Given a choice years ago to retire and enjoy life, businessman Robert Healey Sr. decided to dig in. He is on a personal crusade to help save Catholic schools in the region.

Healey, 84, of Lumberton, a successful lawyer and entrepreneur, has become a champion for Catholic education, turning around struggling schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania by showing them how to operate more like businesses.

As the cofounder of Viking Yacht in Burlington County, one of the world's top luxury yacht builders, and the chief executive of more than a half-dozen companies and several charities, Healey knows how to run a business.

That means no more cake sales to keep the school doors open and the lights on, but a more aggressive strategy used by colleges and private schools for fund-raising and student recruiting.

"I have a passion about children and schools," Healey said in an interview last week. "My focus is to save these schools."

His approach has garnered national attention, and the National Catholic Educational Association will award Healey its highest honor Monday in Washington in recognition of his contributions.

Healey and four others will receive the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, named in honor of the first native-born American saint.

In a statement, Brother Robert Bimonte, NCEA president, said the award "recognizes great leaders who are supporting Catholic education in many ways."

In 2004, Healey and his daughter, Christine, created the Catholic School Development Program, which has been widely credited with raising millions of dollars and boosting enrollment at about 60 elementary and high schools in the region.

"The time when all we hear are the collapses and closings of schools is ending," his daughter said. "The tide is changing."

The model has been adopted by schools in the Camden, Philadelphia, and Allentown dioceses. Healey hopes to bring another diocese on board within the next year.

According to the Catholic education organization, the Camden Diocese has raised an additional $3.2 million since 2008 by setting up annual funds. In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, enrollment at five elementary schools increased 5 percent, and the Allentown Diocese projects a similar boost at its elementary schools participating in the program.

"Not only does it allow us to look forward to the future, these schools are in good hands," said Philip Fromuth, secretary for Catholic education in the Allentown Diocese.

In a statement, Jacqueline Coccia, superintendent of elementary schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, praised Healey as "a true champion of Catholic education." Holy Family Regional Catholic School in Levittown, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Christopher, and St. Katherine of Siena in Philadelphia joined the pilot program in 2004, and this year, St. Peter the Apostle and Our Lady of Port Richmond were added.

Under the program, each school has a lay board as well as a chief executive and an institutional advancement director responsible for fund-raising and recruiting. Healey raises about $2 million annually to support the program, overseen by the Healey Education Foundation.

At St. Peter Elementary School in Merchantville, there are signs that the program has made a difference at the 85-year-old school. It was the first school in the Camden Diocese to adopt the program in 2010.

This year, there are 86 new students, and several more on the waiting list, a far cry from several years ago, when closing seemed imminent. Pre-kindergarten enrollment has jumped from a dozen students to about 60.

"We've slowly been building our enrollment," said Kathryn O'Callaghan, the school's advancement director, an alumna whose two children attend the school. "[Healey] really brought us up to speed."

Besides more students, the three-story brick school has a new computer lab and a science lab, thanks to an annual fund started under Healey that primarily targets the school's 5,000 alumni. There are 325 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

"He just came at the right time for Catholic schools," said Sister Rosa Maria Ojeda, the school's principal. "He's helping to bring leadership."

Situated next door to a thriving parish, the school draws students mostly from Pennsauken, Cinnaminson, Cherry Hill, and Mount Laurel.

During a visit to the school last week, Healey beamed with pride as he stopped in classrooms to greet students. When a bright-faced youngster said play time was his favorite activity at school - much to the chagrin of his teacher - Healey quickly put both at ease.

"I have to tell you that when I was your age, I liked playing, too," Healey told the boy.

Healey grew up in Camden and Atco and graduated from Camden Catholic in Cherry Hill, which inducted him into its first Hall of Fame class in 2007. He attended St. Joseph's University, where he adopted the Jesuit motto, "men and women with and for others." He also holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and practiced law for 25 years.

Deeply spiritual, Healey wept openly when discussing his strong faith and his commitment to the church. That motivates him to dig in and help others, instead of sitting idle, he said.

"I'm driven by an obligation I have because God has been good to me," Healey said. "I will give back till the day I die."

Healey maintains a busy schedule as chief executive of Viking, which he founded with his older brother, Bill, in 1964. Based in New Gretna in Burlington County along the Bass River, the family-run business has about 1,400 employees.

He also runs several philanthropic organizations that have helped build schools in Mexico and that support orphanages and medical facilities in Sierra Leone. He also helps his wife, Ellen, run an equestrian program for at-risk girls at their farm in Lumberton.

The father of seven children and grandfather of 10, Healey is a dedicated family man. Several of his offspring work in the family businesses.

Healey said he had no plans to slow down any time soon. He wants to leave a legacy of service to others.

"Some day it's going to come to an end. I just want to pay my dues," he said. "If I can do that, I have achieved something."

856-779-3814 @mlburney