MONTECITO, Calif. — Family and friends are mourning the tragic death of Roy Rohter, 84, co-founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, California, and a generous benefactor to Catholic education, who was swept from his Montecito home in a mudslide along with wife, Theresa, early in the morning of Jan. 9 as the result of heavy rains.

Theresa survived and is in stable condition.

Michael Van Hecke, St. Augustine headmaster, said in a public statement, “Roy’s life has been in service to his good, loving and ever-forgiving God. He has done so much for so many people and pro-life and Catholic education causes. … Thousands have been blessed by the Rohters’ friendship and generosity.”

Founded in 1994, the St. Augustine Academy serves 165 students in grades K-12, offering a classical liberal arts curriculum and teaching children the Catholic faith. Its mission, according to Van Hecke, “is to assist parents in their duty of fostering within their children growth in the theological, intellectual and moral virtues.”

Van Hecke had known Rohter for 24 years and described him as his “best friend” and “a great man with a great personality.” He opened his home to the Rohters in December, when they were evacuated from their home during the Thomas Fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 structures in the Santa Barbara region. Van Hecke now refers to the eight days he spent with Rohter in his home as “a great gift.”

Rohter was also a benefactor to nearby Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula, having a daughter who graduated in 2000 and many friends at the school. Anne Forsyth, a TAC spokeswoman, said, “[Rohter] was a great man who did so much to promote classical Catholic education.”

TAC President Michael McLean added that Rohter “played a pivotal role in the lives of countless young Catholic students — students who came to a deeper knowledge and love of Christ because of his vision, commitment and generosity.”

McLean described Rohter as “a very devout Catholic man, committed to his Catholic faith and deeply interested in Catholic education.” He also had “a boundless amount of energy” and “an engaging personality,” which enabled him to do much to support the work of the Church.


South-Side Chicago Childhood

Rohter grew up in a rough neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His father was Jewish and his mother Catholic, but the family was not religious and did not attend religious services. He went on to become a successful real-estate broker who was able to retire at a young age and devote himself to philanthropic work.

In midlife, when Rohter married and had three children, “the Lord tapped him for bigger things,” said Van Hecke. He continued, “He began to think about what life is about. The Lord called him to convert his life and live it with love and purpose, which he did.”

Van Hecke continued, “Roy used the phrase ‘sudden and unexpected’ to describe his life. He was referring to how the grace of God slammed into his life and brought him the great good of faith, apostolate and, most important, family. That’s the way God comes to us so often, Roy discovered: in a sudden and unexpected way.”

Rohter became enthusiastic about Catholic education, helping to start three schools, including St. Augustine Academy. While Rohter was a financial benefactor to the academy, Van Hecke believes “his greatest gift was the wisdom, advice and guidance he offered us.”

Among the organizations Rohter supported was The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which is committed to promoting the Catholic Church’s classical system of education. McLean noted that he became “a staunch believer” in TAC’s educational program and “viewed it as an inspiration for other Catholic schools he helped found.”

The schools he founded were K-12, McLean noted, giving students “the kind of education that would be a good preparation for someone who would go on to enter TAC.”

He and Rohter both served on the board of directors for St. Augustine Academy, McLean noted, where “Roy was a real leader encouraging us to advance the cause of the academy. He had a real belief in Catholic education and brought an infectious energy to that cause.”

Quincy Masteller, general counsel at TAC, also served on the St. Augustine Academy board with Rohter starting in 1994. He said that Rohter played a key role in the initial establishment of the academy, anonymously paying the headmaster’s salary during the school’s first year. The seed money was crucial, Masteller said, “As the rest of us had young families at the time and didn’t have any money.”


Death a ‘Huge Blow’

Rohter was a regular on the TAC campus, Masteller recalled, coming up midday for Mass and staying for lunch so he could talk with students and staff. His death is a “huge blow” to those who loved him, Masteller said, although “he left a great legacy for the Church in his support for Catholic lay education.”

Masteller, too, recalled Rohter’s commitment to his faith, remarking, “If it was Catholic, Roy supported it.”

Rohter’s funeral Mass will be celebrated at TAC’s Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at a date yet to be determined; two years ago, Rohter had requested the honor for himself and his wife. It will no doubt be well attended, Masteller said, as Rohter “was a wonderful man and a good friend to many.”

“I loved Roy very much, as did all who knew him,” McLean added. “He’ll be missed, although we can be confident that he’s now enjoying his spot in heaven.”

Van Hecke concluded, “Roy was one of my dearest friends and a great mentor to me. He meant a great deal to me, and he always will. I know his request now would be that we all pray for his soul.”

Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.