April 1, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 14

University Historian Thomas O'Connor is flanked by History faculty members Prof. James O'Toole (right) and Assoc. Prof. David Quigley, who edited a book of essays based on a conference honoring O'Connor. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

A Mentor and Colleague

Book of essays is a tribute to University Historian O'Connor

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

History Department faculty members Prof. James O'Toole and Assoc. Prof. David Quigley found no shortage of good material when they organized a conference honoring their mentor and colleague, University Historian Thomas H. O'Connor.

So rather than consign the papers and presentations to a shelf somewhere, the two decided to share them with other scholars and O'Connor aficionados.

The result is a new book, Boston's Histories: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. O'Connor, a collection of chapters from a cadre of historians - virtually all of them O'Connor's former students or academic colleagues - who have written about the history of Boston through a variety of lenses.

"What we tried to emphasize - both in the title and in the entire collection - is just how diverse Boston history writing has become," said Quigley, "partly in Tom's own work, in the students that he has trained over the years, and in the type of work that has been produced.

"There's religion and there's politics [in the book], but there's also a lot on gender and race and urban space - the whole range and complexity of our city and our metropolitan area."

O'Toole says this type of publication is a rare honor for teachers. "I can only think of a handful of volumes like this and whenever I encounter one, in addition to the scholarship that is in it, it conveys a feeling of 'isn't it great that enough people thought enough of this person to do this on their behalf?'

"We wanted to do that as well," O'Toole said. "It's not just scholarship. It also says something about how we feel about him."

The contributors to Boston's Histories include some of the nation's leading scholars: Sam Bass Warner Jr., visiting professor of urban planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Albert Von Frank, the Edward N. Meyer Distinguished Professor of English at Washington State University; and Sarah Deutsch, a professor of history at the University of Arizona.

O'Toole points out that several young chroniclers of Boston history also made valuable contributions to the work. One is James Connolly, a Ball State University faculty member, who wrote a chapter on the classic Boston political novel, The Last Hurrah. "Connolly says that everybody has sort of been reading the novel wrong over the years and suggests a new way of looking at it," said O'Toole.

Another contributor is James Glinsky, head of the social science department at Xaverian High School in Westwood, on the role of Boston's parochial schools during the public school desegregation and busing era of the 1970s. "He explodes the myth that the Catholic schools served as 'segregation academies' for white parents who wanted to flee the public schools so as not to be subject to desegregation," O'Toole said.

O'Connor, who has written 14 books on the history of Boston - many of which focused on the impact of the city's Irish immigrants - says he felt honored by both the conference and the resulting book.

"As I read some of these essays, there are some younger people coming along who wanted to see [the issues] played out," he said. "The book is not so much concerned with the chronology of Boston history, or even the history of the Irish in Boston, that's already there. But within that, they are beginning to ask questions: 'How was it done?' 'What type of impact did it have?' 'How did it influence another generation?'

"I am sort of bedazzled by the sort of topics," O'Connor said. "This means that the subject is alive. They are vital topics. If you get men and women, as you have in this collection of essays, who are willing to think about the history of Boston, and play with the ideas and straighten them out, it's wonderful."

O'Connor, recently named winner of The Bostonian Society's History award, said he is also humbled by the project. "It gave a number of my friends, colleagues and former students an opportunity, in a way, to let everybody know what they were doing in terms of the history of Boston. Many were nice enough to say 'I got these ideas from Tom O'Connor,' or 'His work made me think about this.'

"These are my colleagues," he said. "When they say or write nice things about you or for you, it's the best you can ask for."

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