Man of Lectures

Fr. Sweeney to leave Humanities Series' helm after four decades

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The list is a who's-who of diverse talents, temperaments and achievements: T.S. Eliot, Alec Guinness, Robert Penn Warren, Lillian Hellman, Robert Lowell, Joyce Carol Oates, Seamus Heaney, John Kenneth Galbraith, Margaret Mead, Maya Angelou, James Reston, Julian Bond.

It is a small sampling of the eminent personalities who have come to Boston College - often more than once - during the last four decades at the invitation of Francis Sweeney, SJ, as guest speakers in the Lowell Lectures Humanities Series.

This spring's slate of lectures is Fr. Sweeney's farewell as the series director, a role which Assoc. Prof. Paul Doherty (English) will assume for the 1998-99 academic year. Fr. Sweeney was paid tribute at the April 3 performance of the Yale Russian Chorus, exactly 41 years after a seminal event in the series' history, poet Robert Frost's appearance in the Campion Hall auditorium.

Frost's visit, the first of seven he made to BC, was the impetus for the Humanities Series, which was established formally a year later; it came to be known as the Lowell Lectures after the Lowell Foundation began providing support in 1978. For Boston College, this opportunity to bring such prominent figures to students and faculty aptly symbolized its evolving aspirations as a national university.

Francis Sweeney, SJ. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

It also proved the start of a new vocation for the assistant professor of English, a calling he may not have anticipated but one which his colleagues say he pursued with equal measures of enjoyment and success.

"The abiding strength of any university resides in individuals who, through the decades, provide the human links with that institution," said Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties William B. Neenan, SJ. "Fr. Sweeney is one of a very small number of individuals who have helped define BC for scores of students and alumni. Through his efforts, the Humanities Series has been a signature program for Boston College since the 1950s."

"He established a style, a precedent, with the caliber of people he brought in," said University Historian Charles Donovan, SJ. "To be that close to a Robert Frost or a T.S. Eliot, and know you might well see them again, it just raised the whole cultural tone at a time when we were establishing ourselves, with a young faculty and great plans for the future."

"I did not think it would go on as long as it has," said Fr. Sweeney in a recent interview. "I'm just very glad to have had this opportunity, to see the wonderful interaction between the University and the many talented people who have visited here."

Perhaps the most impressive quality of Fr. Sweeney's work as Humanities Series director, colleagues say, is that it seldom appeared to be work. They point to the ties he has formed with many of the guests, often sustained through years of correspondence and occasional visits.

Fr. Sweeney agrees that attention to personal matters has been a hallmark of the series. "I think guests have felt safe in coming here," he explained. "We have made them feel truly wanted and appreciated, and we didn't use them - we didn't make them stand at the end of a long receiving line, for instance. Those are things which really do make a difference."

Fr. Sweeney (right) with Robert Frost during one of the poet's visits to campus in the early 1960s. At left is Wayne Budd '63, now a University trustee.

Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney points out, however, that Fr. Sweeney's own gifts as a writer and scholar deserve credit for the series' success.

"What people tend to forget is that Fr. Sweeney is a man of letters, not just an organizer," he said. "He has a remarkable eye for the difference between talent and mere celebrity. He also realizes how vital it is for young faculty, as well as students, to be exposed to eminent authors and artists. Having the chance to introduce W.H. Auden, or to actually sit and talk with Robert Frost, made a tremendous impact on me."

"There is nothing like an author reading from his or her own works," said Fr. Sweeney. "When Frost read 'The Road Not Taken,' you could see how even the faculty took care to note how he accented or emphasized a word or phrase."

Humanities Series stories and anecdotes abound, but Fr. Sweeney's experiences with Alec Guinness, who visited in November of 1959, are particularly revealing. Guinness was non-committal at first, saying he doubted an audience would find him of any interest - to which Fr. Sweeney replied that people would turn out if he were to "just come here and whistle 'Dixie.'"

Not only did Guinness finally agree to do a poetry reading in the auditorium then located in Bapst Library, he returned to campus the following spring to receive an honorary degree at Commencement - the only one he has ever accepted from an American university, Fr. Sweeney notes proudly. He recalls the graduates serenading the actor by whistling the famous "Colonel Bogey's March" theme from "Bridge Over the River Kwai."

Moreover, the two men formed a friendship which has lasted to this day. Fr. Sweeney fondly recounts their occasional get-togethers, including a memorable visit to Guinness's New York City apartment: Sitting in the living room, Fr. Sweeney looked up to see one of England's most celebrated actors standing in the kitchen doorway, spatula in hand, asking him, "How do you want your eggs?"

This easy-going rapport, colleagues say, is the key to Fr. Sweeney's legacy.

"There have been guests of the Humanities Series who rarely speak at colleges at all, but are eager to return to BC," said College of Arts and Sciences Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ. "That is true homage to Fr. Sweeney."

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