Remembering Father John Cortelyou: priest, scientist, former DePaul president

Lisa Geiger
November 17, 2016

The Rev. John R. Cortelyou, C.M., former professor and DePaul University president, passed away 20 years ago on Nov. 11, 1996. This month, as the university strives to select its next leader, Into the Archives honors this life-long DePaulian, known for his self-effacing humor and belief in common human dignity.

Father Cortelyou spent his life learning, working and leading in the DePaul community. Born in Chicago in 1914, he attended DePaul Academy before following his older brother into the Vincentian novitiate in Perryville, Missouri. After studying theology in Perryville and his 1940 ordination, Father Cortelyou returned to DePaul Academy as an instructor. He then earned an M.S. degree in biology from DePaul University in 1943 and a Ph.D. in 1949 from Northwestern University.  He then began teaching in DePaul's Department of Biological Sciences. In 1952 he became department chair and spent the next decade researching amphibian hormones and water pollutants. His brother, the Rev. William Cortelyou, C.M., chaired DePaul's Theology Department and became dean of the Graduate School in 1960.

Father Cortelyou as university president

Father Cortelyou was the last president appointed by the province before the order turned university administrative staffing over to the Board of Trustees and to the first president with a scientific research background rather than a strictly theological education. (DePaul University/Special Collections and Archives)

In 1964, Father Cortelyou was chosen as the university's eighth president by Vincentian provincial appointment, replacing the Rev. Comerford O'Malley, C.M. Father Cortelyou was the last president appointed by the province before the order turned university administrative staffing over to the Board of Trustees and to the first president with a scientific research background rather than a strictly theological education. He oversaw expansion to create a true Lincoln Park Campus, including construction of the Schmitt Academic Center, the first student residence hall and the purchase of the McCormick Theological Seminary. He also acquired O'Malley Place at 23 E. Jackson Blvd. to expand the Loop Campus' facilities, helped found the School for New Learning in 1971 and oversaw the 1978 acquisition of the Goodman School of Drama.

Though many physical expansions were made during his tenure, Father Cortelyou focused much of his efforts on advancing DePaul's quality of education, initiating core curriculum requirements and increasing philosophy and science program resources. It was his role as a personable teacher and patient listener, however, that won him greatest praise. These qualities were key as he led the university during anti-Vietnam War protests and a contentious 1969 student shutdown of the SAC with an emphasis on student safety. Looking back on his tenure in 1981, Cortelyou attributed his accomplishments as president to his belief "in the philosophy of the dignity of the person."

The former president's administrative papers in DePaul's University Archives indicate he initially greeted his appointment with some reserve, worrying about losing teaching time and his ability to continue his amphibian research. While he remained self-effacing and modest, he warmed to his role as an administrator because of the dedication he felt to the DePaul community. Father Cortelyou was known to keep a collection of stuffed frogs on his desk as tokens of his scientific research, which he gradually gave away as toys when alumni and former staff visited his office with their children in tow. He later stated he felt greater joy in seeing his friends' children's happiness than dwelling on his past as a researcher, perhaps a comment on the breadth of his work as university president.

In 1981, after 17 years as president, Father Cortelyou retired and became chancellor, and later chancellor emeritus, of the university. He was an active fundraiser and champion of university initiatives in these roles until 1993, continuing service to his "kids" at DePaul across six decades.