The Rev. George W. Hunt, S.J., editor in chief of America magazine from 1984-1998 died this morning at the Fordham University Jesuit community in New York, after a short bout with cancer, at the age of 74. After his time at America, George ran the Archbishop Hughes Institute on Religion and Culture at Fordham. I’ll leave it to others to remark on his life before his editorship as well as the wide variety of issues covered by the magazine under his stewardship, but let me offer a brief personal reflection.
George was the first editor I worked with at America, during my time here as a young Jesuit “regent” in 1995. After two years working in East Africa, I was sent by my Jesuit superiors to the magazine for my final year of regency, or full-time work before theology studies. I could barely believe my good luck—a job at America seemed like a dream come true.
George Hunt couldn’t have been more welcoming. Charming, erudite, articulate, polite and always a gentleman, he made a young Jesuit feel that he had just as much of a “voice” around the editorial table as someone who had been there for 30 years (as indeed some of the senior editors had). George had a charmingly laid-back style both in the office and around the table of our weekly "ed" meetings. The issues of the day would be discussed in a gentlemanly fashion (there were as yet no women on the board), carefully weighed and sometimes playfully commented on. Someone would propose and editorial topic, and George would consider it and then say, peering over his brown half-glasses, “Oh, very good. Yes, why don't you write something up?” At the same time, he made it a point to visit the magazine's business offices, one flight downstairs, at least once a week, to make sure all was going well with all of our staff and, sometimes, to trade baseball news.
Each editor has put his stamp on America. Each has given the magazine a certain tone. Under George, I would say that the magazine was rather “literary.” During his tenure, we featured, for example, long essays on Catholic authors, and occasional interviews with them as well. None of this was surprising to those who knew the editor in chief. George was a literary type himself (and one-time literary editor), having written scholarly books on the writers John Cheever and John Updike. (Here is his 2009 review of a Cheever biography, one of the last things he wrote for us.) In fact, I used to think of those three as sharing something in common, in terms of their writing styles: clear sentences under a masterful command of English grammar and vocabulary. Graceful. Elegant. Measured. His “Of Many Things” columns, which he always wrote longhand on a yellow pad, as he sat on a recliner in his room, were always good, and frequently the most popular part of the magazine. Often they would comment on an enjoyable book he had just read--another indication of his lifelong love of words. (Here is one of his many "OMTs.") And when we honored John Updike with the Campion Award in 1998, George invited me down from theology studies in Boston to meet his old friend.
He was also consistently encouraging to me as a writer, carefully editing my pieces, offering polite advice and urging me to write a regular column that we would call “TV, Etc.” It delighted me that George seemed enthusiastic about shows that he had never heard of. “Oh, very good,” he said one day after reading one early piece. “The X-Files, huh?” And when I started to write books, he invariably cheered me on. “Oh, oh, wonderful!” he said, peering through his half-glasses, when I handed him a copy of my first book.
At one point during my first stint at America, George said that he would like to show me some of the “Jesuit sites” in New York. So one Saturday in the Fall of 1995, we piled into the community car and took a leisurely ride up to the Culinary Institute of America, in Poughkeepsie, formerly St. Andrew-on-Hudson, the New York Province novitiate. George was an excellent tour guide (not surprisingly, since he had “made” his novitiate there) and we spent several hours wandering around the halls of the massive building, as he pointed out the floors he polished and the places he prayed. At the end of our time, we visited the graveyard of many Jesuits who he had known, and, also, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., who is buried, improbably, behind a cooking school.
Toward the end of the day, we drove to Phoenix House, formerly the “philosophate” for young Jesuits. Officially known as "Loyola Seminary," it is invariably referred by Jesuits as “Shrub Oak,” after the nearby town. By that time, it was (and still is) a residential program for adult and adolescent drug users; and the brick complex was as forebodingly sterile as George said it was back in the day. When we presented ourselves to the woman at the front desk, George smiled and said, “I used to live here.”
The cleary unfazed woman said, “Oh really? You were a patient?”
George roared. “Yes, yes,” he said, “something like that!”
A few days ago, knowing that he was very ill, I wrote him a note thanking him for the many kindnesses he showed me over the years. I doubt that he received it; but that doesn’t matter. George Hunt is now, we pray, united with the Lord he served in life, and in letters, for much of his life. We will miss him.
James Martin, S.J.