By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 3, 2017
ATLANTA—As a first-year student in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, Ned Shlesinger was one of the “rats”—a freshman facing tough initiation doled out by cadet upperclassmen into the strict discipline of the corps.
However, his friends say his good nature and ability to take the badgering in stride earned him the nickname of the “Happy Rat.”
“He’d be chewed out by an upperclassman and he’d have a smile on his face,” said Michael McConkey, a fellow member of F Squadron, who now lives in Dayton, Ohio.
The nickname stuck. It appeared on the back of the T-shirt he wore for drills. His character won respect.
Charlie Estep, his college roommate from 1979 to 1983, described how the future bishop was elected by his peers to command the squadron.
“I thought he could have gone higher. He was head and shoulders above everyone else,” said Estep, 56, a longtime friend who served under him as second cadet.
Shlesinger participated in Air Force ROTC while on the college campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering.
McConkey, who studied electrical engineering, said he tutored Shlesinger when asked by his stumped classmate for help with engineering studies. “I’d kind of make fun of him.”
During his freshman year, McConkey couldn’t make it home to Florida for Thanksgiving. Instead, Shlesinger invited him to his family’s home in Virginia.
“It was nice, a very nice gesture for him to do. Ned would go out of his way to help you,” McConkey said.
From his campus experience, the future bishop received a coveted chance to train as a pilot. He served in the U.S. Air Force for seven years from 1983 to 1990 where he captained the C-130E Hercules, a four-engine transport plane, primarily while stationed at then-Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, now Pope Field.
After military service, he followed a desire for the priesthood, enrolling at Theological College at The Catholic University of America and then studying in Rome, Italy, before being ordained for the Diocese of Raleigh in 1996.
Leadership recognized in college
Virginia Tech is one of only two large public universities in the United States with a full time cadet corps. The other is Texas A&M. Students in the corps during the early 1980s had a campus experience almost equal to that of the military academies. They lived in separate dormitories where upperclassmen conducted room inspections. They ate two meals a day together in special dining halls. They dressed in uniform and standard military haircuts were required.
Tim Bandy remembered Shlesinger doing well in that environment.
“Ned has an outstanding character. He is a people person,” said Bandy, who called him a “Christian brother.”
Bandy, 56, served in the Air Force for 20 years and now works with the U.S. Army as a contractor. He participated in another squadron on campus but got to know Shlesinger through Estep. He helped Estep become a Christian while in college.
Bandy and Shlesinger last met about 10 years ago after his friend had been ordained as a priest. He said the fact that the future bishop didn’t rise higher in the Air Force wasn’t because of a lack of talent or skill.
“Ned got out because he had other goals, not because he was not a good officer,” he said.
The people of the Atlanta Archdiocese, said Bandy, “can expect a man who genuinely cares about them and genuinely looks out for their best interests.”
Estep met Shlesinger when they shared a dorm room.
“We got along from the get-go. I was happy to have him as my roommate for all four years,” he said.
He recalled how upperclassmen inspected the room, aiming to get Ned to smile and laugh. “Ned is just a genuine nice guy.”
“Happy Rat” became a term of respect, he said. “That’s how we affectionately knew him as a freshman. Ned was likable, he was loved, he was forthright. He was an obvious leader.”
During their senior year, the nearly 50 squadron members recognized those skills, choosing him to head the unit. Estep called him a “quiet leader.”
“He’d have a sparkle in his eye and choose his words carefully. He was all about doing the right thing,” he said. “Honesty and integrity had a lot to do with it. He had an honesty and integrity that not a lot of people had.”
Estep, who became a C-130 navigator and served in the Air Force and Air National Guard for 12 years, became a Christian while attending Virginia Tech. He traveled to North Carolina to witness his friend’s ordination to the priesthood.
The two saw each other when Estep lined up for the first blessing.
“He gave me a big smile. We kind of blessed each other,” said Estep, his voice cracking with emotion. “He’s a great guy.”
One-time co-pilots reunite as clergy
In Atlanta, Bishop Shlesinger has also reunited with a pilot, who is a permanent deacon.
Deacon William O’Donoghue was enjoying a cup of coffee at his Atlanta home when his daughter, Angela, a youth minister at Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta, saw the surprise announcement of a new bishop posted on archdiocesan social media May 15.
“Guess who the new auxiliary bishop is? Our Ned, from Raleigh,” she said.
The deacon quickly zipped over to the Chancery for the public announcement.
They have known each other since 1985. They spent two months overseas together, in addition to both serving at Pope air base. The deacon was a pilot of the C-130 in the Air Force from 1982 to 1989 before going to work for Delta Airlines.
During his introductory press conference, Bishop Shlesinger mentioned sharing the roughest landing of his life with Deacon O’Donoghue. The deacon admitted he was responsible for the landing, which took place in northern Turkey.
“It was at a little airstrip,” he said. “I was so tunnel-visioned, I never pulled the nose up and we bounced up in the air.”
The plane bounced again and it was such a hard landing he went to the back and apologized to the GIs who were catching a ride. Shlesinger was the co-pilot.
When Father Shlesinger was ordained a priest, O’Donoghue met his friend’s father for the first time. The tale of the rough landing came up, and the new priest assured his dad, a World War II navigator and bombardier, “Bill did it.”
“Our paths have crossed many times,” Deacon O’Donoghue said.
When he was ordained a deacon in 2011, Father Shlesinger attended the Mass.
Being formed as a deacon wasn’t for himself but so that he might lead others to Jesus, Deacon O’Donoghue explained.
“I think that really applies to Ned, too,” he said.