Father Hunt, America editor-in-chief from 1984 to 1998, dead at 74

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Jesuit Father George W. Hunt, whose 14-year tenure as editor-in-chief of America made him the longest-serving editor in the magazine's more than 100-year history, died Feb. 25 of cancer at the Fordham University Jesuit community in New York. He was 74.

His funeral Mass was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. March 1 in the University Church on the Rosehill campus of Fordham University.

After stepping down as America's editor-in-chief in 1998, Father Hunt served until his death as director of the Archbishop Hughes Institute on Religion and Culture at Fordham. According to its website, the institute is devoted to "exploring the relationships between religion and other aspects of contemporary life."

Father Hunt joined the America staff as literary editor in 1981 and was editor-in-chief from 1984 to 1998.

"Each editor has put his stamp on America," wrote Jesuit Father Jim Martin in a blog about Father Hunt's death on the magazine's website. "Each has given the magazine a certain tone. Under George, I would say that the magazine was rather 'literary.' ... George was a literary type himself (and one-time literary editor), having written scholarly books on the writers John Cheever and John Updike."

In another blog post on the website, former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, a friend of Father Hunt's since the early 1980s, described the priest as "a man of remarkable talents and wide learning."

"Over the years, George demonstrated to me he knew more than just about anyone alive about football and baseball, jazz, the movies, modern fiction especially Cheever and Updike, the Civil War, political history, Winston Churchill, Irish history, Tammany Hall and Mayor Tweed, military history especially WW2, and the list could go on and on," Vincent wrote.

Father Hunt read "at least three full books a week," but the pain of cancer caused him difficulty in both sleeping and reading, Vincent added. "To George the inability to read was a form of death and so his demurrer when I asked if I could send him a new book I knew he would have enjoyed was his way of telling me the end was coming."

When Father Hunt was asked to resign as America's editor-in-chief in April 1998 so a successor could implement a new communications strategy of the Jesuit provincials, the priest said "the decision arrived as a complete surprise to everyone."

Father Hunt wrote that the reasons given for requesting his resignation were the desire of the Jesuit Conference to implement a "new vision for communications" and "a different direction for the magazine."

"None of these reasons makes sense to me, so I will not attempt to explicate them," he wrote.

"By happy coincidence, last year was the most successful in America's long history, and this year looks as though it will be even better," he said. "Our renewal rate hovers at an exceptional 90 percent; the number of subscribers keeps growing at a heartening pace, and the quality of articles submitted and letters received continues to improve."

Father Hunt was among 16 Catholic journalists invited to attend Pope John Paul II's September 1987 meeting with leaders of the entertainment and communication industry in Los Angeles. He was nominated for the St. Francis de Sales Award, the Catholic Press Association's highest honor, in 1999.

Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese succeeded Father Hunt but resigned seven years later. Jesuit officials in Rome said at the time that his resignation followed complaints from the Vatican over several years about some of the magazine's content. Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen is the current editor.

Before joining the America staff, Father Hunt chaired the religious studies department at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Earlier he had taught at Brooklyn Preparatory School and at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J.

He is survived by two sisters, Clare O'Hare and Marilyn Schadt.