In the 1980s, the University of Dallas needed stairs. UD was in its adolescence, having just taken root on a bare, untended Texas hilltop, an idea in a smattering of mid-century brick. But things were growing, from the student body to the university’s reputation to the trees planted in the early 1960s by art professor Lyle Novinski, MFA. The place had begun to take shape, including a network of packed dirt footpaths worn by the students. Novinski had scraped together a few yards of gravel, a set of railroad crossties and a group of undergraduates to make them into proper walkways with stairsteps.
Before his long career as an English professor and appointment to his current deanship, Gregory Roper, BA ’84, Ph.D., was one of the students that helped lay the gravel paths leading past the gym and from the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe up to Haggar. He may not have known at the time that he was taking part in what would become a tradition at UD under one of the university’s first and longest-serving professors.
“One of the amazing things about Lyle is that, you know, going back to the earliest days of the university, they just had to do everything themselves. And he didn't mind doing that,” Roper recalls.
“He would just pitch in. You’ll hear many other stories like, ‘Okay, we need something for the chapel? I’ll build stuff for the chapel.’ … He just scavenged some crossties from somewhere and he had a huge thing of gravel he had somebody dump there. He’d say, ‘Okay, here we go. We’re going to build this path.’”
After decades of growth under Novinski’s resourceful hand, the university entered a different age when he passed away on April 28. The Class of 2023 will be the first in UD’s history to graduate without him.
During his time here, Novinski filled many roles. He created the art program, one of the few Catholic studio MFA programs in existence. He taught classes on art, architecture and art history in Irving and in Rome, where every Romer for decades underwent what Roper described as a mad blitz from the Greeks to modernism. Armed with a deep appreciation for art’s place in a liberal education, Novinski fought to elevate and earn recognition for UD, bringing in influential guest lecturers like architect Christian Norberg-Schulz. In his design of UD’s sacred spaces, Novinski shared with Norberg-Schulz an appreciation for art that suits its home, according to Roper.
“Norberg-Schulz has a work called ‘Genius Loci,’ the spirit of the place, and the idea that whatever you build should fit into the landscape and the idea of the place,” Roper says.
Novinski strove for that same quality, imbuing his art with a native spirit. At the same time, while he meant for his designs to fit a particular home, art for Novinski always had deep universal value.
“Study of the arts is part of the Core Curriculum at UD,” Novinski once told a Dallas Morning News contributor. “We put it there because we think you can't make a holistic study of theology without including a study of artistic expression, sacred or otherwise.”
On occasion, the university has exhibited Novinski’s paintings, some of which hang in the Museum of Biblical Art, all showing that signature depth, fluidity and mystique unmistakable to his art but occasionally recalling Goya or William Blake. He established his reputation more prominently and less noticeably in liturgical art, though, showing a prolific skill for creating things that seem to have always been where he put them — altars, fonts, stained glass windows, processional crosses, floors. The altar he created during his military service in Korea looks as if it existed long before the Quonset hut around it. Novinski would go on to design the interiors of dozens of sacred spaces in Texas, including St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas, student chapels at SMU, Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Plano, Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Dallas, Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in Paris and St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in McKinney.
He designed the interior and furnishings of UD’s sacred spaces as well, both permanent and transient. Along with the Church of the Incarnation at the Irving campus and the Due Santi Chapel in Rome, Novinski made a chapel out of Maher Athletic Center while the Church of the Incarnation was under construction.
Alumnus Bob Loftus, BA ’76, remembers the experience of turning a gym into a church.
“I arrived late due to a pre-finals calculus study group, but Lyle made a point to come up to me and introduce himself and put me to work amongst the yards of fabric that needed to be cut and arranged and hung,” Loftus says.
“I always remember the effort he made to individually welcome me.”
Loftus also remembers Novinski’s constant enthusiasm for making UD a place worthy of seeking truth and beauty.
“Lyle always seemed to be busy, moving around campus with abundant energy, impatient to get started on the next project. I marvel today at how green and colorful the campus is compared to the somewhat barren and brown hilltop I arrived at in August of 1972. His touch is everywhere on campus,” Loftus says.
With other 1970s alumni, Loftus helped arrange an exhibition last September of Novinski’s painting and drawing collection, A World of Paper. His vivacity hadn’t waned.
“Lyle spoke for at least an hour as we toured the exhibition; quite a demonstration for a fellow 90 years young. The usual enthusiasm for the subject was undiminished,” Loftus remembers.
“As I said at the time, if you closed your eyes, you could almost believe you were back in Lynch Hall with the lights turned down, Lyle at the lectern, the slide projector throwing a piece of art on the screen — more of that Novinski magic.”
Another alumnus, Michael Wehrle, BS ’85, was inspired by Novinski to help start up the Clash of the Classes event, a week of campus improvement. Although the annual event just turned two, Wehrle says he’s just continuing the work Novinski had always been doing.
“The kids last year came to [Roper] and said, ‘Hey, man, we’re tired of all these philosophy things. We want to do man work around here. We want to dig something up and build something and this and that.’ And Greg called me and said, ‘Let’s just do this as a continuation of what Lyle did for all those years,’” Wehrle recalls.
In typical form, Novinski had snagged some new peach trees for free that he donated to Wehrle for the first Clash of the Classes team. He had been keeping them for a special occasion; Wehrle had to dig them out of his front yard since the roots had grown through the pots. After the volunteers planted them around campus last year, the trees, like so much of Novinski’s work, now seem to have always been here.
“Lyle didn’t start [Clash of the Classes]. He was doing it for 40 years,” Wehrle says.
“Lyle was the inspiration for all this.”
Novinski is survived by his wife Sybil, keeper of the university’s history, as well five children, including son Stefan Novinski, MFA, head of the Drama Department, 18 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. He also leaves UD richer, livelier and more beautiful than he found it. In the program he created, in his own craftsmanship in UD’s places of prayer, in the future works of service and art he will inspire, and in the very trees, halls and paths of the campus, Novinski’s legacy endures.