“We lived in a part of town that was nicer than the neighborhoods that Catholics were supposed to live in,” remembers Dr. Paul J. O’Reilly of his childhood as the second of eight children in battle-torn Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1970s. “My mother, Carmel, wanted to give us a better life, but people went out of their way to show us we were unwelcome there.”
The O’Reillys often found graffiti on their walls, and they grew accustomed to the sound of shattering glass as rocks — and once, a package designed to look like a bomb — crashed through their windows. They moved to a safer part of town after two of Paul’s uncles, both successful businessmen, were murdered by gunshot, their restaurant destroyed by a bomb blast.
Unfortunately, the situation did not improve. “One of my brothers was abducted, and my sister was viciously attacked,” Dr. O’Reilly explains. Concerned that her children would be drawn into a life of vengeance, Carmel, now separated from her husband, applied for and received refugee status for her family in Canada.
Thus at the age of 16, Paul began a new life in North America — one step closer to Thomas Aquinas College, where he would come first as a student, then as a tutor, and most recently as the vice president for advancement.
From Canada to California
On Christmas Eve, just seven months after the family emigrated to Canada, Carmel was tragically killed in an automobile accident, orphaning Paul and his seven brothers and sisters. Heroically, their Uncle Ed and Aunt Dorothy, already the parents of four, agreed to adopt the eight devastated children. “Their principal concern then, as it is now, is that all of us would be one loving family, brought up in the Catholic faith,” says Dr. O’Reilly. To pay the bills, the newly expanded family undertook a succession of business opportunities, first opening a donut shop, then becoming loggers.
It was during this time that Paul developed an entrepreneurial spirit. “I was convinced I was going to make a name for myself in business,” he says, having been accepted into the University of British Columbia’s business program. His newly adopted mother, however, urged him to meet with a beloved family priest before enrolling. At Fr. Nielson’s recommendation, Paul agreed to pay a visit to Thomas Aquinas College in the spring of 1980.
“Within half a day of being on campus, I fell in love with the place,” he recalls, drawn by “the intellectual rigor of the classroom, the energy of the students, and just how careful and considerate the tutors were.” Over the course of his six-day visit, he completed an application, received an offer of admission, and formally declared his plans to enroll that fall.
College and Back
During his time as a student, Paul discovered that his avocation was not for business, but for philosophy. “My experience at the College helped me see the wisdom in the Catholic intellectual tradition,” he says. “It made me appreciate the fullness of the intellectual life as it is found in the Church.” The College also helped bring him to his vocation as the husband of classmate Peggy (Steichen ’84).
Within one year after graduation, the O’Reillys were married and living in Quebec, where Paul pursued graduate studies in philosophy at the Université Laval. He then taught for two years at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., before returning to Thomas Aquinas College as a member of the teaching faculty in 1989.
“It was delightful,” he says of that time. “I started to get to know tutors professionally. It was kind of humbling to be in their presence as a colleague, to see from the inside their dedication to the program and their devotion to the Church and the students. I was also impressed by the students that came, their devotion to the intellectual life, and their kindness to me as a rookie tutor.”
Indeed, it was his own devotion to his students for 22 years that gave Dr. O’Reilly a moment’s pause when, in 2011, President Michael F. McLean asked him to become the College’s vice president for development (now advancement). “Stepping away from the classroom has its difficulties,” he admits, even though, in keeping with College policy, he still teaches one class per semester. Yet leading the effort to make the College’s education affordable for the 70 percent of students who receive financial aid has its own rewards. “It is a real joy coming to know the College’s benefactors,” he observes. “They make everything we do here possible. They are so inspiring in their dedication to the good of the College and their desire to help.”
In this role Dr. O’Reilly draws strength and support from his wife, Peggy, and their 12 children. Recognizing how the College has touched their lives has only increased his desire to give back to his alma mater. “It is because I see the good of the College — what it has done in my life and in the life of my wife, my children, and all of the alumni — that I agreed to take on this position,” he says. “I am willing to do anything I can do to help the mission of the College.”