When he was just a boy, long before he became a college president, one of the most definitive events of young James Maher’s life would occur. His 16-month-old sister, Kathleen, contracted cerebral palsy as a result of pneumonia.
Decades later, the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University, and the man who received the Leader of the Year award from Leadership Niagara on Friday, is still responding to life from the perspective of a person who loves someone with a disability.
His younger sister’s illness gave him an intimate view of how the world sometimes treats those who are differently capable or less fortunate than most.
“What shaped our family growing up was living with someone with a disability,” he said during a recent interview in his office at Niagara University. “You just learn to see life from a different perspective.”
The boy from Maywood, New Jersey, who is third generation Irish, grew up in a typical middle class family of five children.
His eyes turned toward the priesthood when his oldest brother, John, a Niagara University graduate, became a Vincentian priest. Spending time with his brother and the other Vincentians, he found a lifestyle that inspired and interested him. Within 10 years, he had taken his own Vincentian vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability.
He started his priestly duties as a campus minister at his college alma mater, St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York, where he worked his way up through the administrative ranks and along the way, made headlines in the New York papers when he and a group of other volunteers at a emergency food pantry, St. John’s Bread and Life Program, ran in the New York City Marathon to bring attention to the mission and hunger in the city.
He stayed at St. John’s University until he took the top position at Niagara University six years ago.
A wall in his NU office showcases his 11 marathon medals and some other family mementos, including his great grandparents immigration papers, written in Gaelic, from their arrival in America from Tipperary, Ireland.
When Maher took the job at Niagara University, he was actually returning to serve the Niagara region for a second time.
He had worked for a year at the Catholic Worker House in Niagara Falls, a soup kitchen and shelter that no longer exists, when he was about 22 years old. The city left an impression.
“There’s something about the people of Western New York that’s just incredibly warm and receptive and refreshing,” he said. “Whenever it’s time to leave here, that will be the toughest part to leave. People look you in the eye, they say hello to you, they have time for you.”
While Maher credits his predecessor, Rev. Joseph Levesque, C.M., for many university projects that share resources and energy with the City of Niagara Falls, he knows there is much more to be done.
“We want our campus community to be all over Niagara Falls in terms of service and engagement but we also want the citizens of Niagara Falls to feel the campus is their home, a place where they are welcome and they can come and there is activity and support,” he said.
Under his leadership, programs that fortify the city of Niagara Falls have become further entwined with the university’s mission. From the business incubator currently being built on Niagara Street by NU’s Niagara Global Tourism Institute, to the student nurses who train at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, to the Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement’s South End Initiative impacting a city neighborhood in the South End with housing improvements, neighborhood cleanups and early childhood education.
Another initiative Maher has begun is the Center for Race Equality and Mission which he hopes will bring people together inside and outside the campus, partnering with local agencies, churches and schools to create young leaders familiar with others’ perspectives.
Maher has also been praised for his efforts to expand the university’s global relationships, most recently with a hospitality and tourism student exchange program with Vietnam.
“Niagara continues to be a leader in higher education throughout our region, but under Father Maher’s guidance, the university has embraced its binational location and is developing NU into an institution that is making a global impact.” said Dottie Gallagher, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
While Maher spent 23 years at St. John’s in New York and is a board member for another Vincentian college, DePaul University in Chicago, he feels that Niagara University has the greatest potential to help create change in the community that surrounds its campus.
“The unique opportunity we have is an opportunity to impact the City of Niagara Falls and the region in terms of economics, social and educational development and that’s what really excites me,” Maher said.
While the priest never knows when the call will come from his superiors to serve another community, he is already aware of the legacy he’d like to leave and hopes others will consider their own impact on the city.
“Could all of us say at some point when we left Niagara Falls, it was a much better place than when we came,” he asked.
If change comes, he said, “It’s going to take all of us together.”
Leadership Niagara’s luncheon on Friday honored Maher and several other community leaders.
The selection process was not easy, according to Liz Zulawski, president of Leadership Niagara.
“The level of leadership in the Niagara community continues to grow, making the challenge to select the winner in each category greater every year,” Zulawski said. “Congratulations to Father Maher and the rest of this year’s honorees who are recognized for outstanding leadership, distinguished contributions, and dedication to improving the quality of life in our community.”
In addition to Maher, this year’s honorees include: Lifetime Achievement, Kenneth Sass, Leadership Niagara Class of ‘97, Pinnacle Community Services (Ret.); Organization of the Year, Niagara Falls Boys and Girls Club; Distinguished Alumni, Bonnie Kane, Ph.D., LN ‘17, Niagara Falls City School District; Emerging Leader, Alicia Laible-Kenyon, Elderwood Health Plan (Niagara Advantage); and Youth Leader, Ethan Menges, LYNC ‘19, Lockport High School.