Friends, family, co-workers recall Hurley’s influence on university over more than 2 decades
Alfred F. Hurley, the 12th president of the University of North Texas, died Saturday at age 84 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“He is the embodiment of the American dream, in that he came from such honest beginnings and accomplished so much, and never lost focus of who he is and what he stood for,” his son, Mark Hurley, said. “If there’s a heaven, he’s absolutely there, no doubt, because there wasn’t a better person.”
Hurley joined UNT in 1980 as the vice president for administrative affairs and became the school’s 12th president in February of 1982. In 2000, the office of the president and chancellor split, with Hurley becoming the university’s first chancellor. He retired from the university in 2002.
“He was a person who was completely dedicated to whatever the mission was, and, of course, the mission at the University of North Texas was to create and lead the best university that he could possibly do, and he did through determination and hard work,” said Fred Pole, a former UNT administrator who worked alongside Hurley. “He never asked anyone to work harder than he did, and he served courageously for 22 years.”
Hurley was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Patrick and Margaret Hurley, Irish immigrants with a deep Catholic faith. The oldest of four children, Hurley was the first in his family to graduate from high school, his son said, and he then went on to complete his doctorate at Princeton University.
Before joining UNT, Hurley had a long career in the U.S. Air Force, where he began as a private, and retired as a brigadier general in 1980. While in the Air Force, he served in various capacities, including as a navigator, planner, administrator and educator. He was also a professor of history at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
During his time in the Air Force, he married his wife, Johanna, and the couple had five children. Mark Hurley said family was always his father’s priority, and he couldn’t recall his father ever missing a Mass.
“When I was a kid there was just never any doubt that we would go on to do things, like college. It was expected,” his son said. “The culture of our family was one in which everything was about the family, and there was an expectation that we would live up to God-given abilities.”
During Hurley’s tenure, the university changed its name from North Texas State University to the University of North Texas in 1988. That same year, he created the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, TAMS, and admitted its first class of students.
Richard Sinclair, the current dean of TAMS, said he remembers interviewing with Hurley in 1992, when he applied to move from the Health Science Center in Fort Worth to become director of the program. He recalled Hurley as a “quick-minded, intense” leader, with steely eyes and a passion for the university.
Though Sinclair reported directly to the provost, he said Hurley remained heavily involved with the program and had a personal interest in its future, and the two maintained a strong relationship throughout Hurley’s tenure.
“We all greatly respected Dr. Hurley and knew it was a special program to him, and it was important to us to make sure it lived up to his expectations,” Sinclair said.
During his tenure as president, Hurley rebranded the university into a school on track to become a top-tier research institution, increased enrollment by 44 percent, increased the endowment by nearly $44 million and created the UNT system.
Chancellor Lee Jackson, who succeeded Hurley, said that Hurley’s efforts laid the groundwork for what the modern university looks like. The two had worked together before Jackson officially joined UNT, and he recalled that Hurley was fair and thoughtful and always offered helpful advice as Jackson transitioned into the position.
“I knew and respected and liked Dr. Hurley, even before I came to UNT, and I felt that I was filling very large shoes,” Jackson said. “He was widely respected in the region and the state and on campus and was always very gracious to me.”
Hurley also facilitated the growth for the athletics department, playing a role in moving the school from NCAA Division 1AA to Division 1A, and built an academic base to attract athletic talent, said Rick Villarreal, current athletic director.
“What Dr. Hurley established was the academic base that could attract talented athletes,” Villarreal said. “We could sell that we had an outstanding academic situation here. We could then improve the athletic situation and get the kids who could help change an athletic program.”
Part of the academic base Hurley established was an on-the-ground effort in addition to an administrative role, guest lecturing in different classes and seminars, said history professor Gus Seligmann.
Hurley regularly made three-hour presentations to a summer class for high school and junior high school students that was led by Seligmann. Rarely using notes, Hurley would lead a well-organized, “sophisticated discussion” of U.S. military policy since World War II, Seligmann recalled.
“There’s a lot of time pressures on the president, and when he takes three hours out of his schedule to teach a class, it tells you something about his values and what he thinks is important,” Seligmann said. “He took university business — not just administrating it, but the business of what we do — very seriously. And that was, I think, from my perspective, maybe his greatest strength.”
His accomplishments while at the University of North Texas also included less-tangible achievements, such as promoting the College of Music, said Fred Patterson, former publisher of the Denton Record-Chronicle. He and Johanna would hold dinners before symphony concerts at the college, and Patterson remembers being impressed that Hurley could recall the names of all 50 to 60 guests with little effort, and was very supportive of the college.
He also made sure to have strong lines of communication with the Board of Regents, former regent Burle Pettit said. When Pettit returned to UNT in the 1990s after he was a student in the 1950s, nearly every positive change could be attributed to Hurley, he said. Even today, Pettit said, every aspect of UNT has some mark of Hurley’s tenure.
“Al was a visionary. I believe he had an idea of where the university should go,” Pettit said. “He was a very skilled administrator, and people who worked with him and for him had great admiration for him.”
Hurley will be buried Friday at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. There will be a Catholic Mass that morning at 10 a.m. at the Air Force Academy Chapel, followed by a military funeral and a reception at Doolittle Hall. The family is planning a memorial service in the Dallas area, though nothing was scheduled by press time.
Additionally, UNT will honor Hurley with a time of quiet reflection at Goolsby Chapel. Attendees will also be able to write condolences to Hurley’s family at that time.
Survivors include his wife, Johanna Leahy Hurley; his brother, William; and five children, Alfred Jr., Thomas, Mark, Claire and John; and 14 grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to one of the following organizations: the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Falcon Foundation or the Alfred and Johanna Military History Seminar at UNT.
Staff reporter Brett Vito contributed to this report.
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.
During his 20 years at the University of North Texas, Alfred F. Hurley led the university to significant accomplishments, including:
- Increased enrollment from fewer than 19,000 students to 27,000 students.
- The school officially changed its name in 1988 from North Texas State University to the University of North Texas.
- Oversaw the creation of several programs and departments, including Texas Academy of Math and Science, the UNT Office of Post Graduate Fellowships and the UNT Alumni Association.
- Headed the first capital campaign in state history, and oversaw a second campaign during his tenure. The two campaigns combined raised $200 million for the university.
- Roughly $260 million worth of construction and renovation happened under Hurley’s leadership, and both the Environmental Education Science and Technology Building and the Murchison Performing Arts Center opened.
- The athletics department moved from NCAA Division 1AA to Division 1A independent in 1995, paving the way for significant department growth and athletic success.
- Transformed the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine into the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
- UNT became the sixth university system in the state.
- Created the UNT System Center at Dallas, the first public university in Dallas city limits.
- UNT’s endowment grew from $850,000 to $45 million.