Aug 2021 - Senior Spotlight: Jack Balinsky ’67
Senior Spotlight: Jack Balinsky ’67
by John Hickey ’69
Fellow senior Jack Balinsky ’67, a high school and Notre Dame valedictorian, will retire this September first after fifty years of working with New York state’s Catholic Charities. Below is his Senior Spotlight interview with the Golden Domer.
John Hickey: Tell me something about your family growing up in Syracuse.
Jack Balinsky: I came from a typical middle-class family of four children. My father owned a tire store, and my mother was a home economics teacher. We moved to the suburbs when I was twelve and graduated from Fayetteville Manlius High School. I played on the school’s varsity basketball and golf teams, was the yearbook editor, and was involved in student government.
Why did you choose to go to Notre Dame?
Only the Holy Spirit knows. I had the opportunity narrow my decision to Williams College and Notre Dame. I chose ND because my Catholic faith was important to me.
Where did you live on campus?
I lived on the first floor of Farley Hall freshman year. Alan page lived next door. He was a big man and could stretch his arms and touch both walls in the hallway. One of my two roommates in Zahm sophomore year was Frank Yates ’67, an African American who became research scientist at the University of Michigan. I was appalled when some of the residents yelled racial slurs at our room. I returned to Farley for my last two years. In my junior and senior years, my roommates were Dave Calabria ’68, Tony Hooper ’68 from my high school, and Brian Walsh ’69.
How did you choose your major?
I started as a math major, and that lasted until spring semester sophomore year. Then, I went to my academic advisor and said I wanted to be a psychology major. “We don’t have a psychology department,” he said. “What’s the best department you have in liberal arts?” I asked. He said history, so that’s how I decided on my major.
Who were your most influential professors and mentors?
I took Professor Joe Evans’s introductory philosophy course, and we became friends through our mutual interest in Jacques Maritain. I took two classes from Fr. John Dunne, one of the University’s most renowned teachers. Prof. Phil Gleason was the advisor for my history thesis—“Catholic Identity and Catholic Education.” Frs. Ernie Bartell and Don McNeil were influential mentors.
What were your extracurricular activities?
I had a history of doing volunteer work with inner-city kids in high school, and I did inner-city tutoring in South Bend. When I returned to Farley in my junior year, I got to know Minch Lewis, who became student body president, and he appointed me as the academic commissioner. I was the Honor Council’s chairman in my senior year—an all-consuming activity, including trials at two in the morning.
Fr. Ernie Bartell, who founded the Council of the International Lay Apostolate (CILA) in 1961, and Tony Hooper convinced me to volunteer for CILA after I graduated in ’67. I went into the Bolivian mountains and helped build a school. The entire experience was like going back four hundred years ago in time.
How did you deal with your military obligation?
Fr. Bartell suggested that after graduation, I should attend the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, which I did in September 1967. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and I was vulnerable to the draft. I applied for conscientious objector status with the support of Notre Dame priests because of my faith-based activities, and my draft board granted me a C.O. designation.
Minch Lewis had also become a C.O. and got a placement at a Syracuse inner-city settlement house—Huntington Family Center—a community center with supportive services in a poor neighborhood. We ended up being working together in June 1968. By that time, Minch was married, and they were about to have kids, so I found an apartment next to the agency. I commuted to Princeton and earned my master’s degree in ’69.
The next two years were the most important of my life. Being a suburban, middle-class white, I did not have much exposure to diversity. It was an opportunity to learn about supportive social workers who empowered people living in poverty. I learned a whole new understanding of life.
What came next?
In the fall of 1969, Lee Alexander became Syracuse’s first Democratic mayor in more than fifty years, and in September 1970, he appointed me his youth coordinator to represent him and respond to different youth activities. There was a lot of racial turmoil then, and the model cities program had just come into existence.
That fall, a delegation of parents and residents from the near south side approached the mayor and said, “We need the same services as the model cities program, but we don’t qualify.” I began working with them to garner support for a new settlement house and approached several funding sources, including Catholic Charities. In May 1971, I made a presentation to their diocesan director, Monsignor Charles Fahey, and a week later, he said they would do it only if I leave the mayor’s office and join Syracuse Catholic Charities to run the program. I started with them on Sept. 1, 1971, and worked there until 1984, creating a network of eight community centers, most of which still exist.
In 1984, I became the executive secretary for Catholic Charities of the Albany-based New York State Catholic Conference of Bishops. It was a wonderful experience working with some of the best minds in the field while advocating for improved policies for poor people, including increasing public welfare grants.
During that time, I had gotten to know Rochester’s bishop, Matthew Clark. So, I left Albany in 1992 to become the Rochester diocese’s director of Catholic Charities under Bishop Clark and then later Bishop Matano. Initially, we had three agencies serving twenty thousand. Today, we have eleven agencies with a budget of one-hundred-million dollars and about fifteen hundred employees serving two-hundred-fifty thousand people.
What was the most challenging part of these jobs?
It’s always been about making difficult personnel decisions. Administration is easy except for personnel, finances, and facilities.
Tell us about other parts of your life.
I have written thirteen books about the Conference of Bishops and Catholic Charities and have served on many community boards. I never married or had children; however, I have provided parent-like activities for children I have assisted—especially the two children of my deceased brother. As a sports fan, I have been an active participant in golf and tennis—and of course, going to Notre Dame football games.
What have your Notre Dame experience meant to you?
ND was my opportunity for spiritual growth. I also came to understand the administrative workings of the church to enhance my leadership skills.
Thank you, Jack, for sharing your incredible fifty-year career in Catholic Charities.
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