The Twin Cities Catholic education community has lost a giant.

Brother Michael Collins, who in 1955 became one of the first black graduates of Minneapolis DeLaSalle High School and who came back in 1991 as president to lead the threatened institution to modern-day heights of enrollment, diversity and academic standing, has died.

Collins, 74, died Sunday at Catholic Eldercare in northeast Minneapolis, a few blocks from the Nicollet Island school, after a brief battle with cancer.

Under Collins, DeLaSalle, where nearly half of the 650 students are members of minority groups and a third live in or near poverty, boasted top-flight academics. It rivals predominantly white and wealthier private high schools in terms of National Merit Scholars and college placement rates.

"Brother Michael was somebody we feared [at age 14]; we were in awe of him because of his demeanor and command," said Chico Rowland, a once-homeless kid who graduated from DeLaSalle, worked there a few years and now works in digital media. "You knew he was the president. As a senior, he was someone with whom we had more camaraderie. As an employee, I had admiration."

Said Quentin Liggins, a DeLaSalle graduate who now works for Goldman Sachs: "Brother Michael saved my life. I was an intelligent teenager, but I lacked social awareness and the ability to carry myself in a respectful and professional manner. He really instilled in me ... the ability to dream and to execute on your dreams."

"He was a positive, powerful, African-American role model who encouraged us to achieve anything we put our mind to," said Michael McHugh, a St. Paul construction-company consultant and single-parent minority kid who arrived in 1992. "First, we had to behave and listen and do our homework."

A working-class son of north Minneapolis, Collins earned degrees in music and education at St. Mary's University of Minnesota. At St. Mary's he joined the teaching order of Christian Brothers. He returned to teach at DeLaSalle in 1959 and subsequently served as an educator and administrator at Shanley High School in Fargo; St. Mary's College High School in Berkeley, Calif., and Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco in 1990.

Collins returned to DeLaSalle 22 years ago as the century-old high school battled a 20-year enrollment decline and financial trouble that dovetailed with the opening of new Catholic high schools in the suburbs.

Tim Keane, chairman of the board that hired Collins, said he balanced the budget in his first year, the first time in a decade of red ink.

"Michael had vision and hired good people," Keane said. "He set high standards and expected you to deliver. He had a doctorate in education; he was approached by colleges. But he always said, 'This is where I belong.' We always knew he was the boss."

Collins saw the school's near-downtown location and student mix as its strength. He welcomed non-Catholics, but every student had to study Catholic theology and world religions and to explore his or her own spirituality. He declared DeLaSalle a place where middle-class and low-income boys and girls, all of whom had to pay some portion of tuition, would get an equally good education. To finance it, he tapped a network of alumni and business friends who raised more than $25 million for scholarships, building improvements, a second gymnasium and a soccer and football field the school lacked for its first century.

DeLaSalle won state basketball championships, but Collins bragged more about academic performance, school plays and struggling freshmen who ended up winning college scholarships.

Joe Duffy, owner of a Minneapolis graphics design firm, recalled that Collins was dean of discipline and the glee club director when Duffy entered DeLaSalle in 1963.

Duffy, a mischievous freshman, was only interested in the arts. Collins, who got to know Duffy through disciplinary matters, encouraged his interest in art but told him he would go nowhere unless he also passed math and history.

"In the glee club, he took us all the way to the World's Fair one year in Montreal," Duffy said. "He also put together a band and he would sing; Beatles to Johnny Mathis. My dad owned Duff's Bar in downtown Minneapolis and Michael would sing there sometimes. ...

"He could have been a success as a singer or business or politics. He chose to devote his life to kids like me."

DeLaSalle, named for John Baptist DeLaSalle, a French priest in the 17th century who established a Christian order of teachers to educate poor children, says it offers the largest per-capita financial aid program of any Minnesota high school. However, unlike some other private schools, Collins insisted that all families had to pay something and work off tuition, no matter how poor, how brilliant or how athletic was their student.

Only a few Christian Brothers, an order declining in number, remain at DeLaSalle.

"De long prided itself on taking in a lot of urban poor kids, which is a fundamental of the LaSallian Christian Brothers," said Jim Kaster, a Minneapolis lawyer and board member whose two sons graduated from DeLaSalle. "Michael cherished the opportunity to be a difference maker for people on the fringes. He went to the alumni, business people, and asked them to support the school. He insisted everybody abide by the behavioral standards, regardless of background. It worked."

Collins often referred to a prayer by Bishop Ken Untener to honor the martyred Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador that calls on the faithful to take heart in planting and watering the seeds for "their future promise" and to take the long view.

"We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker," the prayer concludes. "We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own."

Visitation will be held from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at DeLaSalle High School, with a prayer service at 7:30 p.m. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, with visitation at the church one hour before services.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •