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John E. Brooks, 88; led Holy Cross for 24 years and diversified the college

Father Brooks studied physics as an undergraduate.

The Boston Globe

Father Brooks studied physics as an undergraduate.

Three years ago, reflecting on his record tenure as head of the College of the Holy Cross, the Rev. John E. Brooks mused that he was never alone on the journey.

“God is always at work in our lives,” he said in an interview for the New England Jesuit Oral History Program. “There is no way I could have survived 24 years as president of Holy Cross without God’s presence every day.”

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During groundbreaking years of leadership, Father Brooks personally recruited more black students, admitted women to Holy Cross for the first time when he was president, and decided the Worcester college would not join the Big East Conference.

“He had complete clarity when it came to what was right or wrong, and complete determination,” said Bob Cousy, the former Celtics star and a Holy Cross graduate who was a longtime friend. “I don’t know in my lifetime anyone from the Holy Cross family who has had a greater impact or a longer lasting legacy.”

Father Brooks, a Jesuit who reinvigorated the college academically and financially and kept teaching at the school until the end of his life, died Monday in UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester of complications from lymphoma. He was 88.

Though a towering figure in the college’s history, Father Brooks brought personal warmth to encounters with ­everyone, from the powerful to those who kept corridors clean.

“Despite being an academician, he was everyman as well. He was comfortable in any setting,” Cousy said.

“When I traveled with him to any Holy Cross event he was like a rock star,” said Kevin Condron, who chairs the college’s board of trustees and is chief executive of the Granite Group in Worcester. “People just gravitated to him. People wanted to be near him. People wanted to talk to him. He had a winning way with the most important people and the least important people.”

The Rev. Philip Boroughs, a Jesuit who is the current Holy Cross president, said Father Brooks, who stepped down as president in 1994, had an extraordinary impact.

“Not only did he help strengthen Holy Cross financially to ensure its future, he was instrumental in leading Holy Cross to becoming one of the country’s top liberal arts institutions,” Boroughs said. “We will always remember his profound faith and intellectual curiosity, his fierce commitment to social justice and Jesuit education, and his deep and abiding love of this college.”

In 1968, the year Father Brooks was appointed academic vice president and dean, he decided after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to recruit more black students, bringing to Holy Cross men such as Clarence Thomas, who became a US Supreme Court justice, Edward P. Jones, who was awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Theodore V. Wells, now an attorney at the Paul Weiss firm in New York City.

“He really is the wellspring from which the college’s present diversity originates,” Wells said, adding that the admiration students held for Father Brooks was not limited to any group.

“He was a great person and people loved him,” Wells said. “Black students loved him, white students loved him. Men loved him, women loved him. He had a loving character, and it radiated.”

Jane Sullivan Roberts, a partner in the Major, Lindsey & Africa legal recruiting firm, was part of the class of 300 women admitted to Holy Cross in 1972.

“It was a brave thing to do and the right thing to do and a farsighted thing to do,” Roberts, who is married to US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, said of Father Brooks’s decisions to admit women that year and to recruit more minority students. “What those activities did was to inspire the student body to believe in the strength of diversity and even more broadly in social justice — to believe in it and to act on it.”

Bloomberg Businessweek senior editor Diane Brady’s book “Fraternity,” published this year, looks at the college years and careers of five of the black students Father Brooks brought to Holy Cross.

In an e-mail, Brady said she “loved his curiosity and enthusiasm — for ideas, for people, and for the fun parts of life. This was a man who liked to drive fast, enjoy a good debate, and learn new things.”

The oldest of four children, Father Brooks was born in Dorchester and grew up in West Roxbury. His mother took care of the children and his father was a plant superintendent for New England Telephone.

Father Brooks graduated from Boston Latin School in 1942 and went to Holy Cross, leaving after a semester to serve in the Army in Europe during World War II.

He returned to graduate from Holy Cross, where he majored in physics, and he was a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University when he began considering becoming a Jesuit.

“I had not spent time at Holy Cross addressing the idea,” he recalled in the oral history, “but it now seemed to consume me.”

After entering the New England Province in 1950, he graduated from Boston College in 1954 with a master’s in philosophy and was ordained in 1959 by Cardinal Richard Cushing.

Father Brooks also graduated from BC with a master’s in geophysics, and in 1963 with a doctorate of sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, where he lived during the Second Vatican Council’s early years.

Father Brooks returned to teach at Holy Cross, where students recalled his academic rigor and how accessible he remained, even after becoming president in 1970.

“I think he took his school and made it better. He didn’t just continue what he inherited — he built,” said Chris Matthews, who hosts “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC and graduated from Holy Cross in 1967. “He was tough. He was no easy grader. I was struggling to make dean’s list, and he didn’t make it any easier.”

Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy graduated in 1975 from Holy Cross, where he was sports editor of the student newspaper and met every week with Father Brooks, who suggested columnists for the young writer to read.

“He was brilliant and he was gentle and he had time for you,” Shaughnessy said. “He was the president of the college, but you could always meet with him. What a smart, dignified, Christian presence he had.”

Father Brooks leaves two sisters, Mildred and Marion, both of Needham, and a brother, Paul of Manchester, N.H.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Monday in St. Joseph Memorial Chapel on the Holy Cross campus, followed by burial at the college.

“I have a much deeper understanding and gratitude towards God than I ever had in my younger days,” Father Brooks said at the end of the 2009 oral history interview, when he was 85.

“While in the past I undoubtedly took many of life’s gifts for granted, I’ve now reached a stage of life where I know more than I once did of the importance of the role God plays in my life,” he added. “I’ve had a very happy life in the Society of Jesus, for which I’m genuinely grateful.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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