TAMPA — Just before he launched a five-year improvement plan for Jesuit High School, Father Joseph Doyle, the school's president, had a dream in which God spoke to him.
"You shall plant trees, under the shade of which you shall not sit," God said.
Father Doyle understood what that meant.
"I think he knew for certain that when it was finished, he would not be here," said Nick Suszynski, Jesuit's alumni director. "He felt that his mission was to make this campus better for future generations."
The dream proved prophetic.
Father Doyle died Saturday at St. Joseph's Hospital of respiratory illness, just 10 months after the school's improvements were completed. Similar projects are planned for the future.
Father Doyle, who served as Jesuit's president and chaplain from 1996 until he retired in May, was 72.
He grew up in the Bronx, the only son of a police officer who died when Joseph was 16.
Fordham's preparatory school and university gave him financial help for his education, a favor he never forgot.
From 1964 to 1967, he taught history at Jesuit High School, then left to fulfill the duties of his ordination into the Catholic Church.
He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1970 and served several parishes. Before returning to Tampa, he led St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Houston, and was close to its low-income residents.
The church burned just as costly renovations were about to be completed. The church was rebuilt. Father Doyle told the story often to teach others that persistence pays off.
Father Doyle returned to Jesuit in 1996 as president of the board and chaplain.
He was demanding but compassionate.
"He would look out for the kid that was in need of extra help or having a problem of any kind," said Joe Sabin, 61, a former student who is now the school's principal.
He was a slightly built man with a big laugh who liked to spend his limited free time stitching needlepoint images of angels. As a leader, he wasn't shy about setting colleagues straight, especially if they deviated from some plan without telling him.
"But the same way he would flare up he would be back down again," Sabin said. "He'd give you a big hug and it was over."
One of the first things he did as president was to ban freshman hazing, a tradition the school had tolerated since its founding in 1899.
He also made sure that poorer students who qualified were welcomed, even if they couldn't pay.
"If someone wanted to come here and they could get through the test, by George, he would find a way to make sure that they could come to Jesuit," said Dr. Steve Krist, a former student of Father Doyle's and a Jesuit board member.
As school chaplain, Father Doyle counseled thousands of students, parents and faculty members, often in the midst of tragedy.
"He understood human frailties and he could touch your heart where your heart was hurting the most," said Marilyn Wagner, Father Doyle's administrative assistant for 12 years.
Once, in Sabin's presence, he found just the right words to comfort a bereaved person.
"I asked him, 'How did you come up with that?'" Sabin recalled. "He said, 'It just came.' "
In school matters, Father Doyle filtered all choices through a simple mantra: "What's best for the boys?"
"He solved every problem or answered every question with that sentence," Suszynski said.
From 2003 to 2008, Father Doyle directed $8-million worth of sweeping renovations to the Jesuit campus. The school got remodeled classrooms and fiber-optic computer connections. There was a new locker room, a new weight room, synthetic turf on the football field and a rubberized track.
Among the many personal touches Father Doyle left behind: a recently planted oak tree next to the chapel.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.