Pioneers At Chestnut Hill

Fr. Donovan follows the Class of 1917, the first at the Heights, from the trolley stop to World War I

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Imagine a Boston College with a single, all-purpose building, no paved roadways, philosophy classes taught in Latin, and an annual tuition of $60. That was the world of the Class of 1917, the first students to spend four years at the University's Chestnut Hill campus.

University Historian Charles F. Donovan, SJ, offers a look into this era in "Pioneers At Chestnut Hill: Recollections of the Class of 1917," the latest in his series of occasional papers on the history of Boston College. Using interviews with the late Maurice V. Dullea, SJ, and entries from the diaries of the late Thomas Craven, both active members of the Class of 1917, Fr. Donovan sketches the class' academic and social life.

The class' arrival in the fall of 1913 coincided with BC's move from its South End birthplace to the bucolic surroundings of Chestnut Hill. It was a heady time, said Fr. Donovan, but it soon would be overshadowed by events in Europe.

Craven's diary entries in particular offer a perspective of the Class of 1917, Fr. Donovan said, not just as students, but also as patriotic young Americans nervously anticipating the US entry into World War I.

University Historian Charles Donovan, SJ-"When [President Charles W. Lyons, SJ] told the students that they would begin military drills, he was met with cheer upon cheer. There was no anti-war feeling at all." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
"At first, Craven's diary seemed to look at the approach of war as 'somebody else's problem,' but when war was actually declared, the student body was 100 percent behind it," Fr. Donovan said. "When [President Charles W. Lyons, SJ] told the students that they would begin military drills, he was met with cheer upon cheer. There was no anti-war feeling at all."

War was the farthest thing from the minds of Fr. Dullea, Craven and their fellow freshmen when they arrived at Boston College, making the same trek up the hill from the Lake Street trolley station many students make today. The Recitation Building, dubbed by students the Tower Building and renamed Gasson Hall in 1952, dominated the vista.

Fr. Donovan said Fr. Dullea did not mind the long trolley ride from his South Boston home. In an interview, Fr. Dullea said, "There was the scene that greeted you at the end of the trip." Added Fr. Donovan, "The physical charm of the single Tower Building over the twin reservoirs gave them a sense of awe and inspiration."

In addition to classrooms and science laboratories, the elegant if utilitarian edifice housed the president's office, a small reference library, bookstore, a tiny chapel, treasurer's office, athletic office - including a storage area for the football team's equipment - faculty dining room, assembly hall and the office of the dean of discipline. In the basement - where the Information Technology office is now located - were the student cafeteria, athletic locker room, lavatory facilities and boiler room.

The stately linden trees that adorn the main entryway into the campus were not yet planted, and the fields on either side of the Tower Building were uncut grass.

If the University's geographical features differed dramatically from those of today, Fr. Donovan said, so did its academics. Every freshman and sophomore took five hours per week of Latin and seven or eight hours of Greek, along with English, history, mathematics, modern languages, elocution and "Evidences of Religion," a forerunner of today's theology requirements. Juniors and seniors, meanwhile, had heavy requirements in philosophy - both the class and textbook were in Latin - and ethics, in addition to science and humanities.

The Jesuit faculty was driven to Chestnut Hill daily in an open motorcar from their South End residence, but by the Class of 1917's senior year had moved into newly-completed St. Mary's Hall.

In addition to academic demands and athletic and other extra-curricular activities, Fr. Donovan said, virtually every member of the class held a part-time job in his local neighborhood to help meet the cost of higher education.

Like many of their countrymen, Boston College students became caught up in the growing fervor over World War I. When the US formally entered the war on April 6 of their senior year, Fr. Donovan said, almost every member of the class applied for an Army officer training program. Much to their dismay, only one of some 100 Boston College applicants was accepted; the programs were populated mainly by Ivy League students.

Craven prompted newspaper and congressional interest in the matter with a series of letters and editorials concerning this apparent slight of Boston College students, Fr. Donovan said. Army officials promised that it would not happen again, but many members of the Class of 1917 served their country as enlisted men, not officers, in the war.

Fr. Dullea went on to spend 39 years at Boston College as a theology professor and faculty advisor to athletics, Fr. Donovan said, while Craven entered the teaching profession and later became principal of the Mather School District in his native Dorchester.

While members of the Class of 1917 might have ended their college years in unexpected fashion, Fr. Donovan said, their memories of that era were perhaps best summed up in Fr. Dullea's remark during an interview: "Those were simple days, Charlie. My gosh, they were great days!"

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