BALTIMORE – Beneath the overhang of a three-bedroom house on Baltimore’s East Belvedere Avenue, Vinnie Quayle is keeping out of a ruthless rainstorm. He turns a key into the hefty metal lock hanging from the doorknob and enters the home.
It’s empty inside, but for the kitchen cabinets and some off-white carpets. In the 40 years Quayle has been executive director of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, he has fixed up many homes like this one. Motioning toward empty floor space in the kitchen, he says this is where the refrigerator will go.
But it won’t be moved in until the family moves in because empty houses in the area are susceptible to thieves. To Quayle, the appliances don’t get “stolen,” they just “tend to disappear.”
Quayle wears flannel shirts and loafers to work, and he is very animated in discussions of his business; in fact, he’s animated in most conversations — especially when he tells his stories.
Vinnie Quayle has no shortage of stories.
He’ll tell you a story about fielding baseballs from Brooklyn Dodgers coach Cookie Lavagetto at Ebbets Field; a story about his escape from near execution during the Biafran War in Nigeria; and a story about how he met his wife when she was a nun and he was a priest and how he “stole her away.”
The house on Belvedere is one of about 35 Quayle hopes to sell this year through the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. He has served as the center’s executive director and president of since its founding in 1968.
Quayle based his nonprofit housing aid center on a model started by an Irish priest, who taught him in England in 1972. St. Ambrose staff members renovate houses, provide homeownership counseling and foreclosure-prevention services, offer rental units, and, through their homesharing program, connect homeowners who have extra room with tenants.
The center uses the profits from the houses it sells to supplement its other programs. But since the economy has soured, it is having a harder time making that profit.
“The houses take longer to sell in this market,” Quayle says. “We used to be able to do a house in seven months, and now that’s maybe 12 or 13 months.”
He climbs up to the top floor of the home and into the empty master bedroom, reflecting on how St. Ambrose will probably net $15,000 less than he would like on the property.
And Quayle would know. His institution has been integral to Baltimore’s nonprofit housing programs for decades.
Vincent P. Quayle was born in 1939 in Rockaway Beach, on Long Island, N.Y. He had two sisters and a brother. His father was a broker on the American stock exchange, and his uncle was the city fire commissioner.
Thanks to his uncle, “We had box seats behind the visitors’ dugout at Ebbets Field,” he says. Back when the Dodgers were still the Brooklyn Dodgers, “I must have gone to 30 ball games a year.
“In fact, one year, a bunch of us — six of us — would get dressed up in Dodger uniforms, and as the fans would come in, one of the coaches, Cookie Lavagetto, would hit us ground balls.”
Quayle laughs at the memory. “I shook Jackie Robinson’s hand 10 times…at least 10 times,” he says proudly.
Baseball was important to him. But the Catholic Church had an even greater influence.
“I had always had this dream of becoming a Jesuit,” he says, tracing the inspiration to high school. He was impressed by the Jesuit priests who were his teachers. “Part of you wants to be like them someday.”
So, after nearly flunking out of Villanova University while studying engineering, in 1958, Quayle entered a seminary in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he studied for four years. He finished his undergraduate degree at Fordham University, and then spent three years studying at a seminary in Peekskill, N.Y., receiving master’s degrees in both English and philosophy.
Finished with his training, but not yet ordained, Quayle spent a year in Boston taking classes in African studies and teaching English as a second language to prepare to teach in Nigeria.
Quayle did go to Nigeria, but his two-year tour was soon cut short.
“We were building a school,” Quayle says, “and we got caught up in a civil war, the Biafran War,” which began in July of 1967. “We heard about a convoy of British bank presidents that was going to leave the town of Port Harcourt, where we were, and go up to Onitcha, in the middle of the state…and go across a bridge and get into safe territory.
“Just as we got on the bridge, our side, the Igbos, invaded the houses on the other side. And we had to turn around and escape through the Cameroons.” Their convoy, however, was intercepted and captured.
“First night, we were taken out to be shot by — they were just kids really — their two lieutenants were drunk, and they thought we were white mercenaries and I’m trying to say ‘Missionary! Not mercenary!'”
When Quayle returned, he went to the Woodstock Seminary in Woodstock, Md., studied theology for four years and was ordained a priest in 1970. By then he had already become involved in Baltimore housing issues.
“Got a couple of buddies, one a lawyer, and we researched it,” he says. “We did a research project on how white families buy houses through one set of institutions and black families buy them through another, and in the process black families are getting ripped off.”
By 1968, they founded St. Ambrose.
“(Vinnie) and his institution — and they are almost joined at the hip…have been the housing social conscience in this community for the better part of 40 years,” says Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. “They know a lot about mortgage finance, and counseling people and development, and do that very professionally with a keen social edge.”
For years, Sissman and Quayle have worked together, advocated together and disagreed together. He has great respect for Quayle both as a man and as St. Ambrose’s president.
“He is both their charismatic leader, and their conscience, and also a pretty good operative. We need more of him,” Sissman says.
In the early 1970s, Quayle — still a priest — met a young nun from School Sisters of Notre Dame who was staying at a convent where he used to celebrate Mass every Wednesday. “I was so pissed that she was working with a Protestant minister,” he says, remembering their first meeting.
“I stole her away the first day,” he says, grinning, well aware that a priest shouldn’t be jealous of where a woman spends her time.
“So, five years later, we were married.”
Patricia Connolly left the church about a year after they met, but it took Quayle a lot longer to make up his mind. He felt a strong commitment to the people he preached to, and to the other Jesuits. He didn’t want to let them down.
“One day I finally sat down…and I took a piece of paper out, and I wrote down the reasons to stay and the reasons to leave,” Quayle says. “And the reasons to stay were not good reasons.”
Quayle and Patricia married in 1977 and have three boys, all in their 20s: Tom, Matt and Paul.
“I don’t know a better father, or husband,” says Annette Brennan, who has known Quayle for decades. Brennan, the director of St. Ambrose’s homesharing department, has worked for the center for 20 years.
“He is a visionary,” Brennan says of her boss. “He just has this free spirit that allows people with good ideas to work together for a common goal.” Even through a debilitating recession, she says Quayle has managed to keep his employees optimistic and motivated.
Lately, St. Ambrose has seen the foreclosure department overwhelmed with calls, and the homesharing division has seen more business. In the office, there has been a freeze on hiring and on pay increases, until things pick up.
“When we have our staff meetings, he’s usually upbeat, to keep us all upbeat. He’s pretty much encouraged us to just do the best we can under the circumstances,” Brennan says. “We’re not going to get raises, but we’re going to have a job.”
Even after all this time, Quayle plans on sticking around. St. Ambrose celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, and, he says, he’d like to stay to see the 50th.
But he does take it easy.
“I don’t go in rush-hour traffic,” he says. “I’m not rushing anymore. I don’t have to go out at night anymore.”
Instead, he delegates.
“Our younger staff, I make them do everything. Which is good, not only good for them, it’s good for the organization,” he says, “that Baltimore and Maryland see that St. Ambrose is much deeper than Vinnie Quayle.”