By Tracey Primrose
January 16, 2015 — In the early 1980s, Francis T. (Fay) Vincent, then chairman of Columbia Pictures, was seated next to Fr. George Hunt, SJ, then editor-in-chief of the Jesuits’ America magazine, at a fundraising dinner at Manhattan’s Waldorf Hotel. Although the men had never met before that night, they began an enduring friendship, one that ended far too early with Fr. Hunt’s death from cancer in 2011 at the age of 74. Now, Vincent has found a way to honor his old friend by funding the George W. Hunt, SJ Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Arts & Letters.
Administered by America magazine and The Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University, the $25,000 prize seeks to recognize the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination in a variety of genres, including journalism, fiction, poetry, drama, music, memoir, biography, history, art criticism and academic scholarship.
Vincent and America’s current editor-in-chief, Father Matt Malone, SJ, worked closely to create a fitting way to memorialize the life and work of Fr. Hunt, who served at America from 1981 to 1998. “It’s a meaningful way to honor George,” said Vincent. “The intellectual dimension of this award is very broad-based, so it will come down in any area that George had an appreciable interest, and he had an interest in just about everything — except maybe gardening.”
While not a gardener, Fr. Hunt was a multi-faceted writer, editor and scholar. A native of Yonkers, New York, he earned a theology degree from Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. in literature from Syracuse University. The longest-serving editor-in-chief in America’s 106-year history, he joined the publication’s staff as its literary editor, a position he loved because it allowed him to “read more widely and deeply.”
Read he did. Fr. Hunt would devour three books a week, and every month he would pass on at least five of his favorites to his friend Fay. “He would walk for miles in New York City, and he would go into these old bookstores and he would see a book for $1 that was about Napoleon’s march on Russia, and he’d buy it and then send it to me.”
The friends, who talked several times each week, enjoyed discussing American history, military history, Jesuit history and American musical standards. “He was such a wonderful intellectual and academic. He could talk about anything, and he knew so much and read so much,” Vincent remembered.
Fr. Hunt and Fay Vincent shared more than a love of reading. Vincent earned his law degree from Yale, and while he and George Hunt did not overlap as students, they both had a special affection for the university. A longtime board member of Yale University’s Catholic Chapel & Center, Vincent said, “There is an enormous Catholic presence at Yale, and George loved Yale. I think it’s wonderful to link the Jesuits of America magazine with the Yale Catholic Center, and that’s one of the objectives of this gift.”
George Hunt and Fay Vincent also shared a love for the Society of Jesus, although Vincent’s desire to become a Jesuit himself was derailed by a devastating injury he sustained as a college freshman in 1956. Because of a college prank gone wrong, he fell four stories from his dorm room at Williams College and broke his back; the accident left him with lifelong physical limitations. When he applied to the Jesuits in the late 1950s, he was told that priests needed to be able to genuflect, and because he couldn’t do that, he was turned down by the Society of Jesus. Much has changed in the half century since Vincent submitted his application, and such a disability would no longer affect a man’s prospects of entering the Jesuits.
While his injury was life changing, it didn’t hold Vincent back. The former president and chief executive officer of Columbia Pictures, Vincent also served as president and CEO of Coca-Cola’s Entertainment Business Sector and later as executive vice president of the company. From 1989 through 1992, he served as Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
And always, he stayed close to the Jesuits. He is a former trustee at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he created the need-based Alice Lynch Vincent Scholarship Fund in memory of his mother, and a former board member of America magazine.
In a piece he wrote for America after Fr. Hunt’s death, Vincent said, “When cancer hit, George knew it was serious. The last time we spoke he told me the pain kept him from reading as well as from sleeping. To George the inability to read was a form of death and so his demurrer when I asked if I could send him a new book I knew he would have enjoyed was his way of telling me the end was coming. Yet the news of a death of a friend almost always comes with a jolt and so it was when news came he had died. There are no words but we try anyway. There is only the Hope of the faith and the Love we shared. Pax Vobiscum old friend.”
The George W. Hunt, S.J. Prize will be awarded to a single individual in recognition of his or her literary work. The recipient’s work should demonstrate those literary qualities that Fr. Hunt valued most: rigor, order and discipline of thought, as well as honesty, sympathy and optimism. The recipient’s creativity, style, prose and analysis should also demonstrate originality, intelligence, imagination, elegance and the promise of further achievement. The quality of the works is more important than the quantity of works published. Nominations for the prize will open on Fr. Hunt’s birthday, January 22nd. For more information, visit http://americamagazine.org/huntprize.