An Officer and a Gentleman

An Officer and a Gentleman

Walter Durrane's 28 years at BC just one part of a fascinating life

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

An era came to a close at the Heights last weekend when Capt. Walter Durrane took his painting of Fenway Park down from the wall, worked his last football game, and retired after 28 years on the Boston College Police Department.

For nearly three decades, when town-gown relations have flared, when undergraduate spirits have bubbled high, or when commencement ceremonies have brought thousands more cars than the campus can hold, the soft-spoken Durrane has been called to calm the situation.

Boston College Police Capt. Walter Durrane during one of his final shifts: "If I didn't get a job here, I don't know of any other place that could have been as interesting as Boston College."

At a University known for its contributions to Irish diplomacy, this son of an Irish cleaning woman from Mission Hill has been perhaps the foremost diplomat.

"My philosophy has always been to resolve things as amicably as possible," said Durrane, whose job the past 16 years has involved administering the Chestnut Hill campus' 3,000 parking spaces.

"Just give people a chance, and within two or three minutes, they'll calm down," he said. "If you treat people patiently, and listen to their side of the story, things usually get resolved."

His preference for speaking softly has helped Durrane avoid the big stick in a job where student revelers, touchy neighbors and professorial egos are part of the terrain. BC Police Chief Robert Morse recalls when Durrane was asked to deal with one local homeowner who continually called to complain of parking infractions by students, staff or workmen on University business.

"Within a year, she was sending us fruitcakes at Christmas time," Morse said. "He should be a professor or a priest. He has that gentle way about him."

Durrane - a born storyteller who tends to self-deprecation - never went to college, but he could lead a graduate seminar on Boston history from personal experience, the story of his early years reading like a mix of Dickens and The Last Hurrah . Indeed, his videotaped reminiscences of growing up in Boston have been used in Prof. Andrew Bunie's history class.

He was raised in the project on Mission Hill, the son of an Irish domestic who cleaned downtown insurance offices by day and Northeastern University classrooms past midnight to support his sister and him. His father deserted the family when Durrane was only three months old. Durrane was 43 when he finally met - and befriended - his father, who had become an invalid. Durrane would visit him every Sunday in the hospital for the remainder of the older man's life.

It was not unusual on Mission Hill for a family to be missing a father, he said, as fatalities among Irish laborers were common. From his mother, Catherine, he learned the value of "showing up every day," he said. "My mother went to work every day, even when she was ill. My friends from that era were very irregular in their work habits. My mother went out every day, rain or shine."

He remained devoted to his mother, living as a bachelor with her until her death 16 years ago.

Durrane's sister, a year and a half older, was paralyzed at four by polio and confined for more than a year to an iron lung at Boston City Hospital. When she eventually recovered the use of her limbs, at age 12, their grateful mother left the braces alongside the healed pilgrims' crutches at the shrine altar of the Mission Church where she had prayed.

A family benefactor was his uncle, Michael O'Flaherty, a labor organizer who had run for governor and attorney general in the 1930s on the Socialist ticket, and who would hold forth on Sacco and Vanzetti in between taking the children to movies and to ballgames at Fenway and Braves Field.

As a student at Mission High, Durrane took a 45-cents-an-hour job as a messenger for the old Boston Herald Traveler, working from 3 to 11 p.m. running advertising proofs to the paper from Jordan Marsh, Filene's, Gilchrist's and R.H. White. He recalled retrieving ads from the old Boston Post composing room, reached by means of a hand-pulley-operated elevator.

Newsprint got in his blood, and he went on to work 20 years in the Herald-Traveler production department, where he got to know sports cartoonists, courtroom artists and photographers like Harry Trask, who won the Pulitzer in 1957 for pictures of the sinking Andrea Doria. But when the paper folded in 1972, he found himself, at age 36, out of a job. He had little envisioned a career as a campus policeman when soon thereafter he decided to answer a classified ad for a security officer at Boston College.

He ended up staying 28 years on the force, working his way up from patrol officer to captain, and he credits Rev. Edward Hanrahan, SJ, for inspiring his approach to the job. The former dean of men, Fr. Hanrahan was legendary for his 24-hour diligence in shepherding wayward undergraduates, and the fledgling officer often encountered the priest dubbed "the H" on his overnight shifts.

"If rowdies turned up early in the morning at the 'Mods,'" he recalled, "Fr. Hanrahan would show up like that. He bailed us out time and time again. He had that way - he could cajole them, coax them, get all that information they refused to give to the police. The kids respected him. He disciplined them with good will.

"I appreciated him because he resolved things before they got out of hand," Durrane said. "I learned so much from him in the way he interacted with students - and unwanted guests - at all hours of the night."

Fr. Hanrahan, who now works for the Development Office successfully hunting donations from the old students he once disciplined, recalls Durrane as a bit of a soft touch at student disciplinary hearings. "I would warn him, 'Don't canonize the student, stick to the notes. He would put the kid up as a saint.

"He was so gentle in his dealings with people," Fr. Hanrahan said. "He walked tall and straight."

Durrane said he learned early in his BC police career not to take himself too seriously. That lesson came during a blizzard when he sternly admonished a group of students by Ignacio Hall to stop throwing snowballs, then slipped on a patch of ice and rolled head over heels down the hill. "By the time I got to the bottom, I was covered with snow from head to foot," he recalled. "I looked like the Abominable Snowman. When I got to my feet, they applauded and cheered."

Morse recalls arriving in 1992 to take over from Durrane, who had been acting chief of the force while a search for a new chief was underway. "The happiest person to see you arrive is me," he recalled Durrane saying.

But Morse said he would have been lost his first year on the job had it not been for Durrane. "Walking around with Walter at each football game, I got the history of the University," he said.

Durrane married 10 years ago, at the age of 55, inheriting four grown stepchildren and 11 step-grandchildren. He and his wife, Gloria, reside in Jamaica Plain. He will continue to serve as a civilian consultant to the department in the coming year. The former Herald Traveler runner, who confesses he once dreamed of becoming a sports or political cartoonist, says he may take an art course.

"Honest to God, I'm so glad I came here," he said. "If I didn't get a job here, I don't know of any other place that could have been as interesting as Boston College."


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