By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. The first thing that irritated me about the Boston Globe’s obituary for the Reverend J. Donald Monan, S.J., was the lack of the title he arguably rated the most important in his life. That is to say, his membership in the Society of Jesus (founded in 1540). Every Jesuit is punctilious about this designation… never neglecting to include it as an essential part of his signature and life. It is a source of pride, and I might say, an aggressive outlook instilled by Saint Ignatius of Loyola into the hearts of every man who has become a member of the Society.
These men are the crème de la crème of advanced Roman Catholicism. They are bright, driven, even some might say obsessed with their mission of burning their high Roman Catholic ideals into the minds of young men particularly.
When I was at Harvard, though I am not a Roman Catholic, I was often invited to partake of their fellowship. Discussions were frank, exuberant, laced with wit and knowledge. It was a privilege to be in their midst. It was often suggested to me sotto voce that I consider their path to God. I was honored, but my way was not theirs.
Still, I am as exact about protocol as they are. Thus it appalled me to see right on the very front page on March 19th, 2017, the announcement of Father Monan S.J.’s demise. It went out without the publication of his full and proper name being given… The Reverend J. Donald Monan S.J. (1924-2017).
The author, Mark Feeny, should be ashamed of himself as the Boston Globe continues its long history of garbling the titles and styles of people who earn them, and did not deserve the Boston Globe’s casual, unenlightened, and lazy approach to this matter.
I became involved with Boston College in 1975. That year, as those who lived through it will recall, was a time of recession for America and its academic circles. Jobs were scarce, pay low, disappointment likely… and so my Ivy League colleagues and I lamented. We had worked so hard, and now our careers were stalled. No one felt this more strongly than I did. For if the glory of a Ph.D. is having it conferred by Harvard, it is the more painful when one cannot conjure that degree into the plum academic career one had envisioned for so long.
I spent my time that year writing and publishing furiously to augment my already substantial credentials, and began looking for jobs in college administration, where, because of my background at Harvard, I had a leg up in the job market.
One of the many jobs I applied for was an entry level administrative position at Boston College. This position was in the Evening College. I may have thought myself overqualified for this job, but with the job market in its dismal depths, I could not afford to be overly pernickety. Moreover, as it proved, I was offered a great benefit not given me by other institutions that I could work in the evening, thus opening my morning and early afternoon hours to the book I was writing based on my Harvard doctoral dissertation.
Thus, early each day I wrote the book that launched me academically, “Insubstantial Pageant: Ceremony and Confusion at Queen Victoria's Court” (published in 1977). Then I was transformed each afternoon into a high level gofer for the Reverend James A. Woods S.J., Dean of the Evening College. It was an unusual model, but it worked.
I meet Father Woods S.J.
Father Woods S.J. will go down in Boston College history as a disappointed man who did not get the academic advancement that he wanted, but who turned his disappointment into his renowned expertise in continuing education. He was a builder, he was indefatigable, and his instructions in continuing education improved the lives of thousands of adults who had full time careers but were not willing to stop their education because of it. Father Woods S.J. made sure they could continue with reasonable effort and at reasonable price.
To understand Father Woods S.J. and Father Monan S.J., it is necessary to take one look at both of them. Father Woods S.J. was obese… there is no other word to use. This weight problem undoubtedly contributed to the fact that he was not appointed President of Boston College upon the resignation of the Reverend W. Seavey Joyce S.J.
Woods had worked closely with Joyce for many years, and was reasonably confident of becoming his successor; at least he thought so. When Father Monan S.J. was appointed President of Boston College in 1972, Father Woods S.J. was deeply disappointed, to say no more. The spare, ghost-like Father Monan S.J. upended the handshaking, backpacking Father Woods S.J., whose favorite saying when anyone asked him how he was, was an ebullient “Couldn’t be better! Couldn’t be better!” That was his sentiment. Whether it was accurate or not didn’t matter; it was his signature phrase.
Woods S.J. of course probably disliked Monan S.J. on sight. Moreover, as they lived together in priestly habitation, Father Woods S.J. had the distinction of seeing his successful rival every single day as he left for his job as President of the College. It was, I do not have to imagine, no doubt galling in the extreme.
Father Monan S.J. needed money
Boston College, when Father Monan S.J. took over, was a mediocre place so lightly regarded that there was talk of the University of Massachusetts absorbing it. Father Monan S.J. needed a goal, and the kind of strength and determination that would make a total revision of Boston College and its status successful.
Father Woods S.J. had his role in Monan S.J.’s great plan in this way. He was pushed to the backwater of the Evening College. There his job was to provide essential resources for Monan S.J.’s larger picture… you see the Evening College was a cash cow. Every quarter, it turned in reliable resources in ever increasing amounts to the general coffers of Boston College. It is not too much to say that without this constant river of predictable cash coming in, Monan S.J.’s grander plan would have come a cropper. Every nickel was needed to build a great University, and Father Woods S.J. and his reliable revenues could never be overlooked and disregarded.
Of course, Woods S.J. was irritated by this equation. He works, and he was ever a hard worker, while Monan S.J.’s reputation grows and shines. Monan S.J. of course was in the catbird seat. What he said, he got, all supplied by the man who found it difficult to stay civil with Monan S.J., and sometimes was not.
Monan S.J. of course did not help himself, maintaining the frostiest relations with Woods S.J. Every once in a while, but only occasionally, Monan S.J. would make the short walk to our office in the Evening College to host a short meeting on the topics of the day. His shortcomings as a leader were easily seen by the way he ignored our office staff, never saying a kind word to anyone, such pleasantries apparently beneath him.
He did the same with Father Woods S.J. There was no glad handing, no backslapping, no “Did you hear the one about…?” It was the acknowledged leader keeping his underling in place, while taking all the treasure of the land for his own projects and the advancement of his ideas. You can see why Father Woods S.J. was always irritable when Father Monan S.J. was about. The man was a living embodiment of what Woods S.J. had lost. It was his grand objective in life, and he did not get it.
I enter the scene
Right from the get go, I came to learn why Father Woods S.J. hired me. First, I had a Harvard Ph.D. and he had no higher degree of any kind. Second, I had experience at Harvard in creating what amounted to extra curricular special programs with high level guests.
Technically, I was there to create new courses for the curriculum, and I used my position at Boston College to meet many of Boston’s great figures at the time. I would go visit them, suggest a kind of course they might teach, and handle the necessary details. In short order, my desk at Boston College looked like an uncontrollable explosion in a data factory. There were papers, synopses, notes, and ideas everywhere, burying my desk.
My heart wasn’t in this job of course, but I was grateful to have it at a difficult time, although my salary was a joke; just $12,000 a year, a pittance even in 1975.
Because Father Woods S.J. was anxious to burnish the credentials of his minimal staff, he gave permission for me to go to England and finish my work with Hamish Hamilton in London. It was one of the great gifts of my life, and launched a literary career that has now spanned 62 volumes.
To protect my job, I one day had an insight so clever it tickles me to this day. I discovered that the New England seat on the National Advisory Council on Adult Education was open. Without telling Father Woods S.J. I approached every member of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, both Senators and Representatives, and asked them to endorse Father Woods S.J. for the seat.
Given the help of then Representative and now Senator Edward Markey, graduate of Boston College, the matter was easily accomplished. Only Representative Gerry Studds (D-Mass) opposed, saying he did not know Father Woods S.J. and could not endorse. He should have followed our path, as he was later admonished in the well of the House of Representatives for molesting page boys.
One day Father Woods S.J. came to me in a pother saying “What have you been doing?” The tone was not friendly. “I’ve just had a call from the F.B.I.” They were of course doing their usual background check… nothing strange here, except that Woods S.J. had never had one before. And of course I had not bothered to enlighten him about what I was doing. I told him it was a pleasant surprise and that he should be patient, one of the attributes in minimal supply in his repertoire.
Of course his attitude changed dramatically when he was appointed by President Carter as a member of the Council, filling the available New England seat. I was present when the document arrived from the White House. It was his commission, and it was enormous; it catered to the substantial egos of such people as Father Woods S.J. It was the first thing you saw when you entered his office. There it seemed to say “I have checked you Father Monan S.J., make what you will of this distinguished honor.” As such, it placed him on the national stage in a field of importance, adult continuing education.
This was but one of several notable things I helped Father Woods S.J. accomplish, as he searched for an appropriate Jesuit College for his much desired presidency. As such, I helped him write his dissertation for his Ed.D. degree, and anything else that needed my Harvard trained touch.
Woods S.J., however, never did get his Jesuit presidency or any other. Instead he performed his unique role as milch cow, turning over predictable revenues that enabled Father Monan S.J. to do his job at Boston College, by burnishing his own reputation, turning a mediocre educational institution into something better.
Even so, Boston College has not achieved the academic goals which are required of a great University. The library about which they are so proud has very few resources of any significance whatsoever. Then again books are not at the heart of Roman Catholic education; dogma is.
I had occasion to see this firsthand in the development of the Evening College curriculum, which had to be Roman Catholic first, and true second. This is not the formula for greatness, for a great University must harbor and assist in the development of equally great ideas… and this was never the case at Boston College, and is not the case now.
Thus, Father Monan S.J.’s biography is scattered not with the names of prominent scholars, or even of significant Catholic thinkers, but with Doug Flutie, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1984, arguably the highest achievement of Father Monan S.J.’s entire regime, football not scholarship.
Thus we leave the story very much in medias res. Father Woods S.J. achieved in due course a watered down version of his original goal, the force behind his James A. Woods, S.J., College of Advancing Studies, the Evening College of old.
When it was launched in 2002, I received a note of invitation to attend the inauguration. Since I was arguably the worst employee he ever hired, the man who upon resignation was asked by Father Woods S.J. “Do you still work here?”, insulting but honest, I was not a little surprised.
Still when I arrived at the grand garden party attended by hundreds, Father Woods S.J. took me by the hand and escorted me to the opening of his magnum opus, where in great majesty hung his citation from President Jimmy Carter, “Greetings from the President...” It was quite possibly the highest honor of his entire life, a gift from the President... and from me.
I have selected as accompaniment for this article the Boston College Fight Song and Alma Mater Lyrics “For Boston”. It was written and composed by T.J. Hurley, a member of the Boston College Class of 1885. It is peppy and upbeat, just the way a great fight song should be.
“For Boston, for Boston,
Thy glory is our own!
For Boston, for Boston,
'Tis here that Truth is known.
And thy work is crown'd.
For Boston, for Boston.”
Father Monan S.J. would have agreed.
Ave atque vale!
Click here to listen to the song.