The Catholic University of America

March 31, 2008

Well-known Alums Remember John Paul II's Visit to CUA

Thousands of Catholic University students are looking forward to seeing Pope Benedict XVI when he comes to campus to deliver a speech to diocesan education leaders and the presidents of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities on April 17. Welcoming the pope will likely be an experience the students will never forget, as was the case for five well-known CUA alumni who experienced the visit of Pope John Paul II to campus on Oct. 7, 1979.

Brian Williams

One of those alumni is Brian Williams, the anchorman and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News," the flagship evening news program of the NBC television network. He was not only a CUA student in 1979 when Pope John Paul II came to campus, but he also helped in the preparations for the pope's coming.

"I did in fact work in the campus public relations office, and still somewhere in my attic have a file drawer full of the press releases I wrote for the university," Williams told CUA in 2002. "I was there during the visit of the pope and worked with a junior executive at Hill & Knowlton in Washington (called in to help with papal PR) named Larry Speakes … who, of course, went on to be President Ronald Reagan's spokesman. I was mostly a writer in the PR office, as that is about the only thing I've ever been able to do without too much effort."

One of Williams' buddies at CUA was Ed Gillespie, B.A. 1983, who went on to serve as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2003 to 2005, and who now holds the position of counselor to President George W. Bush.

Ed Gillespie

"I was a freshman when John Paul II came to CUA," relates Gillespie. "A bunch of us students spent the night on the quad between Shahan Hall and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to see the pope up close when he entered the shrine. By the time he arrived, the crowd was huge. As he walked up the steps, everybody started a spontaneous chant of 'JP II, we love you!'

"Before entering the shrine, the pope stopped at the top of the steps and turned to face the cheering students. In broken English, he said, 'JP II, he loves you!' It was great."

Rosanna Scotto, B.A. 1980, the co-anchor of the 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. FOX 5 newscasts in New York City, remembers the pope's visit well. But by the time he arrived on campus, the CUA Mall was too jampacked for her to leave Cardinal Hall, where her dorm room was located, so she watched the pontiff from the window of her room as he walked down the stairs from the shrine. Her future husband, Louis Ruggiero, B.A. 1981, had a somewhat closer view of the pope because he was on the football team, whose members had been enlisted to help provide security for the event.

Rosanna Scotto

Years later, as a FOX 5 anchorwoman and reporter, Scotto got within arm's length of Pope John Paul II when he visited New York City in 1995 and when he visited Israel and Jordan in 2000. "Catholic University was my stepping stone to getting very close to the Holy Father," she joshes.

Jim Dinegar, B.A. 1982, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, is another accomplished CUA graduate who remembers the day of the pope's visit vividly. He and a fellow CUA student were standing on the steps of the shrine when the pope visited.

"I had rented a camera with a zoom lens for the occasion and when I first saw the pope making his way toward us, I took a picture," he remembers. "Then I snapped another one that was closer, but getting blurry. When I looked up again, the pope was right in front of me ready to greet my classmate, Jack Griffin, and me. It was the best day of my college life."

Griffin is now president of Meredith Publishing Group, which produces Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Ladies' Home Journal and more than 200 special interest magazines.

Jim Dinegar

Dinegar quips that he wonders if it might have been his bright red hair or Griffin's green tie that made the pope notice them and come over.

Dinegar kissed the pope's ring, as did Griffin. The pope then offered them a blessing before moving on. "From that point on, there were elderly ladies coming up to the two of us as though we were celebrities, wanting to touch us because we had been blessed by the pope," Dinegar says.

MEDIA: For more information about this release or Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming April 17 visit to Catholic University, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.