OREGON, Ohio – Ohio State University's president is back in the good graces of the Little Sisters of the Poor after turning them into a punch line last fall when he mocked other universities who don't play in football's power conferences.
Gordon Gee spent Wednesday touring a home for the elderly operated by the religious order in northwest Ohio, and he pledged to be one of their greatest advocates after putting them into the spotlight.
"As you know, I've made you famous," he told the residents and staff members.
He later stood next to Mother Cecilia Mary Sartorius, the home's administrator, who gave him a hug and whispered that he was forgiven. "Does everyone hear that I'm forgiven?" he shouted. "My day of penance is over."
Gee stepped into a controversy last November when he told The Associated Press that teams like TCU and Boise State don't deserve to play in the Bowl Championship Series title game because they don't play anybody. "We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor," he said.
That comment rankled fans across the country as well as university officials.
Boise State's president, Bob Kustra, responded by calling Gee's comments a great exaggeration, saying it "gets under the skin of all of us who thought university presidents were supposed to be standing for fairness, equity and truth in how we portray our universities."
TCU fans got even following the Horned Frogs' win in the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin of the Big Ten with a message on billboards around Columbus that read, "Congratulations to TCU for their BCS Rose Bowl Victory." It was signed, "Little Sisters of the Poor."
Gee has famously gotten in trouble for his off-hand remarks, most recently during the memorabilia-for-cash and tattoos scandal that cost football coach Jim Tressel his job.
Gee was asked in March whether he'd considered firing Tressel. He responded: "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me." Tressel stepped down three months later.
Gee acknowledged Wednesday that he knew nothing about the Little Sisters or their mission of serving the elderly poor at about 30 homes nationwide. He said his wisecrack turned out to be a good thing because it's helped promote the good work of the sisters.
"This is God's work here," he said, adding that he'd like to see Ohio State students and alumni volunteer at their facilities. He sent a personal check to the Little Sisters of the Poor last fall.
"Out of inadvertent humor can come great deeds," he said.
Gee shook hands with residents in wheelchairs, including those dressed in rival Michigan shirts and hats, and signed autographs for those wearing Ohio State jerseys while touring the home.
His visit was even bigger than bingo day, said activities director Rosanne Kalinowski.
It's difficult to find money to operate the facility that's home to 74 residents, Sister Cecilia said. Most months are run at deficit.
"We're very lowly, humble people," she said. "We take care of the poor and try to reach out to get support. This has opened whole new doors for us."
The nuns gave him a bow tie with a Little Sisters logo and accepted his offer to attend a football game this fall.
"Sister Cecilia will dress up as a fullback," he said. "Of course, we'll expect special prayers on the Buckeyes that day."