DeMatha’s former principal John Moylan dies, was pioneer educational leader and led school to national prominence
Feb 2, 2021
As a student and later a faculty member at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, Mike Jones noticed how the school’s longtime principal, John Moylan, would stop to pick up a piece of paper on the floor or straighten a chair that was out of place, no matter how busy he was.
Jones, a member of DeMatha’s class of 1991 who has been its varsity basketball coach since 2002 and serves as the school’s assistant admissions director, said Moylan’s “selfless service” and his concern for every student has shaped his life and work.
“John Moylan felt he had a responsibility to do everything he could to make it the best place it possibly could be,” Jones said.
Moylan – who became DeMatha’s first lay principal in 1968 and led the school for 32 years through a period of great expansion in its academic programs, extracurricular activities, student enrollment and facilities – died on Jan. 15 at the age of 88 after having health problems in recent years.
The educator had the distinction of being the first lay principal at a Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Washington, and over the years earned many individual honors and led DeMatha to many achievements. Under Moylan’s leadership, DeMatha was named as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education in 1984 and again in 1991.
The Massachusetts native joined DeMatha’s faculty in 1956 as a French teacher, and a year later he established the school’s counseling center and became its first director of guidance. Moylan worked with DeMatha teachers to establish one of the first computer curriculums in the area, and in 1970 he began DeMatha’s music program that grew to nine performing groups with hundreds of student musicians and gained many national honors. He expanded DeMatha’s enrollment as it served a more diverse student body, initiated the school’s community service program and welcomed students with learning differences.
In 1990, the same year that five local Catholic high schools had to close because of financial and enrollment difficulties, DeMatha opened a new $4.1 million wing that included a music center, a new library, a chapel, 12 classrooms, a counseling center and an administration center named in Moylan’s honor.
That school year, Moylan was named as the Archdiocese of Washington’s principal of the year, and in 1993 he was honored as one of the area’s outstanding principals by the Washington Post.
In a eulogy to Moylan, Daniel McMahon – a 1976 DeMatha graduate and longtime English teacher there who succeeded him as the school’s principal in 2000 – called him “a giant in Catholic education.” McMahon praised his predecessor for being a loving husband to his wife of 66 years, Joan Moylan, and for his devotion to their four children Kevin, Kathleen, Timothy and Patrick, and to their six grandchildren.
And he noted, “During John’s long tenure at DeMatha, he was the father of his DeMatha family.”
Trinitarian Father James Day, the president of DeMatha whose religious order sponsors the Catholic high school for young men, said of Moylan, “Every area of school life, he was there.”
Father Day, who served as the school’s rector from 1978 until 1990, when the new wing opened, said the longtime principal “was a master at building relationships with students, with faculty and with families.”
Moylan graduated from Catholic elementary school at St. Ann’s School in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts, and from Assumption High School and Assumption College in Worcester, where he majored in French and philosophy. After graduating from college, he served two years in the Army Intelligence Corps before joining DeMatha’s faculty. In 1957, he earned a master’s degree from The Catholic University of America, majoring in guidance and minoring in school administration.
“His entire educational experience was with Catholic education,” said Father Day. “That’s what he knew. That’s what he loved. That’s what made him the educator he was. No matter what role he had, he was a teacher.”
Reflecting on Moylan’s dedication to DeMatha, Father Day said, “This was his life,” noting that the educator spent more than six decades working and helping out at the school, including for many years after his retirement. “Nothing was beyond John’s commitment to the school.”
Over the years, Moylan was known for his passionate advocacy for DeMatha. A 1991 Catholic Standard profile noted that when he answered his phone, he said, “JohnMoylanDeMathaHighSchool,” as if it were one long word, and several of his longtime colleagues said that the two phrases were synonymous: John Moylan was DeMatha High School.
In 1965, Moylan had an idea for how DeMatha’s basketball team could prepare for its upcoming clash with a seemingly invincible foe -- Lew Alcindor, a 7-foot-1 center for Power Memorial High School in New York. Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was destined to become the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
Moylan suggested that at practice, a DeMatha player could stand near the basket with a tennis racket to simulate Alcindor’s gigantic, swatting arms.
Morgan Wootten – DeMatha’s basketball coach who would go on to be enshrined in Basketball’s Hall of Fame and who died in January 2020 – credited Moylan’s creative thinking with helping the Stags shock Power Memorial, 46-43.
“As usual, he was ahead of his time,” Wootten said in a 1991 interview.
Dr. Charles “Buck” Offutt, a longtime English teacher and football coach at DeMatha who was also interviewed for that article, said DeMatha’s principal had the tenacity of a pit bull terrier.
“When he decides to get something done, he doesn’t let loose of it. He goes after it,” said Offutt, who retired in 2009 and died in 2010.
When he accepted the archdiocese’s principal of the year honor in 1990, Moylan said he accepted the award “on behalf of the DeMatha Catholic High School family.”
He often emphasized that the school’s – and his – success was due to that family, to the excellence of the teachers there, to the hard work and accomplishments of the students, and to the dedicated support of parents and alumni.
In a 1990 photo, John Moylan, then DeMatha's president, stands with Trinitarian Father James Day, then the school's rector, near the construction for its new wing that opened later that year. (CS file photo/Michael Hoyt)
When DeMatha’s new wing was dedicated, Moylan estimated that it was the result of 12,000 Friday afternoon bingos, 40 crab feasts and 500,000 candy bar sales. He had joined DeMatha teachers in volunteering at the bingo games to raise money for the school.
DeMatha had become nationally known for its powerhouse sports teams and graduates who became athletes, but in interviews, Moylan highlighted the school’s academic offerings and the accomplishments of the music program. By 1993, Moylan’s 25th year as principal, DeMatha’s Wind Ensemble had been named the nation’s top Catholic high school band in 11 out of 13 years.
Noting the importance of the school’s teachers, Moylan in a 1996 interview with Washingtonian magazine said, “We have a great Hall of Fame basketball coach, Morgan Wootten, who’s an even better world history teacher.”
Moylan once said, “The success of a school is based on the talent and creativity of its teachers. I think teachers play the most important role of any profession in this country.”
In the 1991 Catholic Standard interview, Moylan said the hard work and dedication of his own high school teachers inspired him to become an educator.
“They gave above and beyond the classroom. They shaped lives,” he said.
The students at DeMatha convinced him that he had found a home teaching and then serving in the administration at the Catholic high school. He proudly noted how well-rounded many of the students were, with star athletes also playing in the school bands.
“I’ve always said the most important years a student spends in school are the high school years. They are at the crossroads of a youngster’s life. You come in as a teen-ager and leave as an adult,” he said.
At his 25th anniversary as principal, Moylan said a key goal of Catholic education “to develop young people with integrity who are not afraid to go out and serve and to be a witness… Our people have got to make a difference.”
He noted how the school’s graduates have gone on to a variety of professions, including as doctors, writers, lawyers, musicians, teachers, architects and priests. By his 25th year as principal, he estimated that he had helped organize the class schedules of about 3,500 DeMatha students over the years.
“He knew all of our names,” Jones said. “He knew something about each one of us.”
Dan Curtin, who served as the Secretary for Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Washington from 1985-99, said Moylan “really wanted the best for all his students.”
Moylan – known for his work ethic and commitment to DeMatha, having claimed at one point that he hadn’t missed a work day there in 35 years – was inspired on the first day when he visited the school in 1956 as a prospective teacher, and he saw Trinitarian Father Marc Toal, then the school’s principal, sweeping the gym floor.
“He wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves,” said Moylan, who noted that the Trinitarians were always available to help the students.
Daniel McMahon in his eulogy to Moylan noted his predecessor’s care for the DeMatha community also extended to him, as he became the school’s principal in 2000.
“On his desk – which I now occupy – but which is still his desk, John left me a long, hand-written letter to welcome me. He promised to help me however he could, and he reflected on what the principal’s role is in a way that I had not seen before,” McMahon said. Moylan became a friend and mentor to him, showing him “every detail mattered” at the school, from the kind of carpeting used for mats to the style of lockers.
DeMatha’s current principal praised Moylan’s visionary leadership, noting how he shepherded the school through the early 1970s when it was in danger of closing due to financial challenges.
“Without John’s leadership and guidance, there is no DeMatha. His force of will and his stamina and leadership saved the school from closing,” he said.
Moylan also served on archdiocesan committees that established better pay scales and instituted health benefits for lay employees.
“John’s work as a teacher, a counselor, an administrator, a coach and even a janitor meant that whenever people had to see him about an issue, he was capable of understanding their point of view,” McMahon said, noting Moylan’s knowledge and experience, and ability to listen, were among his strengths as an educational leader.
He said Moylan in his retirement helped for many years in the admissions office, and as principal emeritus, he was a “great ambassador” for the school, attending many events there, and also going to Baptisms, weddings and funerals for DeMatha graduates and their families. He even continued coaching kickers for DeMatha’s football team until 2016.
At his 25th anniversary as principal, Moylan had said, “I want to be a contributor to this school as long as I can.”
The administration center at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville is named for John Moylan, its principal from 1968 to 2000, and plaques on a wall there honor his service to the school and its students. (Photo courtesy of DeMatha)
Bill McGregor, DeMatha’s varsity football coach from 1982 t0 2010 who returned to that role in 2019, praised Moylan as “a leader of the school, 24/7. He was always on the front lines, always there, looking to improve the school in all areas.”
Under Moylan’s leadership, DeMatha’s expanded academic program also included a business department and classes in architectural design, and the athletic department grew from offering three to 13 different interscholastic sports, including ice hockey, lacrosse and crew.
McGregor noted that Moylan, beyond the classroom and athletic fields, “was very firm in developing men of character,” emphasizing to students the importance of doing the right thing and being the best they can be.
Mike Jones joked that he, like all students, tried to avoid the principal’s office during his years at DeMatha, but he told a story about how John Moylan went out of the way, literally, to see him. As a sophomore basketball player at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Jones came out of practice one day and was surprised to see John Moylan waiting for him.
DeMatha’s current basketball coach said he thinks that Moylan and his wife were driving to the Outer Banks, and made a detour, “to stop and see how I was doing.”
Jones later talked to other DeMatha graduates, and found out that Moylan had also gone the extra mile to see them over the years, too.
When Moylan found out that Jones was majoring in counseling, he kept in touch with him each summer, inviting him to come back and work at DeMatha. After playing professional basketball, Jones was hired by Moylan in 1998 as a sophomore guidance counselor there.
“He was a forward thinker, and wanted diversity in our counseling center,” said Jones, who is African American.
As a basketball coach at DeMatha, Jones has continued leading its teams to championships, but he also often sweeps the gym floor before games, a sign of caring for the school and its students like he witnessed Moylan do so many times.
“I do some of my best thinking at that time,” said Jones, who praised the legacy of DeMatha’s late principal. “His fingerprints are all over everything DeMatha does, and also on Catholic education in this area.”