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Perspectives on the Heights

11/15/12
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By Reid Oslin | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 15, 2012

Dr. Robert D. Blute Sr. ’43 arrived at Boston College as a freshman in September, 1939, during the same week that Germany invaded Poland to ignite World War II. His four-year undergraduate career was one of accelerated courses, a constantly changing student population, the heartbreak of personal loss, and a greatly limited collegiate social experience, as America – and Boston College – prepared for the complex challenges of war.

As a pre-med major at BC, Dr. Blute was commissioned in the Army Reserve and sent to Tufts Medical School to become a doctor. After military service in Germany during the Berlin Airlift, he returned to Massachusetts where he completed his medical training and became a noted surgeon and urologist, serving as chief of the Urology Department at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester and practicing his specialty for some 50 years until his retirement at age 78.

Dr. Blute, who is approaching his 92nd birthday, and his late wife, Ann Marie – a lifelong advocate for the poor and homeless in Central Massachusetts – are the parents of 11 children, five of whom followed their Dad to BC: Robert Jr. ’70, chief of robotic surgery at University of Massachusetts Medical Center; Peter ’78, former US Congressman and currently vice chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party; Joseph ’79, an attorney for the Boston law firm of Mintz-Levin; Kathleen ’82, a development officer at the College of the Holy Cross; and Paula ’89, a news anchor for Boston’s WBZ-TV. 

Dr. Blute recently sat down in his Shrewsbury home with Chronicle correspondent Reid Oslin, and shared his memories, often referring to a well-worn and annotated copy of the 1943 Sub Turri yearbook.

What brought you to Boston College?

My father was a World War I veteran and we lived in Danvers, Mass. He was a leather worker, as was his father before him. It was tough work. After the Boston Police Strike in 1920, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge built the police force back up, and interestingly enough, he went to the pastors of churches in the state and asked them to pick out one or two young men who make good candidates. They had to be veterans. Our pastor called my father into his office in 1925 and said he was chosen for the Boston Police. In those days, that was quite a step up. My father wound up retiring as a lieutenant. That’s how I got to Dorchester – and later my father bought a house in Roslindale. So, living in Boston, I went to Boston College High School.

  Naturally, I then wanted to go to Boston College. In 1939, when I graduated from BC High, I took the entrance examination for BC and got a very good mark. They gave me a tuition grant – I think it was $250 a year for tuition in those days.

There was a great excitement for myself and Johnny Logue, my best friend, as we went to Boston College together. The first day that we went there to register, Germany had just invaded Poland. That was the big topic – “What is going to happen to us?” We felt very uneasy. A week later they instituted the draft. I always remember that if you had “No. 158” they took you into the Army immediately. That was the first number picked. But I had a high number. It was like some kind of lottery. 

What was the environment on campus as America prepared to enter World War II?

We enjoyed it. The world was going to hell but the college seemed to blot it all out. Then some of the boys began to leave – the draft, the war was going on and some were joining the Army or Marines.

One of my cousins, Joe Blute, went into the infantry and was killed. His name is on the Veterans Memorial at the front entrance of BC. It was very depressing at the time, I thought – not only what was going on in the world, but then having your friends leave to join the service.

They also began to speed up the courses, they wanted us to be graduated some six months ahead of time. That took away a lot of the fun of college.

In junior year, the Army had a lot to say, too. They came in and looked at the pre-med students and found the one hour in our schedule that was not occupied between 8 in the morning and 6 at night. They wanted us to all have a course in calculus. I’ll never forget junior year – we never had any time off.

Was there any enjoyment of the college experience in those days?

The day I arrived on campus, we were walking around and looking things over. We were on Linden Lane, and we saw this man across the street with a whole bunch of young guys. He yelled, “Hey lads – come over here!” We walked over and he said, “I’m coach Frank Leahy. I want to introduce you to my football team. Now, I don’t allow people to watch my practice sessions, but you guys are different. You are the students. You can come any time you want.” I thought he was the greatest guy who ever lived.

BC was undefeated and got to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. We took a trip down for the game. We went down to Railway Express in the middle of November and worked nights to get the money. We went and we had a great time.

We paid for it, though. On the way home, the water on the train was contaminated. We had to offload two of our buddies in Washington, DC, with hepatitis. By the time we got to Boston, we had all fallen sick. I didn’t get back to the campus for two months. That was as sick as I have ever been or ever want to be.

I was way behind when I finally got back, but I managed to catch up.

What was it like when America entered the war?

In 1941, the next big thing was Pearl Harbor. I was driving through Kenmore Square. It was 5 o’clock when it hit the radio. We were waiting for the light to change when I heard “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” There was some guy who stuck his head out of his car window and said, “Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?” Somebody else yelled, “You’ll find out.”

The next day, we did two things. Everybody in the school went down to hit the Navy and Army to get into some type of reserve service. I was turned down by the Navy because my left eye was not so good. I went over to the Army and met a very nice colonel who asked what I was studying. When I said “pre-med” he said, “We don’t want you to leave pre-med. Doctors will be necessary for the Japanese war which we think will last until 1948.” He commissioned me right then as a reserve second lieutenant in the medical administrative corps. They never touched me until I finished medical school. They wanted some of us to finish our education.

Everything then seemed to revolve around sports. In 1940, we were the national champs in football. In 1942, after the BC-Holy Cross football game, we parked our car in a garage in Boston and headed over to the Cocoanut Grove. We went by the front door and there was a guy standing there who looked like he was drunk or something. He was moaning and groaning. He said, “The place is on fire.” We went over to the Statler Hotel where there was a BC dance. We stayed there all night watching them take out the bodies. It was a horrible, horrible thing. Several of my friends were behind those doors dead.

We were depressed enough about the game. [BC had lost, 55-12, in a major upset.]

Academically, they speeded things up. The Army took over BC in our junior year and cut our philosophy courses from six hour a week to two.  Everything else was speeded up. I had a chemistry lecture in the science building followed by a calculus lecture in the library. In order to make it, I had to run across campus. It was not really a happy time.

By senior year, the Army had taken BC over almost completely.  There was only time to sleep and to study. I lived at home – there were no dormitories. One of my friends, Johnny Logue, had a car and he was the only student in the school who was allowed to park in front of where the O’Neill Library is now. It was faculty parking, but his father was the builder who had built the Tower Building [Gasson Hall].

The school tried to maintain social activities. There were dances in the Tower Building after every game. That was part of the plan to lighten the load on students back then. They also put in a mandatory physical education program, so I joined the cross-country team to get my phys ed in. We used to run on a track in the old Alumni Stadium [now the site of Stokes Hall.]

What happened after graduation?

Finally, when I left BC I entered the Army and they trained me at Tufts Medical School for 32 months – another way of accelerating things; it should have taken 48 months. I then spent 10 years in the Army and was in Germany during the Berlin Airlift.

How has Boston College stayed in your life all of these years?

For 40 years, I was a season ticket holder for BC football, but finally, it got to be too far to walk from the parking area to the stadium. But I still watch every game on TV.

I think about the effect of my BC education all the time. I often think that if I had joined the service like I had wanted to, I might not have returned to college at all. The training and education at Boston College was superb – after having Jesuit teachers like Fr. Dorr and Fr. Tobin, I had no problem handling medical school.

There was something about Boston College kids at that time, too. There were 13 of my classmates who came to Tufts Medical with me that year. When our first professor walked into the classroom, we all stood up. He looked at as and said, “I really appreciate that, but I only have the Boston College and Holy Cross students stand once for me. You do not have to do it any more – because these others don’t!” [laughter]

What’s going on in your life now?

We have 11 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren - and a fifth is on the way – and I have been fortunate to get to see them.

I have always believed that to prevent deterioration of the brain, you have to keep studying. I take courses now in the Bible and major Catholic writers of the 1960s. I have learned a lot and I think it does help. Most days, I get up at 5 a.m. – I never want to be a “couch potato” – have breakfast, read three newspapers and I go to 7:30 Mass every day. That gets me going. Today, I was at a three-hour course in Catholicism. You’ve got to keep moving, I think.

I am very grateful for my BC education. It got me into medical school. Everything that has developed in my life started on registration day at Boston College.