Kevin Mullen presents a statue of St. Francis of Assisi to Dennis DePerro at his 2017 inauguration as president. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

St. Bonaventure President Dennis DePerro Dies of COVID-19

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Dr. Dennis DePerro, the 21st president of St. Bonaventure University, died on March 1 of complications from COVID-19. He was 62 years old.

DePerro was admitted to Crouse Hospital in Syracuse on Dec. 29 after testing positive for the coronavirus on Christmas Eve. He had remained hospitalized since then and was on a ventilator since mid-January until his death.

Dennis DePerro, the 21st president of St. Bonaventure University. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

The Buffalo native had led the 163-year-old Franciscan university since June 2017 and was known for his leadership skills, friendly personality, and Franciscan spirit.

St. Bonaventure is planning a virtual Memorial Mass for DePerro to be held at a yet-to-be-determined date in April. The university flag is flying at half-staff in his honor through the month of March.

Messages of respect and grief from the extended SBU community and beyond circulated from the moment the news of DePerro’s death was announced on that Monday morning.

“Words simply can’t convey the level of devastation our campus community feels right now,” said Dr. Joseph Zimmer, provost and vice president for academic affairs, who was named SBU’s acting president in January. “I know when people die it’s become cliché to say things like, ‘He was a great leader, but an even better human being,’ and yet, that’s the absolute truth with Dennis. We are heartbroken.”

Added Zimmer, “In close to four years with us, Dr. DePerro led the university toward the accomplishment of its strategic plan, and he did so in a joyful, Franciscan, collegial and convivial spirit.”

John Sheehan, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, was on the board when DePerro was unanimously chosen by the trustees in November 2016 after an eight-month search process.

I know we believed when we hired Dennis that we made the right choice, but there’s no question he exceeded our wildest expectations. To see the position he’s put us in, through his collaborative nature with trustees, administrators, faculty, and students, will forever be a testament to his remarkable leadership,” Sheehan said.

“His humanity, insight, and ability to listen to all sides – and his sense of humor – made him a great leader,” said Tom Missel, SBU’s chief communications officer. “What I’ll miss more than anything was his uncanny ability to make you feel better even on your worst days.”

Messages of Grief and Gratitude
In a letter to the friars of Holy Name Province, Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, described DePerro as a good friend and recalled the first time he had met him. “We met during his interviews with Bonaventure’s search committee when he was a candidate for the office of president,” Kevin said.

“Dennis impressed me with his strong ties to South Buffalo and his love for the Franciscan tradition, which he learned as a graduate of Timon High School. After a distinguished career in higher education at Le Moyne College, Dennis was well prepared to become the president of St. Bonaventure University,” Kevin continued.

“The Bonaventure community is in mourning for their leader, their friend, and truly – their Franciscan brother. Please join me in praying for the Lord’s healing grace to touch the Bonaventure community. Please also pray for Dennis’s wife, Sherry, and for their sons, Andrew and Matthew,” the Provincial Minister said in the letter.

“They, like all families during the pandemic, were not able to extend their comfort, love, and care to Dennis in a physical manner, but they were with him every step of the way making sure that their love was communicated to him every day,” Kevin said, adding, “May the Lord who transforms our lives into the fullness of life – transform their grief and enable them to know and experience God’s love for them and for Dennis.”

Obituaries and articles published about DePerro conveyed the love he had for family and the respect generated for him by the communities with which he was involved. They were published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, describing DePerro’s death as “an incredible loss;” in the Buffalo News, and other media outlets. Messages were posted on the website of the Thomas Pirro Funeral Home.

During the week of March 1, hundreds of tributes from education, government, and religious leaders poured into St. Bonaventure – among them Siena College, also sponsored by Holy Name Province, whose president, Chris Gibson, said: “The relationship between Siena College and St. Bonaventure University is a strong one, steeped in our shared Franciscan mission and traditions. As the Bonaventure community mourns the loss of their beloved president, we stand with them in their time of sorrow.

“We respected Dr. DePerro for his inspirational vision to carefully examine issues critical to higher education, and his fervent commitment to delivering a transformational college experience for all Bonaventure students,” said Gibson, noting that Siena has also lowered its flag to half-staff. “We are grateful for his mentorship and guidance. He knew well, and passionately embraced, the Franciscan ethos. Our prayers and hearts are with the DePerro family and with the extended Bonaventure family.”

Daniel Horan, OFM, a member of the SBU Board of Trustees since 2017, said that March 1 was one of the saddest days in St. Bonaventure University history. “We lost one of SBU’s greatest presidents, a Franciscan-hearted leader, a great person, and loving husband and father,” said Dan, who graduated from St. Bonaventure in 2005. “It was an honor to work with him as a trustee and to get to know him as a friend. I am heartbroken.”

A Mass of Christian burial was celebrated at 10 a.m. on March 6 at the Church of the Most Holy Rosary in Syracuse. At the liturgy, the pastor told the congregation that “this is a celebration of faith, family and friendship.”

DePerro’s life and personality were described by his brother, Richard, and by people in the pews who were welcomed to share reflections and recollections of their friend, colleague, and relative. At the close of the Mass, the friars gathered around the casket and sang “The Ultima,” a chant traditionally reserved for their deceased brothers.

Legacy of Accomplishments
DePerro assumed the presidency at Bonaventure on June 1, 2017, and in a less than four-year span he oversaw the university’s three largest incoming freshman classes in the last 11 years. He implemented new enrollment and marketing strategies and championed new academic program development.

According to an SBU news release, DePerro made great progress with reducing divisions, encouraging collaboration, and opening the lines of communication with faculty, students, staff, and alumni.

He launched a capital campaign to build “A Bolder Bonaventure,” stewarding transformative gifts to help the university’s new School of Health Professions become a reality. Early in his presidency, his vision to transform the university inspired him to form several campus-based presidential commissions to examine critical issues, including a group devoted solely to mission integration and reflection in passionate commitment to create a transformational experience for students rooted in the university’s Franciscan tradition.

In 2019, under his leadership, SBU hired a vice president for mission integration. In 2020, DePerro reconstituted SBU’s Presidential Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, aimed at improving DEI efforts across the campus.

DePerro had served since 2019 as a member of the Mt. Irenaeus Board of Trustees, the only SBU president to serve in that role.

“As we partner with the St. Bonaventure community, we partner in the Franciscan mission that Dennis was deeply committed to,” the friars from the Mountain said in a March 1 email. “We all remain committed to taking his lead to continue the growth of this mission through the Bona community and the world.”

Prior to his appointment as SBU’s 21st president, De Perro served as vice president for enrollment management at Le Moyne College in Syracuse for 18 years. He also served as the inaugural dean of the Purcell School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Le Moyne. His work at Le Moyne in developing health care programs helped guide efforts to bolster SBU’s new School of Health Professions. He also served as a professor of management in the Madden School of Business at the Syracuse-based college.

A graduate of Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School in South Buffalo, DePerro spent his entire 39-year career in college administration. From 1982 to 1990, he served in admissions and alumni relations at his alma mater Canisius College in Buffalo, and for five years (1990-1995) he served as dean of admission and financial aid at Marietta College in Ohio before going to Le Moyne in 1995. He held a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

DePerro is survived by his wife, Sherry, sons Andrew and Matthew, a sister, two brothers, and several nieces and nephews.

The DePerro family encourages donations to be made to the Dr. Dennis R. DePerro Memorial Scholarship at St. Bonaventure University.

Dennis DePerro was the second SBU president to die while in office. The other was Joseph Butler, OFM, the university’s eighth president who served from 1887 to 1911, nearly a quarter of a century. Only Thomas Plassmann, OFM,  who was known as a giant in American Catholic education, according to Kevin, served longer.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province and a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.