Vice President and Special Assistant to the President William B. Neenan, SJ, and students at last weekÝs "Table Talk" luncheon. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
A Few of His Favorite Books
The man behind the 'Dean's List' shares love of reading with students
By Mark Sullivan
What books are on the short list of the bibliophile who composes the Dean's List?
Two that stand out for Rev. William Neenan, SJ, are Jay Winik's Civil War history April 1865: The Month That Saved America and David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman.
McCullough's biography of plainspoken President Harry S. Truman from Missouri is a particular favorite, said the Iowa-born Jesuit, who is vice president and special assistant to University President William P. Leahy, SJ.
"If you asked me my favorite book, I'd be hard-put to single out one," said Fr. Neenan, whose Dean's List of 27 recommended books has been a rite of fall the past 22 years. "But Harry Truman is one of my favorite guys."
Fr. Neenan made his remarks last week at a "Table Talk" luncheon event in the Lower Campus Dining Hall on the topic: "Your Favorite Book? I'll Tell You Mine." The Table Talk series sponsored by Residential Life and UGBC offers students the opportunity to have topic-based discussions with faculty and administrators over special meals in the dining halls.
Favorite books named by undergraduates at the lunch included Hawaii, by James Michener; Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery; Friday Night Lights, by H. G. Bissinger; Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, and Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom.
Fr. Neenan recalled a few anecdotes about Truman for the students: how as an unprepossessing farmer from a "ne'er-do-well" family, he devotedly courted the lace-curtain Bess for years, despite being regarded as beneath her station; how at the moment of his greatest happiness, when she had accepted his proposal, he postponed, perhaps forever, their marriage, to volunteer for service in World War I, even though his age and poor eyesight would have exempted him; and how, as a bespectacled captain, he won the respect and admiration of the brawling Irishmen in his artillery battery during hard fighting in France, never losing a man.
Fr. Neenan said his own father was a St. Louis University classmate of Robert Hannegan, who as Democratic National Chairman was instrumental in smoke-filled-room machinations at the 1944 convention that replaced Vice President Henry Wallace with Truman as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's running mate.
With FDR clearly ailing and World War II at its height, the vice-presidential nomination that year carried great weight. Fr. Neenan described how Truman, "stubborn as a Missouri mule," had balked at accepting, only to receive a blue tirade from FDR over the phone that the Democrats would go down to defeat in November if he declined.
"Harry Truman, a loyal party guy, doesn't want to be vice-president of the United States, but he knows he's caught," said Fr. Neenan. "What he said, after three seconds of silence, was, 'Oh, [expletive]!'
"I just love that story," Fr. Neenan said.
April 1865, on the month in which the Civil War ended and President Lincoln was assassinated, is a "powerful read" that offers useful perspective on the current crisis in Iraq, he said. The war that came to a close with the Treaty at Appomattox and the assassination of Lincoln a week later had cost a nation of 40 million people some 600,000 dead. "Put your arms around those numbers," he said. "Today, a nation of 300 million has 1,100 casualties in Iraq, and we find that horrific."
With Confederate raiders still in the field, the prospect of a drawn-out guerrilla war lasting years was quite real when Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee came to terms at Appomattox, said Fr. Neenan, who credits the two generals with setting the nation on the path to healing.
"Lee sent word out implicitly to the Confederates: 'It's all over. Lay down your arms,'" Fr. Neenan said. "Grant was very magnanimous in victory, allowing the officers of the Confederate Army to keep their side-arms and to keep their horses for plowing."
This past summer Fr. Neenan visited the restored farmhouse at Appomattox and was taken by a photo he said captured the theme of the book: "Grant, the victor, is bent over a table signing a document, while Lee, the vanquished, sits upright at a marble table."
As an economist, Fr. Neenan said, he has contemplated the two competing schools of thought, the Marxist, with its inexorable movement of history, versus the Great Man theory that sees individuals setting history's course.
He said the generals in the photograph make a case for the latter: "How Lee and Grant interacted had a massive consequence for our country."