By David E. Schroeder
Special for NKyTribune
Part 35 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021
Father William (Bill) Cleves was named the eleventh president of Thomas More College on September 25, 1992, after serving four months on an interim basis. Father – later Monsignor – Cleves led the college through several Southern Association reaccreditations and oversaw many aspects of physical and educational growth on campus. Dedicated to the liberal arts, Cleves emphasized the importance of the college’s roots while meeting the needs of a contemporary faculty, staff, and student body. Cleves was the first priest to hold the title of President of Thomas More College since the resignation of Bishop John Murphy in 1971.
Bill Cleves spent his formative years in the small town of Bellevue, Campbell County, on the Ohio River. His close-knit family owned the neighborhood jewelry store in town and was well known in the community. The family was a member of the Church of the Sacred Heart and the children attended the parish school. Here young Bill Cleves received his early education from several Notre Dame Sisters and lay teachers. In fact, the extended Cleves family had produced many vocations to priesthood and religious life in northern Kentucky.
Cleves showed great promise at Sacred Heart Elementary School and was encouraged to enter Covington Latin School after the end of sixth grade. At Covington Latin, Bill Cleves’ college life flourished. Here he was exposed to classical Greek and Latin. After graduating in 1970, Cleves made the decision to begin discernment toward the priesthood. He attended the Saint Pius X seminary in Erlanger where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. St. Pius X Seminary also introduced Cleves to faculty member Bishop Gerald E. Twaddell. Twaddell soon became one of his mentors, inspiring Cleves to pursue graduate studies in philosophy and to consider an academic life. Cleves’ next stop was the Athenaeum in Ohio, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy.
Cleves’ superior work at St. Pius X and the Athenaeum attracted considerable attention from diocesan officials. He was sent for studies in Rome at the Gregorian University. There he obtained a baccalaureate (STB) and a license (STL) in sacred theology and a doctorate in philosophy (summa cum laude).
Cleves also developed a love of languages during his undergraduate and graduate studies. Over time he developed an understanding of Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Latin. He was also able to develop an understanding of reading biblical Greek and Hebrew.
After his studies in Europe, Father William F. Cleves was ordained a priest by Bishop Richard H. Ackerman on July 22, 1978, in his native parish of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue. He celebrated two solemn masses of thanksgiving at the Sacred Heart, one on July 23 in English and one on July 24 in German.
From 1978 to 1981, Father Cleves was an instructor at the Gregorian University in Rome. In July 1980, Bishop Justin Rigali offered him a position in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. The diplomatic corps represents the Vatican and the Pope in countries around the world. Such an offer was extremely prestigious. Cleves, however, declined the appointment. He explained that the people of the Diocese of Covington had done a lot to support his vocation and to fund his education and that he wanted to stay in the area and give back to the people. Upon his return to the United States, he was a guest lecturer at Saint Pius X Seminary in Erlanger from 1981 to 1983.
In 1983 Father Cleves began a long association with Thomas More College as an instructor. In 1986 he was appointed assistant professor of philosophy. The following year, he was voted “Outstanding Full-Time Teacher of the Year” by the students. Cleves attained the rank of associate professor of philosophy in 1990. He also occasionally taught in the language department, including classes in German, Latin, and Greek. He also took on many management roles during this time at Thomas More. He was twice elected President of the Faculty General Assembly (1987-1990), served as College Chaplain from 1987-1992, and served on the Budget, Library, and Curriculum Committees.
Following the resignation of Dr. Charles Bensman as President of Thomas More College on June 1, 1992, Father Cleves was appointed Acting President by Bishop William A. Hughes, Bishop of Covington and Chancellor of the College. Cleves’ college background would serve him well as he was chosen as the college’s eleventh president in September 1992.
David E. Schroeder is director of the Kenton County Public Library. He is the author of Life Along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky (2014), co-editor of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (2015), and co-author of Lost Northern Kentucky (2018).
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