The Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., is noticeably relaxed on this sunny April day, 14 years of university presidency etched into his rearview mirror.
He's meeting with Niagara University alumni and friends in his office, the very room he lived in when the Gacioch Center was still called Meade Hall and before the word "emeritus" followed "president" in his title.
Although the space has since been renovated, much of the office furniture now is the same as it was back then, accentuated by new artwork and mementos Father Levesque collected during his term as the fourth-longest-tenured president in Niagara University's history.
Sure, he's no longer president, but Levesque is still very present.
Yet people are often surprised when they see him around town, even though he returned to campus - for good - last summer.
That's because, after stepping down as NU's president, Levesque answered a call from the Vincentian community to serve as interim president of St. John's University. He would attend special engagements in Western New York periodically, only to return to Queens shortly thereafter.
Levesque's official Niagara homecoming was Aug. 1. He subsequently underwent successful knee surgery, which required about three months of rehabilitation. With that process behind him, Levesque is eager to ramp up his involvement in the local community.
"I'm back, ready to do more," he said.
Levesque, as denoted by his new role as president emeritus, assists the university in ways "designated by the current president." Specifically, he is focused on advancing two initiatives - student scholarships and civic engagement - that were hallmarks of his presidency and remain pillars of Niagara University's strategic plan.
"From his inaugural address in 2000, when he pledged that Niagara University would be a great friend to the community, to his current role as president emeritus, Father Levesque has always been faithful to our Vincentian mission," said the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., the 26th president of Niagara University. "Father Levesque is an outstanding educator, priest and Vincentian. It is wonderful to have him back on campus, witnessing firsthand the realization of his vision."
Fundraising for an endowed scholarship named in his honor is among Levesque's top priorities. The scholarship is available to first-year NU students who live in a rural community from one of Western New York's eight counties. Levesque recently spent a few weeks in Florida soliciting gifts to the fund, which is now more than 75 percent of the way toward reaching its $500,000 target.
At the same time, Levesque is intent on reinforcing Niagara University's Catholic and Vincentian commitment to serving those in need through the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement. The Levesque Institute, established in September 2011, is the primary resource for community members looking to partner with NU's students, faculty and staff. Attached to a fundraising goal of $1 million, it encompasses three of the university's flagship service programs: Learn and Serve Niagara, ReNU Niagara and Border Community SERVICE.
As his previous modus operandi would suggest, Levesque is an information gatherer, keen on listening to the needs of the underserved before acting. He'll admit he doesn't have all of the answers, which is why he meets often with individuals such as Robert Gioia, president of The John R. Oishei Foundation, and Jim Glynn, the 1957 NU graduate and Maid of the Mist chairman who is invested in numerous community-minded organizations.
"I really like all of the things we're currently doing with the institute," Levesque said. "The way I'm wired, I like getting involved in the community. I've been calling people in to ask, 'What is needed in our community? What can this institute do that it is not now doing?' "
Levesque said he believes there is opportunity to expand the institute's work as it relates to addressing the issues of poverty and homelessness. In Niagara Falls, 44 percent of the population is either living in poverty or hovering dangerously close to the federal poverty level, according to a recent study by The Oishei Foundation.
The Levesque Institute has co-hosted a conference each of the past three years that brought together agencies and thought-leaders aimed at stemming the tide of local poverty and homelessness. Levesque's intent is to enhance, not replace, the extraordinary work being carried out by many organizations like Community Missions, the Niagara Falls Housing Authority and Heart, Love and Soul, to name a few.
"I'd like the institute to be a part of resolving the needs of the poor and homeless, if we can be," he explained. "I don't want to take anyone else's work away from them. But if we can be a contributing member to making poverty and homelessness less of a problem in this area, I'd like to do that."
In addition to civic engagement, Levesque has been asked to offer invocations, comments and talks in the community, and that type of work, including class lectures, might happen again in the near future. Yes, it sounds like he wants to do many of the things for the community and NU as he has done in the past.
Presently, however, Levesque is concentrating his efforts on uncovering new ways (and augmenting existing ones) Niagara University can better learn and serve the people of Western New York. The North Tarrytown native has retained his seat as a board member for the Niagara USA Chamber and said he is receptive to exploring similar opportunities with other organizations that elevate the Niagara-Buffalo region, his adopted home.
"This - Niagara University ... Western New York - is where I feel most comfortable. This has become my home," he said.
To make a gift to the Levesque Scholarship and/or Levesque Institute, contact Niagara University's Office of Institutional Advancement at 716-286-8778 or visit www.niagara.edu/make-a-gift. Additional information is available at www.niagara.edu.