The Catholic University of America

Father Gilbert V. Hartke

Gilbert V. Hartke was a Dominican priest who headed the drama department at Catholic University of America for thirty-seven years, but his celebrity and influence extended far beyond that campus.  In October 1981, a few years before his death, Washingtonian magazine called him "one of the five most powerful men in Washington, D.C."  As eight presidents arrived and departed, Father Hartke stood as a perennial presence.  He was not only a personal friend and adviser to Washington's elite, he was an artist and dedicated activist.  Father Hartke was a driving force in efforts to end racial discrimination in the theaters of the nation's capital, to establish a national theater center there, and to educate professionals dedicated to bringing theater to life in Washington and around the world.  He worked a lifetime personally delivering the best in American theater not only to the District of Columbia, but to the American military at home and abroad, to developing and communist countries around the world, to the small towns across the United States, to the East Room of the White House.

Father Hartke served as a presidential envoy to Germany, Israel, Romania, and Korea.  He was a member of the first National Council on the Arts and, at one time or another, president of the USO, Ford's Theatre, the American Education Theater Association, and the National Catholic Theatre Conference.  Father Hartke founded one of the first and foremost university drama programs in the country, leading the Department of Speech and Drama at The Catholic University of America for most of his career.  The modern theater complex he struggled a decade to build on that campus today bears his name.  Many believe that Gilbert Hartke single handedly changed the course of "Catholic theater" in the United States.

As benefactor, confessor, and close friend to the theater and film stars, sports heroes, business moguls, politicians, presidents, and first ladies, he became known as the "celebrity priest," the "show biz priest" and the "White House priest"; yet he was, before all else, a Dominican friar, Brother Vincent Ferrer, professing a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, and love amid the glitter and intrigue of show business and national politics.  He was audacious, ambitious, shrewd, vain, and star-struck, yet he was extraordinarily caring and giving, devoted to his Dominican brothers and his students (his "kids"), and as devoted to the cabbies, busboys, and secretaries of Washington as he was to the rich and powerful.  When he died in February 1986, three thousand people from all walks of life trudged through a heavy snowstorm to attend his funeral mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  The mass was concelebrated by Archbishop James Hickey and more than a hundred fellow priests.  In his eulogy, Father Gilbert Graham (who played George M. Cohan in Catholic University's original Yankee Doodle Boy in 1939, and took his name in the Dominican Order from Hartke) called him "a unique person who touched so many lives in so many different ways that it is impossible to even estimate the extent of his influence on the lives of thousands of people.  In this basilica today, I am sure that there are more than a few who are certain that Father Hartke was the best friend they ever had...and they are right."

(Preface is continued in book.)

Please Note

The text is an extract from the preface to:

Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theater
by Mary Jo Santo Pietro