Rev. John E. Brooks had faith in God, in himself — and, in particular, in the institution he led for 24 groundbreaking years: the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. The college’s rigorous tradition of Jesuit education was already well-established when Brooks was appointed academic vice president and dean in 1968. But like many institutions in those days, Holy Cross wasn’t open to women, and wasn’t entirely welcoming of minorities.
Brooks not only opened the doors — he went out on the road in search of talented students. His journey led him to Clarence Thomas, the future Supreme Court justice, and Edward Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Known World,” among many others. Ascending to the college presidency in 1970, he quickly moved to admit women.
Like many educators, Brooks, who died last week at 88, leaves a tangible legacy in his students. And Thomas, in particular, has paid copious tribute to his great friend and mentor. But Brooks should also be remembered for his extraordinary ability to look beyond tradition, and beyond the strictures and prejudices of his day, in service of an essential truth: the transforming power of education.