President of Jesuit High School battles ALS

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 12:21 AM

Updated Saturday, May 10 at 5:12 AM

Natalie Shepherd / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @NewsNatalie

In Father Raymond Fitzgerald’s line of work, a sense of humor is important. He serves as president of Jesuit High School, and spends his days surrounded by 1,400 teenage boys.

“I think a sense of humor really helps one get through any number of things,” Fitzgerald said with a laugh.

It’s clear students understand and connect with quiet priest’s personality. During lunch hour at Jesuit, Father Fitzgerald, 55, can often be found surrounded by students in the schools courtyard or commons area.

“He’s one of the most humble and wise men I know, but he has an awesome sense of humor. Extremely dry, but I get it. I love that,” said Jesuit senior, Christopher Wilson.

It’s no surprise that Fitzgerald turned to that sense of humor earlier this year to make a tough announcement to the school community. On Wednesday,  Jan. 15, he told the students, faculty and staff that he has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS.

But he told them ALS won’t define their relationship going forward.

“There are a variety of other interesting and instructive items that we can chat about, including New Orleans restaurants, the care and feeding of zombies, and Greek verbs, to name a few,” he said.

The comment got a laugh from the crowd, but Fitzgerald knows how serious his illness is. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a terminal neuro-muscular disease. Fitzgerald received an initial diagnosis in June 2013, and it was confirmed in October. He has already noticed weakening muscles and changes in his speech.

“I certainly can say I’ve noticed deterioration, say, from 6 months ago,” he said.

For that reason, Fitzgerald plans on stepping down from his role as president at Jesuit at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

“One of the many great blessings of my life has been the opportunity to spend time with some extraordinarily good young men here,” he said.

Fitzgerald has been part of the Jesuit community for decades. He graduated from the school with the class of 1976. He returned to Jesuit in 1991, and spent the next 12 years teaching a variety of subjects, including latin, greek, english and theology. He left in 2003 when the church sent him on other assignments, but came back to Jesuit once again in 2011, to take on the role of president.

“You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to do on any given day. You can keep busy on that,” he said.

Fitzgerald plans on keeping busy. He plans to remain at the school in some capacity, both as a tutor and doing campus ministry.

“As long as I’m physically able to take care of myself,” he said. “Up until the point when something like speech starts to go.”

Fitzgerald is currently working with therapists at LSU’s ALS clinic, and he said the disease has not progressed particularly fast in his case.

“It varies from person to person, and it varies wildly,” he explained.

Fitzgerald has gotten well-wishes from dozens of alumni in New Orleans, and around the globe,  in Germany, Great Britain, China and Japan. He is not shying away from discussing ALS, and also sees it as a teaching opportunity for his students.

“I’ve never been more proud in seeing the combination of maturity, of understanding, of compassion, of faith,” he said.

Mat Grau serves as Alumni Director at Jesuit and has known Fitzgerald for nearly 40 years. He called Fitzgerald a visionary.

“I said, this guy is giong to be a model for all of us, but especially for our students,” Grau explained.

“What a great life lesson that we can talk about this. We can laugh about it. We can cry about it together.”

Fitzgerald has called on students, asking them for their prayers, and their strength.

“God never fails to give us His love and His grace,” he said. “You have the strength and the energy I will increasingly lack.”Wilson said students have responded to that, and at the grace with which Father Fitzgerald is facing ALS.

“When you ask Father Fitzgerald how he’s doing, he always responds in the same way,” Wilson said. “He says, ‘Better than I deserve.’ And even with this, you can tell he took that same, humble approach.

While Fitzgerald has gotten a lot of support from the school community, he is also inspired by the work of former New Orleans Saint, Steve Gleason. Gleason also suffers from ALS, and has done a lot to raise money and awareness about the disease.

“On the day we went public, I got an email from him,” he said. “He pointed out, I’m writing this with my eyes.”

That gave Fitzgerald hope. There may not be a cure for ALS yet, but he expects technology will help him as the disease progresses.

“What you want to do it communicate,” he said. “Speech is a tool in that, but there are plenty of other tools.”

He may not be able to rely on his body, but his mind and his spirit will keep him going.