In Their Own Words

In Their Own Words

Oral History Project seeks to tell BC's story through the people who helped make it happen

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

The birth of the Boston College Oral History Project, says its founder, began with a death.

Office of Marketing Communications Executive Director and Special Assistant to the President Ben Birnbaum had looked forward to hearing Raymond Keyes, a long-time Carroll School of Management administrator and faculty member, reminisce about the University in the 1960s and '70s. The two had worked together on a 50th anniversary history of CSOM in 1988, and Keyes - who had retired following the 1999-2000 academic year - would tell Birnbaum he had "stories about 'things not many people knew about.'"

Prof. Emeritus James Skehan, SJ (Geology and Geophysics), former director of the Weston Observatory, right, shares some memories with retired Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Donald White at a ceremony held earlier this year to honor participants in the Boston College Oral History Project being undertaken by the Office of Marketing Communications. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
But those conversations never took place. Keyes died only a few months after his retirement.

With Keyes' death, Birnbaum said, "I began to think about how many other administrators, faculty and staff members had worked here through the explosive years of growth at BC, from the 1960s to 1980s, and what stories they might have to tell. How great would it be to capture that for anyone who ever wanted to write about Boston College, or to learn something of the people who helped to shape it?"

Last year, with the assistance of several graduate history students, Birnbaum began a formal effort to preserve these institutional memories by arranging interviews with 23 long-serving former or current employees. The subjects included Senior Vice President James McIntyre, Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ, University Historian Thomas O'Connor, Rattigan Professor John Mahoney, Prof. Rebecca Valette (Romance Languages) and Rev. William McInnes, SJ, former associate dean and faculty member in the College of Business Administration, now the Carroll School of Management.

This past May saw the completion of this first phase of the project, as the interviewees were honored at a ceremony in Burns Library and recordings and transcriptions of their remarks were presented to the library archives.

Oral histories may be seen as more of a supplementary or diversionary aspect of historical work, but Birnbaum says the BC project has particular value.

"For many years, BC did not put a lot of its important decisions on paper," he explained. "A landmark event in the University's history might be reflected in the official record by one brief memo. There would be little or nothing about the meetings, the conversations, the decisions or other factors leading up to that event.

"There are lots of lost stories out there, and through this project, we hope to save as many of them as possible."

Birnbaum adds, however, that unvarnished, in-their-own-words recollections of individuals are not intended as a definitive historical account. "We don't claim this as the history of Boston College. Some of their comments would probably be considered controversial, or at least open to interpretation," said Birnbaum, who notes that some of the materials have been embargoed for 10 years.

"But when you listen to the stories and anecdotes, you get a sense of how a small commuter college began to itch with ambition, and over a couple of decades transformed itself into a national Catholic university."
Asked recently about his participation in the project, Fr. McInnes, now moderator of BC's chapter of the Jesuit honor society Alpha Sigma Nu, said, "I've realized that it's a real privilege to have a memory, to have that whole panorama of one's life. If telling my story helps, in some small way, to tell the story of a glorious institution and a very special community like BC, then it's a worthwhile thing to do."

In his interview, Fr. McInnes described the early years of the business school and its development under Rev. Seavey Joyce, SJ, who is recalled more for his struggles with student unrest and financial issues as BC president than for his considerable successes and achievements, according to Fr. McInnes.

Valette, one of the first women faculty members to join BC in the late 1960s and early '70s, gave her perspective on the University's decision to go co-ed. Mahoney offered recollections of some major architects of the modern BC, including presidents Rev. Michael Walsh, SJ, and Rev. J. Donald Monan, SJ, and Rev. Charles Donovan, SJ, founding dean of the School of Education.

While BC is at the center of the project, Birnbaum notes that some aspects of the oral history go well beyond the campus.

"There is a generational and regional piece to this," he said. "A number of the people interviewed came from Boston neighborhoods in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, so they represent a specific time and place in the American memory."

Birnbaum said the project will continue this academic year, with plans to interview another 25 to 30 administrators, faculty and staff.

(Excerpts from the Oral History Project are available on-line at


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