WHO WAS THAT guy in the clerical collar inserting himself into a class of serious future journalists at Columbia University?

He was not only a priest, he was, at 31, older than most everybody else in the class, and his thinning hair made him look even older.

To the younger students looking toward serious careers in the communications field, John Patrick Foley was an anomaly. But he quickly won the respect of even the most cynical with his charm, rich sense of humor and obvious dedication to the subject at hand, and, by extension, everything else he undertook.

In fact, the members of that one-year graduate journalism class of 1966 elected him class president and gave him the title of the one "most likely to succeed."

John Patrick Foley, who fulfilled the prophecy as a future cardinal, the priest who ran the Vatican's news operations for 23 years and a man so popular in the Philadelphia area that he packed churches whenever he came home from Rome for a visit, died yesterday. He was 76, and had suffered from leukemia in recent years.

He was living at the Villa St. Joseph, in Darby.

For 25 years, Foley's was the American voice of the Vatican, providing commentary on Masses and other ceremonies to TV viewers around the country, especially the Christmas Eve midnight Mass.

His last broadcast was in 2009.

"I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Cardinal John Foley," said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. "Cardinal Foley was a man of great apostolic energy. Anyone who met him was immediately aware of his intense love for the church, and his zeal for communicating the Gospel.

"By the sheer force of his personality, he drew people to the faith and to himself. I was pleased that he was able to come home during the final months of his life. No matter where he lived or how he served the church over the years, he always considered Philadelphia his home."

"He was everybody's favorite priest," said Rocco Palmo, Philadelphia-based author of the blog Whispers in the Loggia.

"He was the embodiment of Philadelphia Catholicism," Palmo said. "He was warm and fuzzy and always exuberant. And even though he lived in Rome for 23 years, he always considered Philadelphia to be his home."

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told Vatican Radio that Foley "incarnated in the best way the friendly, open, attentive relationship of the church in the world of social communications."

Ron Goldwyn, former Daily News reporter who often covered religious subjects, was a member of the Class of '66 at Columbia University when Foley arrived.

"He was an unusual figure in this class in the mid-'60s," Goldwyn recalled. "We were not used to hanging around with Catholic priests."

One of their class assignments was to plunge deep into the New York City sewer system to cover some kind of promotion by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

There was the future prince of the church in a hard hat taking notes from the strange and self-promoting painter.

"You don't forget going down in the sewer with a priest," Goldwyn said.

In 1991, Goldwyn was in Rome to cover the elevation of 23 prelates to cardinal. Here's how he described the way that Foley dealt with the world press:

"Archbishop John P. Foley, the Philadelphian who runs the Vatican's television office, was briefing the global press yesterday in English, Italian, Spanish, French - and standup comedy."

The reference was to Foley's rich sense of humor, which leaned heavily on clever puns. His Irish wit always kept such encounters with the press lighthearted, as well as informative.

Foley was then head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, to which he was named by the late Pope John Paul II in 1984.

When he was elevated to grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem by Pope Benedict XVI, in 2007, Foley asked, "Do I have to ride a horse?"

Actually, the ancient knighthood supports schools, health care and other needs of the poor in the Middle East - without horses.

Foley was elevated to cardinal later that year.

He was editor-in-chief of the Catholic Standard and Times, the Philadelphia Catholic newspaper, from 1970 to 1984. He previously had been the Vatican correspondent for the newspaper.

He was co-producer and co-host of the "Philadelphia Catholic Hour," from 1966 to 1974, sharing a studio with Bertie the Bunyip.

Foley was a protege of the late Cardinal John Krol, former archbishop of Philadelphia, who had sent him to Columbia for the graduate course.

It was also Krol who got him the position with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Foley had protested that he had his widowed mother, the former Regina Vogt, to care for.

"Bring her with you," he was told. And so, Regina Foley lived in Rome until her death in 1997. His father, John, died in 1963.

It was Regina who told the somewhat portly prelate, "John, there are 20 pounds of you that has not been ordained."

John Foley, called Jackie in his childhood, was born in Darby to parents who came from Fishtown. He grew up in the Holy Spirit Parish, in Sharon Hill, where he went to grammar school.

He attended St. Joseph's Prep in 1949, and obtained a bachelor's degree, summa cum laude, from St. Joseph's College in 1957. He entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary that year and was ordained on May 19, 1962.

It was while in his senior year at St. Joe's Prep that he decided to become a priest.

"I went back to the parish church," he said, "and I knelt in front of the Christmas crib scene there, and I said, 'Lord, you've given me everything I have - my life, my family, my faith, my wonderful education - and I want to give it all back to you.' And that's when I decided to enter the seminary."

His first assignment after his ordination was as an assistant pastor of Sacred Heart Church, in Manoa. He was later assistant pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, in Philadelphia, and was a member of the faculty of Cardinal Dougherty High School for a time.

He was the English press liaison for the visits of Pope John Paul II to Ireland and Philadelphia in 1979, and the International Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1980.

Even as he neared his final illness, John Foley did not lose his sense of humor. He chided Rocco Palmo for always seeming to have stories on his accomplishments before they were officially announced.

Palmo recalled: "He told me, 'When I go home to the Lord, I look forward to seeing Jesus, and to find out who your sources were.' "

Services: Were being planned.