Paul Taylor is the winner of the Edward Finnegan, SJ, Memorial Award as the senior who best exemplifies "Ever to Excel." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
A Well-Balanced View on Learning, and Life
Finnegan Award winner has diversity of interests inside classroom and out
By Sean Smith
A Boston College faculty member discussing the achievements of 2004 Finnegan Award winner Paul Taylor '04 concludes the interview with a request: "Remind me which honor this story is about? I just want to make sure I congratulate Paul for the right one."
The remark is meant partly in jest, but there is no joking about the respect and affection Taylor has cultivated among peers and professors during his four years at BC. To be sure, Taylor has racked up many honors: Arguably his most significant one was an institutional milestone for BC, when last fall he and Brett Huneycutt '03 became the University's first-ever Rhodes Scholars.
Taylor's accomplishments also include Goldwater and NCAA scholarships, awards for excellence in science and Latin, "Volunteer of the Year" accolades at the Haley House soup kitchen, as well as a New England foil championship while captain of the BC fencing team.
But the Elm Grove, Wis., native is not some laurel-earning automaton. A Presidential Scholar with a double major in physics and classics, Taylor avidly pursues a variety of interests outside the classroom and is equally at home talking about fencing styles, volunteer work, even 1960s rock guitarists.
These qualities, say his friends and mentors, make Taylor an ideal recipient of Boston College's top Commencement honor, the Edward H. Finnegan, SJ, Memorial Award, as the graduating senior who best exemplifies the University's motto "Ever to Excel." Also nominated were Emily Kearns, Amir Satvat and Sarah Berger.
"I cannot imagine anyone more deserving of this award than Paul," said Rourke Professor of Physics Kevin Bedell. "That he's smart goes without saying. But with all the accolades, he's still Paul Taylor, a decent person who doesn't walk around boasting about what's he done or acting as if he is owed something.
"His peers are neither jealous nor envious of Paul, and they cheer his accomplishments. It takes a pretty special talent to accept all these fancy prizes and keep your feet on the ground as you move along."
For Taylor, the road ahead leads to Oxford University in England, where he will journey this September with Huneycutt and 30 other Rhodes Scholars to begin their studies. But one recent morning, Taylor, who will pursue theoretical physics or astrophysics at Oxford, briefly reflected on roads already taken.
"I'm very honored to be chosen as Finnegan winner," he said. "It's a very meaningful way to close out four very eventful years in my life. I've had some great teachers and friends here who have helped me enormously.
"I had certain ideas and expectations of what it would be like here at BC. But I don't think I expected how all these different facets - academic and non-academic - would come together for me, and I'll always be thankful BC played such a part in that."
There was no question that science, especially physics, would be a major part of Taylor's collegiate studies. The son of a radiologist father and a schoolteacher mother, Taylor had worked at a biophysics lab in Milwaukee while in high school and was part of a team that patented a statistical process for analyzing MRI scans.
BC seemed a good fit as well as a familiar place for Taylor, whose older sister, Lisa (who earlier this month received her master's degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary), graduated from the Lynch School of Education in 2001. Visiting campus as a high school senior, he made a point of stopping in at Higgins Hall, hoping to learn about the physics curriculum at BC.
"I was able to talk with a few faculty members who happened to be there," Taylor said. "It made an impression on me that they would want to chat with a high school kid, and helped make up my mind to come here."
But Taylor didn't intend to spend all his time in a lab. He decided to major in classics as well as physics.
"It's good to have that humanities-science balance," he said. "One of the best things about BC is how it stresses the classical, liberal arts education which sees the arts and sciences as interrelated in developing the mind and spirit."
To Assoc. Prof. Charles Ahearn (Classical Studies), who taught Taylor in four classes, it was evident Taylor fully embraced the interdisciplinary concept. "It amazes me how much he can handle, and with such grace. He has a clear, analytical mind, and if he doesn't know something he's confident he'll be learn it."
Bedell found that Taylor knew quite a lot - enough to take sophomore-level physics as a freshman - and that his knowledge extended into unexpected areas. During one class, when Bedell briefly mentioned a song by legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, he was surprised to hear Taylor identify it.
"It seems like a small thing, but I just thought that was cool," said Bedell. "Paul knows quite a bit about music, classical and otherwise. We sometimes jokingly tell our students that you can't have much of a life if you're a physics grad. By that we mean it's important to diversify your interests and do other things. Paul's had no problem whatsoever in that area."
A major facet of Taylor's non-academic life has been fencing, which he took up as an eighth-grader. "Most little kids like sword-play and swashbuckling movies, and in fact I was an Alexandre Dumas fan," he said, referring to the author of The Three Musketeers. "Of course, the reality is very different: It's physically very demanding. But fencing is a great diversion, and helps me get my mind working in a different way."
Taylor's gray matter found yet another avenue at BC through volunteer and service projects. In addition to working at Haley House, he spent a summer internship tutoring at a youth detention facility.
"There were kids close to my age, others surprisingly young," he recalled. "Most of the time, it was a classroom-type atmosphere, but we also had recreational activities and a chance for conversation. After a few weeks, you got to know some of the kids there, and it made you think a lot about your own life and the different directions in which we all travel."
Taylor's direction is clear for the foreseeable future. The Rhodes Scholarship lasts two years, and he will likely opt to do a third year at Oxford. Afterwards, he may look into post-doctoral programs elsewhere in Europe - assuming he stays on the scientific route.
"I had a lot of interests coming into BC, and I feel I've expanded them during my time here," he said. "I hope I can continue to do that, and it certainly seems like I'll have every opportunity."