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For Him, Writing Is a Matter of Degrees

McGahay's citations have become a hallmark of Commencement

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

He has composed odes to heads of state and Hollywood stars, to captains of industry and princes of the Church. In measured cadences singing the praises of the great, his words have rung from rostrums at Boston College each spring for 19 years.

Yet few on campus could, if pressed, identify Senior Development Officer James McGahay '63 as the author of the eloquent unsigned citations that accompany the honorary degrees the University presents annually at Commencement Exercises.

Indeed, Jim McGahay may be the best-known writer at BC whose name nobody knows.

"That has never bothered me at all," said McGahay, who sees himself as representing "the voice of the University" in the classically inspired prose he pens for Commencement. "I've always considered it a privilege," he said. "It really is my favorite assignment."

As of last May he'd heard 100 of his artfully but anonymously crafted citations proclaimed from the graduation stage. This year, the former English teacher and one-time Jimmy Fund director produced four more.

Commencement honorees the multifaceted McGahay has heralded over the years have included Vice President George Bush and poet Maya Angelou, Philippine President Corazon Aquino and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, comedian Bill Cosby and Celtic basketball great Bill Russell.

Senior Development Officer James McGahay. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

His gracious style is displayed in the salute he wrote in 1987 for Rev. Francis Sweeney, SJ, who brought Robert Frost, W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot to campus as founder of the Lowell Lectures Humanities Series at BC, and whom McGahay hailed thus:

"...[E]xemplar of the great teacher's gifts of intelligence, love for the labor, and a conviction that the treasure you have made your own must be opened to its heirs; Crusader on these spire-crowned Heights for grace, wisdom and laughter, and learning that can transform life; silent sower whose harvest is the flowering of our intellectual landscape. To a cherished colleague's lifetime of spendthrift giving, Boston College replies a heartfelt 'Thank you'..."

A courtier's air marked his 1993 commendation for Jordanian Queen Noor Al Hussein:

"Affixing to this tribute the seal of a prayer that success may crown a shining devotion to one of the noblest concepts of the Arab heritage, articulated in the word 'peace' and perpetuated in the traditional greeting 'Salaam,' Boston College bestows the noblest entitlement of the Academy and declares Her Majesty Doctor of Laws."

As a lover of words and a son of Erin, McGahay counts among his most cherished assignments the tribute he wrote in 1991 for Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who four years later would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"In the setting of an ancient culture that has treasured language from beyond the mists of remembering, your reputation as Ireland's leading poet is honor, indeed," read the salute. "Your poetry, luminous with a universality of experience that is profoundly Irish, reflects the shape of life as you know it to be, a fusion of history and the land, and reaches beyond the giving of pleasure and insight to confer the gift of fortitude, to help us endure."

Each 12-line citation takes McGahay months to research and write. He reads anything he can lay his hands on that has been written by or about the dignitary being honored, then tries to capture the person in half a page.

"It's like taking a crash course," he said. "I might end up learning something about science or about politics. And for a writer, it's a great exercise in succinctness."

He keeps in mind that his words are to be spoken. "I tend to read them aloud to myself to make sure they go trippingly off the tongue," he said. "I also don't want the speaker to be fainting for lack of breath.

"What I write has to be stately - it's a solemn occasion - and has to pay genuine honor to the recipient while conveying a message to the graduating seniors."

His interest in biography came early. "I read every book on the lives of the saints in the Pine Hills branch of the Albany public library," he recalled.

Since he wrote his first Commencement citations in 1982, the annual spring assignment has become his favorite task. "You have to find a peg," he said. "There's something interesting about every person you encounter. I look for things that catch my eye, that capture the personality and individuality of the person. I like to look for a smile."

Some honorees present unique obstacles to the aspiring bard. "With scientists it can be very challenging to make sense of their work in that short a passage," he said. "And executives...are executives." He strives to avoid the cliches of the trade: He will never, he vows, refer to a wealthy manufacturer as a "merchant prince of oaken integrity."

He said his most daunting assignments have involved writing for writers. "Seamus Heaney was very challenging because I admire his work so much," said McGahay, whose reading tastes run to English mysteries, historical novels and biographies. "Annie Dillard commented she thought hers was lovely, and Maya Angelou autographed a program because she was taken with hers.

"I have a short list of people I wish I had done," he added, "including the late Jim Henson, the man who gave us the Muppets. Mother Teresa of Calcutta I would have been honored to write.

"Each honoree," he said, "presents his or her own challenge."


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