The Rev. John P. Stack, OSA, ’71 CLAS, ’77 MA
enters retirement with the gratitude
of generations of Villanovans
The Rev. John P. Stack, OSA, ’71 CLAS, ’77 MA has been many things to many people. The family priest called upon for weddings and baptisms, golden anniversaries and funerals. The mentor living in the residence hall whose wisdom and friendship were only a knock away.
The honorary sibling in a family that has named a favorite peppery Italian dish “Pasta Stack” in his honor. The good-natured competitor in pickup basketball games at Jake Nevin Field House and in late-night pinochle games on friends’ front porches. The boss and colleague who reminds those around him that they should always take their work seriously, but never themselves.
Before his retirement in April, Father Stack was vice president for Student Life for 22 years, and he was dean of students for 17 years before that. It adds up to nearly 40 years with Villanova students at the center of his life and his ministry. Over the years, those generations of students have become alumni, and so many have also become friends and colleagues.
“Father Stack is a tireless advocate for our students and the lifeblood of the University. He has certainly made Villanova a better place,” says University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS. “He is dedicated to our mission, and Villanova has always come first to him.”
As a leader, his legacy is crystallized in the stories his friends and colleagues tell of the patience, humor and compassion he has brought to challenging situations, of the enduring relationships he has nurtured over the decades, and of his embodiment of Caritas for generations of Villanovans.
More than 3,000 miles from his family in Ireland, Gerry O’Reilly ’87 VSB, a standout runner on the Track team, found a surrogate family at Villanova—and it all began with Father Stack. “He knew that another one of my teammates, Sean O’Neill, and I didn’t have family to go home to on the weekends, so he’d call us up and take us out to dinner,” O’Reilly says. “I always felt great coming home afterwards—my batteries would be recharged, and I’d have the feeling that someone really cared for me.”
O’Reilly settled in Chester County, Pa., after graduation, and the family ties have remained strong: Father Stack was the celebrant when O’Reilly married his wife, Melody, and when all four of their children were baptized. “When you’re 19 or 20, it’s good to anchor yourself to someone who understands your challenges,” O’Reilly says. “His counsel has always been rock solid.”
Julia Berger ’19 VSB accepted a work-study job in the Student Life office because it offered low-key responsibilities and a quiet place to study in between her job duties. She didn’t expect to also find a mentor, but then she got to know Father Stack.
He would often ask her thoughts on upcoming events or invited speakers, and ask her to meet with prospective students to tell them about campus life—gestures that Berger says always made her feel valued and involved. And he helped her to grow as a leader, offering advice as she sought to build inclusivity in her role as director of Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Fall Fest.
“He always made me feel like I belonged at Villanova, not just as a student, but as someone that people wanted to listen to, someone whose opinion mattered,” Berger says.
When Ed Pinckney ’85 CLAS first got to know Father Stack, the tables were turned. Father Stack was part of a group of faculty and staff who would play lunchtime basketball games in Jake Nevin Field House. Pinckney and his Men’s Basketball teammates—who would go on to win Villanova’s first NCAA national championship in 1985—would often watch, resisting the urge to give pointers. “That's when I found out Father Stack had a wicked sense of humor, and a nice set shot,” Pinckney says.
The connection that was forged when basketball star became spectator persisted through Pinckney’s time at Villanova, and has lasted nearly 40 years. “If you were not playing well, or just having a tough time with coaches or classes, he’d give you the flat-out truth and a dose of reality, but also make you laugh at the same time,” Pinckney says. “Those are some of my fondest memories, and he’s still a big part of my and a lot of my teammates’ connections to Villanova.”
Father Stack's Villanova journey began when he enrolled as a freshman in 1965, commuting from Drexel Hill, Pa. The following year he entered the Augustinian Order as a novice. Ordained to the priesthood in 1974, he taught at Monsignor Bonner High School, his alma mater, and then spent a few years as Augustinian Vocation director, based at Villanova.
His move to a new role in Student Life in 1982 came at a turning point in campus life. During his tenure, Villanova shifted from a largely commuter campus to one with a robust residential experience, and 18 new residence halls were constructed. With that change came a need to offer more activities, programming and resources for students, and he took particular care in enhancing and taking a holistic approach to student health services.
“The students are really what makes the place go,” says Father Stack. “We have great students who are willing to get involved and be leaders. So I just wanted to be there for them, for the good and the bad, because I never knew on any given day what a student would need.”
Father Stack’s professional reach was vast and his responsibilities extensive and varied—overseeing Residence Life, the University Counseling Center, Student Involvement, New Student Orientation, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Intercultural Affairs, Music Activities, the International Student Program, the Student Health Center, Health Promotion, the Dean of Students Office and Disability Services, as well as founding the Parent and Family Engagement program and the Center for Peace and Justice Education.
Father Stack grew up as the oldest of five children in a tight-knit Irish clan in the Philadelphia suburbs, but since the 1980s has been an honorary member of the Healey family in Rhode Island. “After a decade or so, we drew up adoption papers, and on August 12, 1994, he became our 11th sibling,” jokes Jennifer Healey ’91 CLAS, ’95 MAS. As many Healeys have passed through Villanova over the years, and Father Stack has come to know the family, the bond has endured.
“He’s always shown up at just the right time,” says Healey, sharing family memories of his visits during the Christmas season to be part of the gift exchange, of dinners when “Pasta Stack” would be served, and of his presence in family members’ homes for good news and bad. “He’s really something when he’s with you: He’s present, he’s listening, he knows how to balance humor with a serious-minded or sometimes stern message. He provides counsel and ministry, while remaining hopeful. He’s a true confidant.”
While he was still a student at Villanova Law, Tom DeMarco ’89 CLAS, ’92 JD worked in Residence Life—then a few years after DeMarco graduated, Father Stack hired him as assistant to the dean for Judicial Affairs. The job was intense at times, requiring him to handle challenging student issues, and Father Stack encouraged him to get involved elsewhere on campus, to prevent burnout and also to expose him to another side of campus life.
“He’s always given me the flexibility to teach in the Communication Department and to work with student committees, and those experiences have made my time that much more fulfilling,” says DeMarco, now associate vice president for Student Life and dean of students. “That’s really affected the way I approach my job now, to start from that place of care first, in every interaction.”
Father Stack was long known for leading the 10 p.m. Sunday Mass on campus, and Jeff Sherry ’82 VSB and his friends were among the regulars. Sherry remembers that Father Stack’s homilies were brief, but always impactful. “He’s not a big talker. But when he says something, you listen, and it's usually spot on,” Sherry says.
The spiritual guidance has continued to flow over the decades, at Masses (Father Stack has performed several Sherry family wedding and baptism ceremonies) and at Sherry’s home, the site of countless dinners and pinochle tournaments. “When I lived in the dorms at Villanova, Father Stack was like a big brother, a guy you could talk to or confide in,” Sherry says. “He’s still that way—peaceful and thoughtful, in a way that embodies the Augustinian spirit.”
Deep in thought on his walk home while he was a graduate student with a graduate assistantship in Student Life, Nick Tumolo ’10 COE, ’12 MPA was caught off guard when a car pulled up beside him. It was Father Stack, and he invited Tumolo to join him for dinner. Over the course of the meal, Tumolo told Father Stack that he was grappling with a tough decision: to continue on a path to a career in engineering, or to follow what felt to Tumolo like a calling to work in Student Life, and at Villanova. That dinner with Father Stack solidified the decision for him.
“I realized that the example that Father Stack sets in the way he lives his life, works with others and treats others, showed me what I truly wanted to do,” Tumolo says. “I wanted to do what I saw people in Student Life doing for me, and what I saw these people doing for other students, and for Villanova, and for the community.”
Now associate dean of students at Villanova, Tumolo sees how the entire division has been shaped, as he was, by Father Stack’s steady leadership and sterling example.
“He is not someone that is going to tell you what to do, or how to do it—he's someone that's going to show you,” Tumolo says. “He is by far the most student-focused person that I know, and he really demonstrates that, yes, the greater good of our community is always important, but also that the individual matters.” ◼︎
As they approached the 30th anniversary of working together in Student Life this June, Father Stack and Kathleen J. Byrnes, JD, ’82 CLAS, ’06 MA were able to celebrate another milestone—his retirement and her elevation to the role that he had held for 22 years: vice president for Student Life.
Byrnes has worked side by side with Father Stack in all aspects of the Villanova student experience since she returned to campus in 1991 to join the Office of Student Life. “In addition to being my boss, he’s been a dear friend for many years,” she says. “I first met him when I was a student in the 1970s—he always had a smile and a centeredness about him that made a positive and deep impression. He’s been a mentor who has helped me grow into a better version of myself.”
In addition to overseeing numerous departments within Student Life, Byrnes has been an adviser to student groups, an active committee member for numerous University initiatives and an instructor in the Charles Widger School of Law. Her most influential role, though, has been as a champion for the Villanova community, said University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS in announcing her new role.
“While a candid, fierce and tireless advocate for students, it’s her unassuming and often unknown acts of support for Villanova students, faculty and staff that truly set her apart,” says Father Peter. “She is passionate about helping shape the Villanova experience, which she credits with shaping and forming who she is today.”
Father Stack’s influence and strong example remain with Byrnes each day. “Father Stack has defined who I am as a professional,” she says. “He nurtured in me the spirit of care and concern for others, to do small things to make a big difference in the lives of others.”