The Rev. Thomas Chambers, C.S.C., who led a turnaround of Our Lady of Holy Cross College as its president for 16 years and continued his local ministry through the Willwoods Community and WLAE-TV, died Tuesday. He was 83.
Chambers died at a nursing facility run by the Congregation of Holy Cross at the University of Notre Dame, where he had relocated last fall, according to Ron Yager, general manager of WLAE and chief operating officer of Willwoods Community. Chambers had served as president of Willwoods, which co-owns WLAE with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, since 2003.
“He was a wonderful man, truly one of the kindest men I ever met,” Yager said Wednesday. “He was a man for others who loved others and loved being a priest and loved serving the Lord in many different ways through his ministry.”
Chambers joined the nonprofit’s leadership team after 16 years as president of Our Lady of Holy Cross College, the Algiers institution which in 2016 was renamed the University of Holy Cross.
According to a 2003 Times-Picayune article marking his retirement, when Chambers came to Holy Cross in 1987, the school of just 615 students was more than $1 million in debt. When he retired, the institution had a $9 million endowment and enrollment near 1,400.
One of his first priorities when he joined the college was to secure lower interest rates on the school’s existing debt and lead a strong fundraising effort. With the metro New Orleans economy in a slump at the time, Chambers looked to out of state donors and was able to successful balance the college’s budget without increasing tuition. He was also able to provide full salaries and benefits for the Marianite nuns who had worked for small stipends at the college, which was first established by their religious order in 1916 in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. It has been located in Algiers since 1947.
"Father Chambers is doing for Holy Cross what Lee Iaccoca did for Chrysler," said Irwin Gitz in a 1989 article. Gitz was at the time a member of the college's board of regents.
As president, Chambers also set out to attract more students, establish endowed scholarship funds and raise money for capital improvements, including an expanded library. His leadership also served to enhance the school’s educational offerings, including its well-regarded nursing program.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional counselor, Chambers was well-liked by students and faculty. Friends said his calming presence also had an impact on the community, with his door often open and students and instructors encouraged to stop in to talk.
Chambers served on the boards of many nonprofit and educational institutions here and across the country and also lent his support to community groups such as Jefferson Dollars for Scholars, United Way and the West Bank Area Council of the New Orleans Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Prior to his appointment in New Orleans, he was Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Ursuline College of Cleveland, Ohio for 11 years. Born in Cleveland, he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Notre Dame and earned advanced degrees from Holy Cross College in Washington, D.C. and Harvard University. He had also served as vice president for student affairs at the University of Notre Dame.
After stepping down at Our Lady of Holy Cross, he became president of WLAE-TV and LAE Productions in 2007. The station was founded by Archbishop Philip Hannan and observers said Chambers shared Hannan’s passion for the television station’s mission as a public broadcaster with a religious and inspirational mission.
“Anything we ever needed, we were bound to get it,” Yager said. “Particularly after Hurricane Katrina, when the needs were greater, he worked to help get our station up and running, taking care of the financial and insurance needs that came with that.”
In addition to WLAE, Willwoods, which was founded in 1978, also oversees counseling programs for married couples and offers senior housing and affordable housing programs.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Jan. 12 at St. Stephen Catholic Church, 1025 Napoleon Ave. Funeral services are also planned in South Bend, Indiana.
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