After a 15-year absence, Father Owen Mullen is back on campus and busier than ever.
The sheer heft of the mountains of food borders on the comical. Piles of chicken, mounds of fries, bulging burritos, overstuffed sandwiches, wobbly pyramids of hard-boiled eggs, hearty salads and — just in case — bananas, apples and cookies.
It’s noon and the “lunch bunch” is in full effect. Nearly a dozen hungry young men have pulled a few tables together in the Main Dining area of the University Center, where they’re methodically turning plates loaded with chow into boundless bursts of energy. Judging by their clean plates when they’re (finally) done eating, they might just make it to dinnertime without fainting dead away from hunger.
In the midst of the fray sits Father Owen Mullen. A fixture on campus throughout the ‘80s, Mullen is back, doing what he does best: listening, laughing, advising and providing a breathing example of what a life lived in service and honor looks like. While his plate is more modestly filled than those of the students who surround him, he is most definitely in the center of the action.
“Hey Father! If we’d won the games we lost, it would have been a great season!” The table erupts with laughter. While this particular group is made up of members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, which Mullen advises, he tends to hop from table to table during the lunch hour. It’s the only way he can be sure of touching base with all the students he knows. But for now, he’s here with the Betas, and the priest is giving them his full attention.
You’d think keeping up with the myriad student groups he’s involved with would be a nightmare of logistical planning, but in truth, the priest has hit upon a guaranteed way to make himself available: hanging out near the all-you-can-eat food at lunchtime. Works like a charm.
“It’s fairly spontaneous,” explains Mullen. “It just works out. Some days I sit with the football players, sometimes these guys, it just depends on my schedule.”
While his demeanor suggests he has all the time in the world, there’ll be little room for lollygagging once the students scatter to class. After all, being the spiritual adviser to not just the fraternity, but the football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse teams is enough to keep any one person hopping. But Mullen also has writing to do — he hones his homilies and team prayers until they gleam — and he presides over Mass several times a week, as well as ministering to an entire San Diego police division in his nonexistent spare time.
“Yeah, and he’s a colonel,” says ROTC member Burns, a soon-to-be Naval officer. “When I need advice, he understands, because he’s been there, done that.” He goes on to explain that he also relies on Mullen to pull strings when it counts: “He’ll put in a good word for me, not just with command, but with God.”
Mullen’s barely touched the food on his plate, but he looks satisfied. Though not a tall man — in fact, the students tend to tower above him — he’s got the comfortable calmness of someone who’s at home in his skin. As one student heads out for class, another pulls up a chair.
“Hey, Father, what’s the bracelet?” asks the newcomer.
The priest pulls up his sleeve and reveals a Torero blue circlet of rubber. “I was the first one to get one at the baseball game the other day,” he says with a grin. “It says, ‘No Excuses. Play Like a Champion.’” Everyone nods in agreement. That’s not just a slogan to this group of fraternity brothers. It’s a way of life.
To hear Father Mullen tell it, when it came time to buckle down and hit the books, there was no substitute for a Catholic education. Barely into his teens, he lobbied his parents to send him to the La Salle Institute, an all-male Catholic military day school near his boyhood home in Troy, N.Y. He looks back on his experiences there as pivotal in shaping his life’s work.
“The Christian Brothers pushed me to do things I wouldn’t have done otherwise,” he recalls. “And that made me want to do the same thing for others down the road.” He continued his studies at Maryland’s Mount St. Mary’s College, where he went into the seminary and stayed on for the next eight years, studying theology and earning his degree. He ultimately was ordained for the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., and assigned to a parish in 1964. That’s when he began to realize that his true calling was in education. He subsequently earned a master’s degree in educational psychology from Villanova University so that he could counsel young people.
But the tumultuous times sparked his own sense of patriotism. “It was during Vietnam, and I’d thought about going into active duty military,” Mullen recalls. “But the Bishop would only give me permission to go into the Delaware National Guard, so that’s what I did.” It wasn’t an easy time to wear a uniform, but easy has never held any kind of allure for Owen Mullen.
Along with his Guard service, he continued working with high school students until 1979, filling just about every possible role: principal, guidance counselor, athletic director, coach, you name it. A bit of an overachiever, Mullen added another role to his overstuffed resumé when he transferred into the U.S. Army Reserve. There, he was assigned to the admissions area of West Point. It’s an institution he admires greatly; so much so that for more than 25 years, he’s spent a month out of every summer there, counseling groups of raw cadets as they go through the grueling days of basic training.
“I just help them handle their stress and try to be their friend,” he explains. “The upperclassmen treat them like new soldiers. They are not their buddies, not by any means. The whole point is to break them down so they can be built back up as a team.”
And when Father Owen Mullen talks about the importance of teamwork, you can tell he means it.
When he first arrived at USD over two decades ago, his first impression was of overwhelming beauty. But more important, Mullen says that he immediately sensed the “close cohesiveness between the faculty and students.” Hired in 1981 as the graduate and law school chaplain, it wasn’t long before he was back on the field, counseling football players.
“I was not an outstanding athlete myself,” he says, with a shy smile. “But I love football. There’s so much emphasis on team, on working together, achieving a goal, paying a price to meet those goals.” Of course there are parallels elsewhere in his life.
“In the Army, you have to establish a close-knit unit. You rely on the person next to you. Athletics simulates that.” A fixture at most athletic events during the ‘80s, Mullen has touched the lives of untold numbers of USD students over the years.
“He had an outstanding relationship with the players,” recalls USD Director of Athletic Development and former Toreros football coach Brian Fogarty, who used to room with Mullen during trips to away games during the ‘80s. “Even today, when they see him in the stands at a Torero game, alumni always make a point of seeking him out and talking to him.”
Besides his close connection with current and former students, Mullen is memorable to alumni as the Harley-Davidson riding priest. Though it’s what many mention first when they talk about him, he tends to downplay the notion that there’s anything remarkable about his preferred mode of transportation, these days a pearl-white Heritage Softail. In fact, he’s reluctant to assign any significance whatsoever to any of the several Harley motorcycles he’s ridden over the years. After all, it’s not what’s important about him.
“People always get a kick out of the Harley,” says Fogarty. “That’s the first thing they remember about him. But what’s really striking is how concerned he always is about whether he’s doing a good job. Did he give good prayers? Did his homilies inspire the players?” He pauses, then laughs. “And the answer is always yes. He’s had outstanding relationships with the players over the years. He does exactly what he’s there for: He provides that Catholic side to our student-athletes.”
After giving it his all for eight years on campus, Mullen took a full-time position at West Point in late 1989. He loved his time there, at least partly because of his continuing work with the student athletes. In conversation, it’s clear that the discipline it takes to succeed — whether on the playing field, on the military training ground or in the priesthood itself — is a key theme of his life. Faith, duty and honor are Father Mullen’s touchstones.
Transferred to Oahu, Hawaii, he served as senior chaplain at Scofield Barracks before deciding to retire at the rank of colonel to take over the parish and school of a church in Honolulu. It was paradise, but when Father Peter McGuine ‘85 contacted him in 2003 to see if Mullen was interested in coming back to USD, the answer was an emphatic yes.
And since returning to his old stomping grounds in the summer of 2004, he’s busy as ever, unfazed by the toll of passing years, still enthusiastic about the mission of the university. “There’s been very little change since I was here in the ‘80s,” Mullen says. “The campus is more beautiful than ever, but the actual character of the school hasn’t changed at all.”
The priest is as excited about the opportunities provided by a Catholic education today as he was as a knowledge-hungry teen. “All of our students know they’re getting a solid education. I have never heard a single student make a negative comment about the professors or their classes.”
Though it’s a safe bet that he doesn’t spend much time there, Mullen’s office provides a glimpse of a life lived in service. The walls are sprinkled with photos of outstanding career moments. There are the photos of him with presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. There’s a snapshot of him shaking hands with the Honolulu police chief. There’s a picture of a much-younger Mullen on the field with a football player in the ‘80s. “That was Parents’ Day,” he recalls. “He had no father, so I told him I’d be there for him.” And tucked on a shelf, there’s a scale replica of a turquoise Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail.
Mullen is unfailingly polite, but his eyes keep straying to his watch. He’s got to meet up with the guys from the baseball team before they head out to the weekend’s away games. Though Mullen’s other duties keep him from traveling with the team — after all, there are a whole lot of away games in a given baseball season — he does join the football and basketball teams when they hit the road.
“I do a private Mass for the football players a few hours before each game,” he explains. “I try to keep it ecumenical enough so that it won’t offend non-Catholics.” The themes of these sermons echo the values that Mullen has spent a lifetime celebrating: achievement, doing one’s best, standing up for your beliefs.
“The groups I’m involved with are inspiring,” he says, blue eyes gleaming. “These students have not lost appreciation for their families and the others who care about them. They can tell if you mean it. You can’t fake genuine caring.”
Several days a week, at noontime in Founders Chapel, Mullen celebrates Mass. His voice seems more sonorous from the altar, his stature taller in long red vestments, his attention focused on the familiar rites. The theme of his homily on this particular day is a reflection on wealth, and whether it’s possible to be simultaneously affluent and virtuous. “Wealth often accumulates as a means to a pleasurable life,” he muses. “Though it’s easy to equate happiness with pleasure, the two are closer to antonyms than synonyms.” He pauses and looks directly at the congregants seated before him. “Remember that pleasure is transitory. Happiness is a more enduring peace.”
When the service ends, emerging from the dim light of the chapel into the sunlit day is a revelation. It seems likely that more than one blinking attendee will spend the afternoon pondering their own quests for lasting happiness.
Given that his devotion to students shows in every aspect of his work, it’s only fitting that they reciprocate, in spades. Back at the lunch table, the guys can’t say enough good things about him.
“Father Mullen has had more of an influence on the students than anyone else on campus.” In between bites, senior Mark Kondrat is emphatic. “I look forward to hearing him say Mass. Some homilies are kind of long and drawn out, but Father Mullen throws in some humor.”
Fellow lunchtime regular Joe Burns is eager to put in his own 2 cents. “We have never had a more dedicated adviser. He’s been a friend and mentor to all of us. If you asked anyone in the fraternity, they would all point to him as the person who made the biggest impact.”
Mullen, busy bantering with the lacrosse players who just joined the table, misses the accolades.
No matter. He probably already knows.