When I first met Father John Dean, I was a freshman eating at the dining commons with a group of friends. Father Dean approached our table to tell us jokes. His caring attitude warmed my heart, and as I was emptying my tray, I noticed that a plaque bearing his likeness hung on one of the walls. He wore a goofy grin and a baseball cap.
It wasn’t long before I recognized Father Dean as a staple at the dining commons, frequently visiting the tables and talking to students. He was so actively involved in the students’ lives that I didn’t even realize he had been retired for five years until this year, when Father Warren Savage was appointed the University’s new chaplain.
Start in the priesthood
Originally a history teacher, Father Dean became interested in the priesthood in his 20s. For over 30 years, Father Dean was Westfield State’s Catholic chaplain and the leader of the Albert and Amelia Ferst Interfaith Center, a privately owned property.
Father Dean was the head of the history department at Holyoke High School when he was drawn to studying at the Blessed John XXIII National Seminary. When he told his coworkers he was leaving his teaching position to become a priest, they said, “ ‘You’re crazy! You make more than we do.’ ”
But Father Dean says, “It wasn’t about the money.”
Early in his priesthood, Father Dean frequently visited Western New England College to bring pizza to students. The students were so moved that they visited him at his diocese one evening to return the favor and take him for pizza. This marked the beginning of a long-term passion for campus faith.
When Father Dean began his work at Westfield State, the school did not have a permanent chaplain. At the time, Father Dean visited campus to hold mass several times a week and for faith counseling.
Once, when Father Dean was crossing the campus, he was approached by a student who wanted some counsel. The student asked him when Father Dean was available to talk.
Father Dean retells the story with a smile on his face. “I said, ‘Sure, we can go back to the Interfaith Center right now.’ And he said, ‘You know, I’m Jewish,’ and I said, ‘You’re Jewish? That doesn’t matter.’ ”
In this way, Father Dean brought meaning to the center’s interfaith mission. His focus wasn’t on students’ particular faith but on making sure they felt safe and supported.
Students have loved Father Dean so much over the years that they rallied to have the dining commons named after him when it was being built. Over 1,500 students signed a petition to have the commons named in his honor. The entire building is named Tim and Jeanne’s after Tim Murphy and Jeanne Julian, retired university employees, but the commons itself is dedicated to Father Dean. Hence, the plaque with his likeness.
Father Dean had a gift for connecting with students. He retired five years ago. Although he does spend time visiting family on Cape Cod, he still returns to hold mass and get meals in the Dean Dining Hall.