Call it kismet or serendipity. Or a bit of both. One Thursday last semester, CUA’s president, Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., took a group of students to dinner. One of them asked him if he had ever met Jon Voight, the Academy Award-winning actor who graduated from CUA in 1960. “No,” he replied, “but I have talked to him several times. And I have his private cell-phone number,” he said, showing the students his electronic phone list. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t called him in a while, so I think I’ll do that tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” which happened to be March 30, Father O’Connell got up early and read an item in The Washington Post indicating that Voight was in Washington, D.C., shooting the sequel to the film “National Treasure.” By 9:30 a.m., Father O’Connell was on the phone with Voight, who needed no persuading to come back to campus for his first visit since his graduation more than four decades ago.
When Voight arrived at Nugent Hall, where the president’s office is located, he regaled Father O’Connell and his staff with stories about his days at CUA, particularly about being a pledgemaster for the Sigma Beta Kappa fraternity. He also remembered being the founder of a joke fraternity called “The Rickets,” whose members were supposed to wear a safety pin hidden under the lapel of their sportcoats.
Father O’Connell took him to a restaurant near Capitol Hill. Then the two of them, along with Voight’s publicist, returned to campus and headed to the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, where a stylized cardinal that the undergraduate Voight had painted onto the floor of the university’s basketball court is now displayed.
In the second-floor lobby of the Pryz, Father O’Connell initially played the part of intermediary, inviting passing students to say hello to Voight. Soon that was no longer necessary as a small crowd gathered, drawn in by Voight’s approachability. He didn’t just shake hands; he engaged in friendly banter. One male student ventured that he loved Voight’s role in the 1997 giant-snake movie “Anaconda.” “You have good taste,” Voight shot back good-naturedly. Introduced to an undergraduate who starred in the music school’s recent production of Bernstein’s comic opera Candide, Voight wanted to know about the part the student played. Later, when everyone moved downstairs to the first-floor lobby to view Voight’s famous painting, he spied a student sitting on a sofa and went over to ask her about the thick book she was reading. And so it went for more than a half hour, as the actor signed autographs and posed for photos. Finally his publicist politely stepped in to remind the actor that he was going to be late to his next appointment.
At the urging of his young admirers and Father O’Connell, Voight signed his famous painting with a black indelible marker before leaving.
“It was a great day for CUA,” said Father O’Connell about the visit. “I knew that he was a friendly person from my phone chats with him, but he surpassed even my expectations. He connected with the students and they immediately reciprocated. I’m so glad things worked out for him to come back to campus. We talked about the possibility of future collaboration, and I hope to have him back to campus soon.” — V.N.
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