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'Goodbye, Friend'

In Memoriam: William B. Neenan, SJ

07/17/14
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William B. Neenan, SJ, speaking at a 2007 Agape Latte event. (Photo by Frank Curran)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: July 17, 2014

Crowded in amongst the pews of St. Ignatius Church were former colleagues and students, fellow priests and academics – but whatever their titles or backgrounds, they had known the joy of being called “friend” by William B. Neenan, SJ.

Fr. Neenan, who died June 25 after more than three decades of administrative leadership and pastoral care at Boston College, was remembered July 1 at a funeral Mass in a packed St. Ignatius. Mourners paid tribute to the beloved Jesuit from Iowa, celebrated for his many accomplishments in key posts at BC – including academic vice president and dean of faculties – but also for his uniquely personal touch throughout the University community, exemplified by his trademark “Hello, friend” greeting to acquaintance and stranger alike.

In interviews on the day of the Mass, some of those friends spoke fondly of the man and his impact on BC.

“The ability to be funny and also be serious might seem incongruous, but Fr. Neenan brought these two qualities together in a wonderfully synergistic way,” said Associate Professor of Psychology Joe Tecce. “He could tell a joke and kid around, but then in the next minute, he would talk to you with great seriousness about some aspect of BC policy.”

Said Diane Fahey, an administrative assistant in the President’s Office, “He made everyone who worked with him that much happier. Always a smile, and he made you smile, whatever the circumstances.”

Monan Professor of Law Daniel Coquillette recalled when his daughter attended her BC freshman orientation, where the guest speaker was none other than Fr. Neenan, who was AVP at the time. “He got up and said, ‘I’m Fr. Bill Neenan, and I just want to sit and talk with you.’ In 10 minutes, everyone was in love with him. I thought how marvelous it was that here was an institution where the AVP takes time out of his day to go and talk with about 30 freshmen.

“But that was how Fr. Neenan saw this school – as one student, one staff member, one faculty member, one administrator at a time.”
In his various roles at BC – he also was Gasson Professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences prior to being named AVP – Fr. Neenan “allowed so many to be part of his life, and brought many people together,” said University President William P. Leahy, SJ, in his eulogy at the Mass. “He would’ve been thoroughly delighted at this gathering today, and the opportunity to exchange greetings and stories.”   

Fr. Leahy – to whom Fr. Neenan served as a special assistant for the past 16 years – said Fr. Neenan was the epitome of the “faithful priest” referred to in The Bible (1 Samuel 2:35). “He drew from his Catholic roots in Sioux City, striving to know the mind of God,” said Fr. Leahy, “and to bring people to the faith.”

Professor Emeritus of Theology Robert Daly, SJ, who had shared quarters with Fr. Neenan in the Jesuit community residence Roberts House, said the steady flow of tributes and condolences attested to the impact of Fr. Neenan’s “35-year love affair with Boston College, and everyone and everything associated with it.”

Fr. Daly described Fr. Neenan, particularly in his later years, as “an apostle of Boston College. That’s not just a happy metaphor. Those words describe his vision, his mission in life, which was to preach the good news about Boston College far and wide, with an enthusiasm and effectiveness that puts the rest of us to shame.”

Professor of Economics Joseph Quinn, in his eulogy, said Fr. Neenan was “someone who lived every day of his life to the fullest,” whether leading a committee discussion, hosting Holy Thursday lunch, taking part in an alumni event, visiting BC students in the Abbey Theatre summer program in Ireland, or telling his many stories in groups small or large.

 “We are blessed that Fr. Bill walked and talked – and talked and talked – among us,” concluded Quinn. “Goodbye, friend.”

See also:
• BC Community Gathers to Say Farewell to Beloved BC Jesuit [http://bit.ly/1k02pm5]
• Boston College Mourns Beloved Jesuit VP William B. Neenan, SJ [http://bit.ly/1lOATI2]