BC Students Honor The Priest Who Gave Them A Second Chance
©2002 The Boston Globe
May 11, 2002
By Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent
NEWTON - The young man knocked on the Rev. James Woods's door. He wore an interview suit, and a look of desperation on his face.
Years had passed since he starred on Boston College's ice hockey team, only to drop out of school before graduating. He was now in his mid-20s, stuck in a salesman's job he didn't want.
He told Woods, dean of Boston College's College of Advancing Studies, that he had wasted his scholarship. Near tears, he asked what he needed to do to get readmitted to Boston College as a night student. Woods, dressed in clerical garb, looked at him sternly.
"You promise you'll make it work this time?" he asked.
Yes, yes, the man replied.
"You won't screw up this time? We can't be investing in people who don't follow through."
The man gave his word - he would not let him down. But what would he need to do to get in?
Woods looked him in the eye.
"You just did it," he said. "You're in."
Yesterday, teachers, administrators, fellow priests, and dozens of current and former students from the College of Advancing Studies who also got a chance - or a second chance - at an education because of Woods filled the E. Paul Robsham Theater at the Heights.
Woods, dean for 34 years of the College of Advancing Studies, formerly the Evening College at BC, was granted an honor no other Jesuit at Boston College had ever garnered: The school he headed was being renamed in his honor. From now on, the school, which offers older or nontraditional students a chance to earn their degrees at night, will be known as the James A. Woods Society of Jesus College of Advancing Studies.
The honor was bestowed on Woods thanks to the generosity of a former student, Bob Devlin, who donated $5 million to the college on behalf of his family on the condition his former teacher receive some well-earned recognition.
Devlin, who was chairman and CEO of American General Insurance, the country's third largest insurance provider, met Woods in the 1950s, when Devlin was a ninth-grader at the Cranwell School in the Berkshires. Woods was his housemaster, disciplinarian, and, above all, role model. Their lives crossed again when Devlin came to recruit students at Boston College for his company, and again when his two sons, Matthew and Michael, enrolled in the Advancing Studies school.
Matthew Devlin wasn't going to go to college because of his dyslexia until Woods took him in. He did well and had enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts by his junior year and today is a television commentator for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
His brother, Michael Devlin, started off as a full-time student at Boston College, but left school when he developed a brain tumor. When he recovered, he went to Woods. He finished his degree through night school and now owns a communications company in New York City.
"Father Woods just makes each and every person feel important," said Bob Devlin. "You could see that just emanating today, the love people have for him."
More than once yesterday it was mentioned that, the Devlin family's gift aside, the school is already known as The College of Woods. With his boisterous laugh and stout figure, Woods is not easily missed walking around campus. His optimism is eternal, say those who know him - "When you ask him how he is, what does he always say? 'Never better!' " said Professor Marilyn Matelski, one of yesterday's speakers.
The priest's optimism, dedication - some questioned whether Woods lives in his office - and encouragement fostered confidence in housewives, single parents, failed students, and late bloomers who decided that they, too, wanted a Boston College degree.
Since 1968, 3,900 students have earned degrees under his tutelage.
Stephanie Campbell, 42, met Woods when she came to Boston College in 1986 as a single parent. She graduated four years later, and has since returned to earn her master's degree in social administration.
"I don't want to say I would have been lost without him, but it was nice to know when you had a problem, I could go to [Woods] and he would have an answer," she said.
Mary Hennessey, a co-worker, said Woods is someone who never asks "if" something can be done, but "how." Jack Dunn, a Boston College administrator who was present when the hockey player walked into Woods's office, said he has long admired the priest's "incredible ability to size people up, offer the right advice at the right time, and know when people need a hug or a boot in the butt."
For his part, Woods, embarrassed by all the attention he received yesterday, said he simply tries to help the students he has met fulfill their dream of earning a college degree - some a bit later than others.
"You just have to have faith in people," he said.