Photo: Catholic New York
The celebrated talk show host died this week at the age of 88. And from the very beginning, he was Catholic to the core. He was named for his father’s school, Regis High School, a venerable Jesuit institution in New York City.
And that’s just the beginning of his Catholic connection. There was much more:
He was a longtime proponent and supporter of Catholic schools.
“I think it made a great difference. Solidified me….taught me an awful lot. Everything that I am right now I attribute to” Catholic education, Philbin said in a 2009 interview.
What made a difference at Catholic schools, he told reporters in numerous interviews, was formation in virtue, and in faith.
Before joining the Navy, and eventually making his way to Hollywood, Philbin attended the University of Notre Dame, and before that the Catholic schools in the Bronx, where he grew up.
Philbin was named in part for Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier. But his unusual first name came from Regis Catholic High School in New York.
“In the 1920s, my father was asked to leave Regis High School in Manhattan during his sophomore year. It was a Catholic school, and he had gotten into a fight with a priest or a brother. Years later, he was so sorry about what had happened that he and my mother named me Regis when I was born,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2016.
Philbin was an altar boy while attending his parish elementary school, and as a child had dreams of becoming a singer. He went to Notre Dame at his father’s urging, after graduating from New York’s Cardinal Hayes High School in 1949.
After achieving success on television, Philbin became a regular benefactor to the Catholic schools in which he was educated, especially his high school.
The host gave supported students with scholarships to Cardinal Hayes High Schhol on an annual basis, and in 2000 gave the school $500,000 for an auditorium renovation.
He even donated winnings from one game show appearance to his alma mater:
He won $175,000 on the Fox TV program “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” and announced on the air that he would donate his winnings to Cardinal Hayes High School. The episode, which aired Nov. 1, featured celebrities answering questions targeted at the fifth-grade level to win up to $1 million for charity.
This is not the first time Philbin has donated game-show earnings to his former high school. Last year, he gave the school his $50,000 prize from winning “Celebrity Jeopardy” on another special episode for celebrities to win cash for their favorite charities.
Philbin, a member of the class of ‘49 at Cardinal Hayes, went on to graduate from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and has been generous to both schools. In 2000, he donated $500,000 to Cardinal Hayes to renovate the auditorium. He also led the 1995 and 1999 capital campaigns that funded a $7 million endowment and the updating of school facilities.
Philbin, whose early television career was in California, said that when he returned to New York he saw “the value of Hayes and what it means to the city.”
He told Catholic New York, newspaper of the archdiocese, that many students from Cardinal Hayes go on to hold important positions in New York, and he said he recognizes the need for continued support of the school.
Father Joseph Tierney, president of Cardinal Hayes, said the school was grateful for Philbin’s continued generosity. He described the popular television host as someone who promotes “the values, teachings and tradition of Cardinal Hayes High School and of the church so well.”
“He has expressed to us that he will do whatever he can to help us and we are so grateful that he thinks of us when these opportunities to give to the school come up for him,” he added.
And there is this, from an interview with Franciscan Media a few years back:
Although many public figures often shy away from promoting their faith, Philbin has never felt any consequence of merging his faith with media. “There is a wide chasm between the media and religion, especially the Catholic religion I think, but that’s just the way it is,” he says. But “I’ve supported Hayes, Notre Dame and the church on many occasions.”
As the Guinness World Records holder for most hours logged on screen (currently at more than 16,700), Philbin has befriended many influential people during his career. But the people and experiences at Notre Dame remain at the top of his inspirational list.
“That privilege of being educated at Notre Dame goes a long way,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger as he walks toward his cheering fans at the bookstore; “and Lou Holtz, who insists on you trying to be perfect. I’m not. I’m just like everybody else, but that, and the religion, helped me a lot.”
I think of Regis Philbin and one of the first things I think of is my father. In the late ’80s, after being felled by a stroke, my dad spent his final years in variety of forgettable nursing homes, confined to a wheelchair, with a rosary always in his hands. But he spent part of his mornings in the TV room with other residents, and when I visited and asked him what he did that day, he’d say, “Said my rosary. Watched Regis and Kathy Lee.”
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…