Building walls, breaking down barriers

Building walls, breaking down barriers

By Garvin Thomas

Fr. James Reites, S.J., MST ’71 speaks at the opening of the 2013 Solar Decathlon competition. Photo by Charles Barry
Some might think there’s nothing a 75-year-old Jesuit priest can teach a bunch of college kids when it comes to technology. They haven’t met James Reites, S.J., MST ’71.

Watch a video about Fr. Reites on NBC Bay Area.

To SCU’s 2007 Solar Decathlon team, he was affectionately known as “Papa.” The 2009 team compared him to a church around which a town is built. And he’s spent countless days and weeks working alongside the 2013 team as they designed and constructed this year’s entry, Radiant House. Some may think there’s nothing a 75-year-old Jesuit priest can teach a bunch of college kids when it comes to technology, but they clearly haven’t met James Reites, S.J., MST ’71.

In a speech at this year’s Solar Decathlon in Irvine, Calif., Reites spoke about why he continues to be involved in the event. “Never have we worked so closely with our students. Never have we had the opportunity to experience their passion, dedicated work, and drive to meet and exceed the goals that have been set for them,” he said. “Why do I work for the Solar Decathlon? It is because it is a delight.”

Read the epic stories of the 2007 team (“Let the sun shine in”) and the 2009 team (“Bending light”) from Santa Clara Magazine. And find out more about Fr. Reites in a profile by Garvin Thomas that first appeared on NBC Bay Area on July 25, 2013, reprinted below. Learn more about the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition on its website. Clay Hamilton

Santa Clara Jesuit Builds Walls, Breaks Down Barriers

Jim Reites was hoping that God would say no.

It was the 1950s and Reites was an engineering student at Loyola University in Los Angeles. He was also “informally” engaged to a young woman at the time. His path in life seemed pretty clear to him, until a group of young Jesuits came through campus the summer of his senior year.

“I got to know some of them,” Reites says. “Terrific people.”

The notion of becoming one of them entered Reites’ mind and refused to exit. “I decided I wouldn’t be happy unless I applied,” Reites says. “I went through the whole application process. I was hoping it would come back negative and unfortunately they accepted me.”

Father Jim Reites gave up on an engineering career path to spend years studying philosophy and theology, eventually rising to chair of the religious studies department at Santa Clara University. Still, the tinker in him never went away.

“The first personal computer in a department on campus, I built that out of a kit,” Fr. Reites says.

That do-it-yourself spirit was one big reason why, in 2007, he was asked to advise Santa Clara’s first Solar Decathlon team.

The United States Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon is a biannual competition where teams from schools around the world compete to build the most efficient, livable, beautiful home they can. Santa Clara’s entries in 2007 and 2009 fared very well.

Both teams finished in third place, besting many bigger, better-funded universities. Students say Fr. Reites is a big reason for their success.

Members of the 2013 team, [who built their home this summer] on the Santa Clara campus, say Fr. Reites is an inspiration to them, in more ways than one.

“I’ve never seen him down in spirits or tired,” says Santa Clara junior Brian Grau. “He’s always ready to work whether it’s actually doing physical labor all day long or helping us with the design.”

“Obviously, I enjoy it,” says Fr. Reites, “It’s fun. It’s exciting.”

It is also breaking stereotypes. First, the notion that a 75-year-old Jesuit priest can’t teach 20-somethings a thing or two about technology. Second, the belief some might have that religion and science don’t mix.

Father Reites says the building of a solar house is right in line with the Jesuits’ mission. “It’s engineering with a mission,” Fr. Reites says, “a real mission to make the world a better place.”

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