Let us pray in thanksgiving for the life of Fr. R. Gerard Albright, SJ, who died on September 22, 2023 at Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan. He was 97 years old. May he rest in peace.
Gerry was born in Detroit on April 1, 1926. Because of World War II, after graduating early from University of Detroit Jesuit High, Gerry entered the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus at Milford, Ohio on February 10, 1944. Gerry was ordained a priest on June 18, 1958 at West Baden College in West Baden Springs, Illinois, and pronounced final vows at Gesu Catholic Church in Detroit on June 15, 1961.
While in the Society, Gerry earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin from Loyola University Chicago (1949). Early on in his formation, Gerry’s superiors realized his aptitude for the sciences and missioned him to study biology at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine. He earned a master’s degree (1953) and doctorate degree (1955) in biology from Loyola University Chicago. The title of his dissertation was “The Functional Morphology and Phylogenetic Significance of the Deglutitional Mechanism in the Generalized Culubrid Elaphe Obsoleta Quadrivittata“. After earning his Ph.D., he studied theology and was ordained. He also earned a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from West Baden College (1955-1959).
Gerry returned to his hometown and was a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy from 1960-2017. During these six decades, Gerry was willing to do whatever was necessary. Over the years he taught nineteen different courses (often to pre-medicine and pre-dental students), was a residence hall chaplain (1962-1984), was the chair of the biology department a total of nineteen years, and was dean of the Liberal Arts College from 1979-1982 (an especially turbulent time in the university’s history). In 2020, Gerry was missioned to Colombiere Center to care for his health.
A faithful priest and a devoted Jesuit, Gerry integrated Ignatian spirituality into all aspects of his life — including his scientific endeavors. His love of Christ could be seen in the great care and attention given to those who had the pleasure of interacting with him. Always hospitable, Gerry welcomed and cared for all those he encountered — whether that was in the classroom, in the lab, in the residence hall, on campus, or in the Jesuit community.
A gifted professor, Gerry combined knowledge, wisdom, and kindness when dealing with students. He taught, counseled, guided, mentored, influenced, and inspired students as future scientists, biologists, physicians, researchers, and teachers. As Gerry once said “I’ll teach you things you can take with you. I focus on your career interests.”
Gerry helped in the development of a strong biology department at University of Detroit Mercy and helped in the planning of the biology section when the Ford Life Sciences Building was built. In 1962, Gerry started a committee on student evaluation which wrote thousands of letters of recommendation for students who were applying to medical or dental school. Out of generosity and care for the students, Gerry was the chairman of this committee and the main writer of letters of recommendations for fifty-five years. In addition, especially when he was the director of the pre-medicine and pre-dentistry programs, he enhanced not only the enrollment of the university but the its caliber and notoriety as well.
Fr. Justin Kelly, SJ, had these memories of Gerry:
A memorable item about Gerry’s university work was that he [was the university employee who] received cadavers and stored them in a refrigerated basement room so that pre-med students could practice dissection on actual (formerly living) bodies. He [also] did a lot of unglamorous but important work in the community, like refinishing the chairs in the dining room, annually cleaning out the first-floor hat-and-coat room, etc. He was a quiet but faithful presence. I had a brief conversation with him at Colombiere in the final few weeks of his life and found him approaching his end serenely and even happily. I left feeling blessed to have known him.
Fr. Gary Wright, SJ, offered these reflections:
My memories of Gerry go back to my days in first studies at Lansing Reilly (1969). I didn’t know him well because he was one of the Jesuits who lived in the dorms – but that was a sign of his dedication to students. He is most remarkable in my mind for the way generations of students appreciated him –both for his excellent teaching and for his coveted personal recommendations written for medical school applicants. The biology department chair said the student evaluations of his courses rated Gerry highly even into his 90s, when he had to make his way to class with a walker. In community life, Gerry was always most kind and gentle in his ways; he navigated with grace and discipline some life changes following his diabetes diagnosis, which only seemed to enhance his relations with us. As the disabilities of aging took their toll, he never complained but just kept going. I can only hope to age as graciously and fruitfully as he did, now that I am facing those challenges myself! Oh yes… there was his impish wit that would occasionally surprise us in conversation. My favorite story about that: when he received his doctorate (in herpetology), it was customary for the graduate to host a party for his fellow students and faculty. Without telling anyone what they were eating until they had had their fill, Gerry served up rattlesnake!
In 2017, Gerry was interviewed by Mary Kate McNally about his Jesuit life and work at University of Detroit Mercy. Click here to view the 50 minute interview.