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Cavanagh: A pioneer in business ethics with a passion for the outdoors

By Ryan Rutkowski
On November 28, 2022

The Rev. Gerald “Jerry” F. Cavanagh, a pioneer in the field of business ethics who spent more than four decades teaching at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he became a beloved figure known for an infectious smile and passion for hiking, died Nov. 8 at the Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Mich. He was 91.

Students, faculty and his fellow Jesuits remember him as a leader who left an impact on their lives both inside and outside the classroom.

“He gave me a worldview beyond just business,” said the Rev. J. Timothy Hipskind, a close friend and colleague of Cavanagh. “He taught that you can do good in all areas of life.”

Cavanagh, who joined the University of Detroit Mercy in 1980, brought joy and positivity with him wherever he went, from backpacking trips to national parks to appearances at Calihan Hall for basketball games, where he’d often sit in the same bleacher-level midcourt seat wearing a red Titan sweater over his clerical collar.

On top of being a beacon of good spirits to those around him, Cavanagh had an illustrious career that earned him national recognition as one of the founders of the field of business ethics.

“He really helped fill out what it meant to do good in business,” Hipskind said.

Cavanagh’s contributions include five published books, more than 40 peer-reviewed journal articles and 20 chapters, as well as encyclopedia and magazine articles, mono- graphs and proceedings papers, according to the university.

“I think it’s God’s grace and the gifts that God gave me,” Cava- nagh told the publication Detroit Catholic, in an article published in July. “I just tried to use them intelligently in a way that will most help the world we live in. That was a goal of mine right from the beginning. How can I be of most help to people?”

His research has been cited more than 3,100 times by other scholars throughout the globe and his love for the field carried over into the classroom as well.

Former students say Cavanagh’s classes had a real impact on them and how they view the world.

“Father Cavanagh was one of the most influential teachers I ever had,” said alumnus Denise Vecellio, who graduated in 1985. “He taught a business ethics course that I was fortunate enough to have taken during my MBA studies at U-D. I still remember those class lessons, and to this day, I don’t make purchases from certain corporations based on the cases we studied. He was such a great human.”

He made a lasting impact on the university community both in and out of the classroom.

“He was always looking for ways to strengthen the community,” said Hipskind, “he would always organize our movie nights and make sure people felt comfortable so we could have a gathering.”

Cavanagh had a role in many different organizations and events at Detroit Mercy, often making connections at both men’s and women’s basketball games with alumni. He loved supporting the teams and you could often catch him at halftime greeting as many people as he could.

Cavanagh also enjoyed walking around campus, especially the track around Titan Field.

Outside campus, he led annual backpacking trips with students on beautiful excursions to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

“In his 80s then, he out-hiked all of us,” Sarah Walsworth, who graduated from the university in 2017, recalled of a trip she took with him nearly a decade ago. “I owe my love of national parks and mountains to him.”

During those trips, Cavanagh always found time for God.

“I will never forget him celebrating mass at a picnic table in the mountains, with the most amazing views, consecrating the bread we had brought for sandwiches,” Walsworth said. “He taught me that God is everywhere and in everything.”

Cavanagh truly and deeply cared about everyone around him and made it known.

Walsworth remembered how encouraging he was when she was nervous to cantor a jazzy rendition of the “Alleluia” hymn at weekly 9 p.m. masses on campus.

“He would dance to it,” she recalled. “Father Cavanagh had a way of making you feel seen, heard and included.”

His commitment to business ethics and improving the world around him is proof of a man who lived to make a difference. In what would be his final interview months before his death, Cavanagh was direct when asked about his legacy.

“That’s something I really thank the Lord for: to be able to have had a life where I was able to have an influence on both individuals in the classroom and, frankly, even more importantly, on their influence on the world we live in.” he told Detroit Catholic“To have an impact on the atmosphere in the business firms, that’s a real blessing.”

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