New Era for BC's Phi Beta Kappa Chapter

New Era for BC's Phi Beta Kappa Chapter

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Michael Himes is considered remarkable both as priest and professor of theology by Boston College students, who attend his Masses in droves and now have voted him best teacher on campus.

The old and new guard of Phi Beta Kappa: Outgoing chapter president Richard Tresch (seated) and recently elected officers (L-R) Michael Resler, Clare O'Connor - Tresch's successor as president - Mary Joe Hughes and Dale Herbeck. Not pictured: Kenneth Craig. (Photo by Justin Knight)
Fr. Himes has been named Teacher of the Year by the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at BC after being nominated by student members of the academic honor society. The noted theologian and orator will be honored at the society's annual induction ceremony May 19 at 10 a.m. in Robsham Theater.

Also honored will be outgoing chapter president Assoc. Prof. Richard Tresch (Economics), who single-handedly has kept the Phi Beta Kappa flame at Boston College for the past quarter-century.

The ceremony marks a changing of the guard at the BC branch of Phi Beta Kappa, with a new team of faculty officers succeeding Tresch, who, in his own words, has been running the chapter "out of [his] back pocket" for the past 25 years.

A slate of new officers was elected in January in a vote of faculty members of Phi Beta Kappa.

Assoc. Prof. Clare O'Connor (Biology) is now president, with Prof. Michael Resler (German Studies) serving as vice-president, Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication) as treasurer, Adj. Prof. Mary Joe Hughes (A&S Honors) as secretary, and Assoc. Prof. Kenneth Craig (Fine Arts) as chapter historian.

"The five of us together might be able to fill Dick Tresch's shoes," said O'Connor.

Rev. Michael Himes (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Members of the new leadership team say they hope to continue Tresch's legacy of commitment to Phi Beta Kappa while at the same time increasing the profile of the venerable honor society on campus.

"If you're a sports hero on campus, everyone knows who you are," said Resler. "Phi Beta Kappa gives top students recognition. I view it as the academic equivalent of being a sports hero."

The BC chapter of Phi Beta Kappa annually elects 70 to 80 seniors and 10 to 15 juniors from the College of Arts and Sciences, Tresch said, with the induction ceremony traditionally held in May on the day before Commencement. The Teacher of the Year chosen from among student nominees for the award also is honored at that ceremony. [This year's invitees are listed here.]

According to Tresch, some 80 members of the faculty at Boston College are themselves members of Phi Beta Kappa, a 226-year-old organization that describes itself as the nation's leading advocate for the liberal arts and sciences at the undergraduate level. Its members have included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Booker T. Washington, Gloria Steinem and Condoleeza Rice.

Ownership of the prized golden key signifying membership in Phi Beta Kappa has been widely recognized in years past as a mark of achievement. But among recent generations of students, Resler said, the honor society has slipped from the prominence it once held in the campus consciousness.

Resler described a phone call from a student seeking advice that was representative of several he has received over the past 15 years.

"She said, 'I've received a letter from some professor in Economics asking me to join some society, Phi Beta something. I need your advice on whether to join,'" Resler recalled.

"My own goal is that these phone calls will end - that our students will know what Phi Beta Kappa is."

The BC chapter's selection of Fr. Himes as Teacher of the Year recognizes a professor whose gifts extend from the classroom to the pulpit.

In the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, hundreds fill St. Mary's Chapel for the noon Mass said on Wednesdays during the academic year by Fr. Himes, noted for engaging homilies delivered from the heels.

The Brooklyn diocesan priest and former seminary dean draws a similarly appreciative following in the classroom.

"He's so animated during lectures, that it's impossible to not pay attention," said Phi Beta Kappa member Kristin Waldron '02. "He's the furthest thing from monotone, and he makes what he's teaching about so interesting. He's probably one of the best teachers I've had here."

One anonymous nomination form endorsed Fr. Himes for the honor with this hand-written comment: "Father Himes is the single most influential, inspirational and brilliant professor I have encountered at Boston College."

Fr. Himes teaches large sections each semester in the introductory Christian theology course that is part of the University's core curriculum.

Other courses he taught this year included an upper-level theology elective on the sacramental principle, and doctoral seminars with Canisius Professor of Theology Michael Buckley, SJ, on the rise of modern atheism and Assoc. Prof. Charles Hefling (Theology), an Episcopal priest, on "Father of Modern Theology" Friedrich Schleiermacher.

"What delights me most is that this is an award specifically for teaching," Fr. Himes, who is marking 25 years as a teacher, the past nine at Boston College, said of the Phi Beta Kappa honor.

He said he brings no special method to the teaching art. "The secret is getting up every day and doing it," he said.

But he acknowledged one animating principle in matters oratorical: "I have a horror of boring people when I speak to them."


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