim’s place in the department’s story.
Jim came to SCU (along with Fran Smith) in 1975, and upon earning tenure and promotion to associate professor Jim took over as department chair, a position he held for 17 years, interrupted only by a sabbatical year in his beloved Rome in the late 80’s. As chair Jim hired faculty, welcomed majors, did battle with deans, vice presidents and presidents, built computers, developed budget strategies even the Controller could not track, and set the tone for a growing and diverse full-time faculty that today numbers over twenty, making us one of the largest departments in the university.
Early in his term as chair Jim launched the department on a course we still pursue today: to become a religious studies department whose vitality includes a robust theological presence. Like other universities in the 80's, we engaged in conversations regarding our identity that continue to this day--where most programs decided they were doing either theology or religious studies, we asked whether and how we could do both, not as silos within the department, but as partners, integrating social and cultural studies with theological approaches to religion. It was messy business, but Jim was a master at keeping the question open and alive and the conversations civil and constructive, laying a foundation on which future chairs (Carmody, Bell, Crowley, Macy, and now Gray) could build.
Jim’s return to the joys of full time faculty life was short lived—he did a stint as director of the Pastoral Ministries program, and then the Jesuits tasked him to their novitiate in Culver City. When he came back from the novitiate Jim inaugurated the Xavier Residential Learning Community. At a stage in his career when many academics look towards retirement, Jim entered into the lives of new undergraduates with his characteristic enthusiasm and good will. Xavier students enjoyed debating with him whether Tupac had indeed died (Jim’s theological interests in Resurrection helped him win) and followed him during breaks to Tijuana to build houses. (Xavier alumni and friends still do those trips.) Somehow Tijuana became Silicon Valley, and Jim returned to his undergraduate major to help teams of engineering students compete in solar house and tiny-house competitions. At the same time he began supporting students completing senior design projects in engineering in other parts of the world, most recently in Ghana and Benin.
Jim loved to spend money, especially other people’s money—or more precisely, the Dean’s—on things that mattered, like good food, wine, and of course, electronics, especially in the 80s’, when Fry’s Electronics was just taking off. I can remember he and Martin Cook spending weekends with soldering guns and motherboards building from scratch our first department computers. As his recent stint in Engineering revealed, Jim loved challenges and problems, and keeping a growing faculty resourced with travel funds, computers, honoraria for speakers, student assistants, and the like with woefully unrealistic budgets was a challenge. I am not at liberty to reveal in print how Jim managed for years to trick the Dean’s Office into unwittingly subsidizing our department’s interests; I can only say that not even the ever-vigilant Controller could follow the money. “Trust in Jim” became our motto.
Jim taught an ambitious load of classes during his time in the department—his staple Introduction to New Testament and History of the Christian Tradition (for which he and other colleagues created and coded one of the first computer-based interactive student tools) was complemented by more specialized courses he created. His Religious Autobiography and C.S. Lewis courses were quite popular among students, and I recall great conversations connecting Lewis’ Narnia tales to what Jim agreed was Lewis’ rather pessimistic view of modernity. My colleagues reminded me that Jim was one of the first faculty to teach a course on feminist theology in the department.
Jim’s scholarly focus was in Ignatian spirituality and history. His early work on “St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jews” remains relevant thirty years later and continues to be cited in historical studies of the society as well as analyses of anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition. I was able to collaborate later with Jim in a study of local interfaith initiatives, on which we wrote a report for the National Jesuit News.
Jim’s infectious laugh and incessant good humor helped us all survive the quarter system. Jim loved hosting the department (partners and children included) at the “Franklin Street” residence at the beginning and closing of the year, where he also convened colloquia, including a memorable one with Bernard Lonergan, whose answer to a question from a colleague—I believe it was Jim--about method in theology was a conversation stopper, “Well, I wrote a book on that topic.” Jim could laugh at himself, as he did at the end of one day when he finally realized why students were giggling in class—unbeknownst to him had worn unmatched shoes that day--or how hard it was for someone of his stature to see over the steering wheel of the behemoth station wagon known in the Jesuit Community as the Blue Nun.
It is hard to encapsulate a career like Jim’s in a few words. My oldest son, who knew Jim well, made a suggestion that I like: in the first part of his career Jim served SCU by studying and teaching theology and working to ensure that our religious studies program would thrive; in the second part of his career Jim served SCU by turning to his own unique mission and passions, helping to make the religion we all study come alive in students’ lives and in engineering projects that built communities here in the Valley and around the world. Faith and works; I think Jim would like that.