By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 29, 2010
Marist Father James Hartnett helped transform Marist School from what was an all-boys military academy to the coed, college-prep institution it is today. His vision reshaped the campus on the edge of Atlanta’s northeast suburbs with a building boom.
But people who knew Father Hartnett, 83, said one of his biggest legacies is how he influenced students while serving in leadership positions at the school. He died on Sunday, April 18.
“He would remind me from his life’s example, it’s all about the students,” said Marist Father John Harhager, the current president of the school.
Hundreds of mourners were at his funeral Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta, on Tuesday, April 27. Seven altar servers, all students at Marist, assisted at the Mass. Some 26 priests, both archdiocesan and Marist priests, and four deacons attended the Mass, including the provincial of the Society of Mary.
Marist Father David Musso, the school chaplain, gave the homily.
“First and foremost, Father Harnett gave honor to God. He took the words of the Marist constitution to heart,” he said.
“For more than 35 years, he oversaw the education of so many people, where he stretched the core of their mind, body and spirit,” said Father Musso.
He joked that some may have thought the initials S.M. after Father Hartnett’s name no longer stood for the Society of Mary, but “send money.” Father Hartnett’s vision was to encourage the support of the school, he said.
Father Musso said his colleague was a “family man, but for him family was universal because he embraced all people.”
Students never forgot him even though he retired from the school nine years ago. Father Harhager said the school heard from many former students after Father Hartnett died.
“People remember him. People remember him very fondly,” he said.
Indeed, some 50 people had written memories of Father Hartnett on a memorial Web page set up by the school.
Kurt Scherer, a member of the class of 1989, wrote how Father Hartnett introduced himself to a ninth-grade religion class with the Broadway tune, “Getting to Know You,” from the musical “The King and I.”
“He walked around singing to all of us, stopping to ask questions or make an introduction, and just have a great time. I remember looking around the room at everyone smiling, thinking how this man was able to transform a room through his good-naturedness, his enthusiasm, and his caring. And that’s how he always was,” wrote Scherer.
Kathryn Wampler West wrote that Father Hartnett was a part of her family’s milestone events for decades.
“Like a million rays of sunshine, Father Hartnett touched countless thousands of lives during his time with us on earth. From all of us who fondly looked to the end zone at Marist football games hoping to see him there in his wheelchair surrounded by the many generations of Marist families who loved him dearly. … We lost our beloved icon Sunday,” she wrote.
Father Hartnett, a Philadelphia native, spent most of his ministry as a priest in Atlanta as a teacher and school administrator.
After high school graduation in 1944, Father Hartnett joined the Navy. After two years of service in the U.S. and China, he entered the seminary and was ordained in 1955. Father Hartnett began his ministry in education as a priest with what was then called Marist College on Ivy Street in downtown Atlanta.
Most of his career was spent at Marist College, which later became Marist School. He taught a variety of classes and served tenures as the business manager, principal and president before retiring in 2001.
Throughout his time as president, Father Hartnett oversaw major changes to the school. Additionally, he oversaw an expansion of the campus, including the addition of the Bishop Gunn Building, Woodruff Fine Arts Center, Laird Gymnasium, the music building, the Wooldridge Library and Computer Center and Centennial Center.
In an interview with The Georgia Bulletin on his golden jubilee as a Marist, he said his greatest accomplishments were ending the military identity at the school so its Marist spirituality could shine through, and establishing an alumni association.
His treasured legacy, however, is the imprint he left on students.
Jay Reardon, a 1967 Marist graduate, said, “As a student I benefited from your patience as I struggled with difficult subjects. As a young man, I benefited through sharing daily Mass and reflection as I struggled through the challenge of maturing. You joined my wife and me in marriage. You baptized our children. Your example influenced my work ethic and your selfless charity affected my philosophy on sharing my gifts with others.”
Father Harhager said his brother priest knew how to balance being a school leader and building relationships with students. Father Hartnett was often seen as being part of the students’ families, he said.
“He remembered students’ names. He knew their family. There’s a great fondness for him,” Father Harhager said.
Donations in his memory can be made to the Father James L. Hartnett, S.M. Scholarship Fund at Marist School and/or to the Marist Care Fund of the Society of Mary (USA Province, 815 Varnum St., NE, Washington, DC 20017).