John Lechleiter: A Debt of Gratitude

Some say that Xavier’s newest fundraising campaign really began on a fall evening in October 2014 when nearly 50 alumni and supporters gathered for dinner at the Indianapolis home of John C. Lechleiter and his wife, Sarah.

Xavier President Michael Graham, S.J., was there, too, and he had a message for those gathered.

“It was fairly low key, but during the dinner, Father discussed the facets of the current campaign, and we were pleased we had so many friends and alums who were able to attend,” Lechleiter says.

True to his values, Lechleiter was “all in” when it came to helping Xavier secure its future. And so were a good many of their colleagues in attendance. Their combined support since that dinner helped provide the solid foundation that, three years later, led to the public launch of Together. For Others. The Campaign for Xavier University in September at the Cintas Center.

“He stood up at the dinner and said, ‘I love Xavier. I support Xavier. Xavier’s been a big part of my life, and I’d like you to support Xavier as well,’” recalls former classmate Greg Theisen.

The Lechleiters are supporting Xavier's campaign with a million dollar gift to the Center for Catholic Education in honor of Gary Massa, Xavier’s vice president for University Relations, and his wife, Mary.

Lechleiter's support for Xavier, however, began long before the launch of the $250 million Together. For Others campaign. It actually started a couple of years after he graduated with a chemistry degree in 1975 when Thiesen asked him to help with a volunteer calling campaign in Indianapolis. As Thiesen and Lechleiter remember it, they enjoyed pizza and beer as they made their calls.

 I’ve supported Xavier because I believe my Xavier education had everything to do with whatever success I’ve had in life and professionally. It’s in a way a debt of gratitude to the institution.

Said Theisen, now a major gifts officer at Xavier: “He’s been raising money for Xavier ever since he graduated.”

He’s also served on the Board of Trustees for 10 years and was awarded the Gallagher Leadership Medallion, Xavier's highest honor, last year and the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011. And he and Sarah, who graduated from Edgecliff College in 1976, are longtime members of the 1831 Society.

Lechleiter explains that his love for Xavier is rooted in the Jesuit education he received while earning his chemistry degree. It gave him the academic foundation to pursue a career as a chemist, earning master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard and a job as a senior organic chemist with Eli Lilly in Indianapolis in 1979.

It’s where he started his career, and it’s where he ended it with his retirement last December as president and chief executive officer after 37 years with the company. But he emphasizes his Xavier education was about more than excellent academics.

“It was all about the Jesuit education for me, the focus on critical thinking, and the liberal arts classes were just as important for preparing me for my professional life and the rest of life,” he says. “It really challenged us back then to think outside of ourselves, to see the larger world around us, and to really think critically about what we can and should do to make the world a better place.”

Lechleiter, who attended St. Xavier High School in Louisville, and Sarah share their passion for Catholic education with Gary and Mary Massa, whose efforts on behalf of Catholic education inspired the Lechleiters' gift to Xavier’s Center for Catholic Education.

“The origin of our gift was to honor Gary and Mary Massa for contributions they have made to Xavier,” Lechleiter says. “Together with Gary and Mary, we agreed that the right direction for the gift we are making in their honor would be to support the efforts of the Center for Catholic Education, to ensure we’ve got the best teachers in our Catholic schools and ensure we have a strong network of Catholic schools.” 

The center provides professional development and continuing education at a reduced cost for Catholic teachers in the Cincinnati area. Massa says the gift will allow the center to do more of what it already does externally to benefit Catholic teaching with the possible hiring of a full-time director. But it will also expand its presence on campus in partnership with the Center for Faith and Justice, the Center for Mission and Identity, and the School of Education.

“It’s an incredible honor and humbling privilege and an unbelievable responsibility to do something we all believe in,” Massa says. “This will broaden the center’s reach, and we hope our students will be involved with teaching and growing their faith on campus.”

Supporting the center is also a way for John and Sarah to show their gratitude for their Xavier education.

“I’ve supported Xavier because I believe my Xavier education had everything to do with whatever success I’ve had in life and professionally. It’s in a way a debt of gratitude to the institution,” he says. “To further assure Xavier continues to thrive and maintain its important mission in the years ahead, we have to work together to contribute what we can, each of us, to help ensure that future.”

John Lechleiter, center, receiving the Leadership Medallion last year.

More important than his individual gift, however, is the campaign’s emphasis on increasing the University’s endowment. The campaign goal of raising $100 million for the endowment, now at $169 million, would bring it close to $300 million. But Lechleiter says increasing it to the $500 million to $1 billion range would be ideal and would help ensure a strong position for Xavier in the increasingly competitive field of higher education.

“We are beginning a campaign at the beginning of this century, and the endowment is an important part of securing that future,” he says. “It gets you the flexibility to have that important alternative source of revenue that’s not dependent on enrollment or tuition increases.”

He also believes the universities that succeed in the future are those that establish a clear identity and provide a unique value for students. For Xavier, he says, that unique identity is its Jesuit heritage.

“I think Xavier has a distinct advantage in being a Jesuit institution," he says. "That Jesuit identity and brand is already unique and powerful. I believe that Xavier must also seek to build on its strengths with its academic programs and to offer students an opportunity to understand and experience the underlying nature of a Jesuit education and the values that the Jesuits teach and convey.”

Which brings him back to his dinner and why he appealed to others with similar capacities for giving to put Xavier at the top of their list during the Together. For Others campaign. 

“It reminds us that we once benefited from the generosity of others who provided for our education, and it’s time for us to think about those who will be entering and matriculating from Xavier in the years ahead,” he says. “We love the campaign theme, and it should prompt all of us who have a history at Xavier to think hard about why it is we did benefit from that institution and what it has to offer.”

Visit Together. For Others to learn more about the campaign or make a donation.