He wanted to be president, but instead he’s trying to save the world

As a child of the 1930s and ’40s, Pete Henriot was the last of five Catholic children in his family born near Tacoma’s St. Patrick Church who attended Bellarmine Preparatory School.

“I was a paperboy and a confident kid,” Henriot said. “By the time I went to college in California, I wanted to be president of the United States. That was in the ’50s.”

Dwight Eisenhower was president, and Henriot changed his mind. He still wanted to serve, but was pulled toward the Jesuit order — a decision that allowed him to see the world.

“When I made my decision, my debate partner (at Santa Clara University) still wanted to be president,” Henriot said. “His name was Jerry Brown — and he’s the governor of California.”

And Henriot? You could call him father, because since 1970 he has been a Jesuit priest. You could call him doctor, because he has a doctorate and three master’s degrees.

You certainly could call him driven, because at age 78 he spends more time looking ahead than behind.

For the past 25 years, Henriot has lived in Africa and come home to Tacoma on short visits. With long stops in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, he said he fell in love with the people and the land.

“I ask what people here first think of when they think of Africa, and they say ‘genocide,’ ‘AIDS,’ ‘war,’” he said. “And I tell them, that’s like Africans thinking of America only as a place where there are bombings at marathons and school shootings.”

In pursuit of education, Henriot attended college in Oregon, Missouri and Illinois, getting to Chicago in time to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in an anti-war demonstration. Henriot opposed the Vietnam War, fought for civil rights and was arrested once in Africa.

“It was at a ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ event at the South African embassy, and I knocked on the door and asked to speak to the ambassador,” Henriot said. “They gave me two minutes to leave or be arrested. I was arrested, along with a lot of other people.”

When visiting Tacoma these days, Henriot stays at Bellarmine, in the rooms on the second floor of Orton Hall. He graduated from Bellarmine in 1954. It’s as close to where he was raised as he gets, and it’s rare when he’s even on the continent.

There were 17 years in Washington, D.C., working with the Center of Concern, a Jesuit organization concerned with the poor, women’s rights and the environment.

There were trips to South America, Australia, Africa.

Henriot testified before Congress — he discussed developing aid to struggling countries — and spent a year helping develop a small village in Africa. He wrote a weekly column for a South African newspaper.

That done, he threw himself at a new project — founding the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection. The center, which advocates for the poor, started modestly.

“It began as a bookshelf in my room and a few years later was a three-building complex in the capital of Zambia,” he said.

Asked if he might be considered an activist, Henriot smiled.

“Yes,” he said, “but an activist grounded in solid values.”

The last few years, he has traveled the world fundraising for his latest project — the first Jesuit secondary school in Malawi.

“It will be a co-educational school and start in September with a ninth-grade class. Next year, they’ll go on to 10th grade and we’ll be ready for another ninth-grade class. We’ll grow each year,” he said.

“Right now, less than 35 percent of all Malawi children attend secondary school — and less than 25 percent of young women do. The school will prepare students to become men and women with a love for others. They’ll learn how to make a difference.”

Henriot and others have raised about 60 percent of the $12 million needed, getting contributions as large as $4 million and as small as $25. On March 23, he’ll head back to Malawi after a trip home that included visiting a brother in Seattle and a sister in Portland.

“There’s a wonderful African proverb: “I am because we are, and we are because I am,” Henriot said. “We are all part of our community, and communities are made up of individuals and reflect those individuals.”


If you’d like to learn more about the Jesuit Secondary School in Malawi or contribute to it, go online to loyola-malawi.org.