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Perspectives On The Heights


Sociology Professor Emeritus John D. Donovan ’39 has seen Boston College through many lenses throughout his more than 75-year affiliation with the University  as a student, faculty member, researcher, alumni class correspondent, advocate for student-athletes and co-founder of the Boston College Association of Retired Faculty. Donovan, now age 94, was an undergraduate at the Heights when Boston College celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1938. He recently spent an afternoon in his Westborough home with Chronicle correspondent Reid Oslin, looking back over his long – and, on occasion, rocky – relationship with the University.

What brought you to Boston College as a freshman in 1935?
I came from Peabody. Both of my parents were Irish immigrants. My father was a factory worker in Peabody. I went to St. John’s grammar school and the nun there in eighth grade called my mother down and said “John shouldn’t go to Peabody High – if you can, send him to St. John’s Prep [in Danvers].” Somehow, they pulled the money together and I went to St. John’s Prep.

When college came up, fortunately, there was a Woods Family Scholarship in Peabody and the family gave me that. BC tuition was $200 a year at that time, and BC was almost all day students then. Each day, I would take the train from Peabody to Boston, then went upstairs in North Station and got on the streetcar all the way out to Chestnut Hill. Then, we walked up from Lake Street to the campus.

There were only four buildings there and we were all day students. We had to wear shirts and ties and jackets and bring our lunches.

 With all of the day students and only four buildings, and the fact that most of the students were graduates of Catholic high schools, the academic program was very “Jesuitical.” Unless you were a science major, you had to take Latin and Greek, English, a foreign language and history in the first year. The second year was much the same thing. In the junior and senior years, it was your major field – whatever that might be – plus an awful lot of philosophy, theology and ethics.

The faculty was almost all Jesuits. Some of the Jesuits were scholastics – still in the seminary. They were called “Mister.” All of the Jesuits at that time wore cassocks and a biretta. They were the dominant faculty – there were only a few laymen, in the language and science fields, and no laywomen that I recall. It was a very heavy academic program.

Do you have any memories of Boston College’s 75th Anniversary celebration?

Not really. Very few of us – unless you lived locally in the Boston area – could get much social life out of college at the time. We all had to spend time commuting, and sometimes working on the weekends.

Commuting took about two hours each way. It was a long trip. We always carried our lunches. There was a little restaurant at BC called “Sully’s Place” that was in the basement of Gasson Hall. They had coffee, milk and sandwiches if you had some money once in a while.

They had football, baseball, hockey and track teams at the time. I don’t think there was a basketball team. I know there wasn’t a tennis team, because I played tennis. So, I was involved in the debating societies – there were two, the Marquette and Fulton societies – and the Honors Program.

Our family didn’t have a car at that time – we were just hard-working people. So when I was debating, the BC team was taken down to New York, Philadelphia and Washington. One of the Jesuits took four of us down and we debated at Manhattan College, Fordham, Georgetown and St. Joseph’s.  That was the first time I had ever been out of Boston.  It was a dramatic adventure.

You were a sociology major at BC. Wasn’t that an unusual academic concentration at the time?

Almost everyone was a humanities major with a few in math and science. Sociology was suspect at that time, because the founder of sociology was a Frenchman named August Comte, who was a profound and very articulate atheist. That meant that when sociology came to the United States, the Catholic Church and Catholic higher education was suspect from the start. When it started out at BC, it didn’t start out as “sociology,” it was called “social science.” It was several years later before they changed it to “sociology.”

This suspicion of sociology was also a suspicion of psychology, and when the Psychology Department developed here after the war, there was a Jesuit named Fr. James Moynihan, SJ, who was a liberal scholar and the first chairman of the department. The administration had a sign outside his office “Modern Psychology.” One day, he got a saw and cut the word “Modern” off of the sign.
What was it like being a student with the clouds of war on the horizon in 1939?

The Marines came to recruit students from BC during my senior year. I recall that I went with a fellow named Dick Kelley, who was from Marblehead. Dick passed the tests, went into the Marines and unfortunately, died in the Pacific. I was rejected because I was too tall and skinny at that point – I was about 6-foot-3 and didn’t weigh very much.

Shortly after graduation, a lot of us started being drafted. I was lucky - I escaped for about three years before being drafted. I had gotten a fellowship for a master’s degree at BC in 1939 and 1940 and then I went over to Harvard in 1941 with a fellowship there and I was a teaching assistant. I was declared “4-F” for a heart condition. In 1943, I was annoyed that I was still a “4-F” so I went to my local doctor and he said my heart was OK. I reapplied and was admitted into the service [Army] right away.

I “disappeared” for a while and wound up in Texas, where I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Medical Administrative Corps. I thought to myself, “Gee, I am lucky” – as an officer in the Medical Corps I would be sent to a hospital, right? I thought I would be doing administrative work. I thought I would be safe and have the nurses too [laughter]. Well, at that time, the US Senate changed the Army’s Table of Organization and decided to have both a doctor and a medical administrator in every combat unit. I went back to Texas for combat training,  crawling under the machine gun fire and all that. I was sent over to England and then they put me on a ship headed for France.

We landed on Omaha Beach a week after it had been cleared on D-Day. I was assigned to the 3rd Battalion of the 331st Infantry, 83rd Infantry Division...We went from Normandy to the German side of the Elbe River. That was the end of the war. I was lucky – I came out of it in one piece. [Donovan was awarded a Bronze Star for his meritorious service.]

Years later, when I was retired and decided that I had made enough mistakes publishing work in sociology, I decided to write my humorous memoirs of World War II. I wrote a 60-page book for my grandkids to read. I wasn’t going to talk about the sad things – there were too many of them. I don’t talk much about the war because of that sadness, but a lot of funny damn things happened to me during the war, too. It just helps.

How did you wind up in the academic world?

When I got out of the Army, I had finished all of the course work at Harvard and I went back there I met up with a couple of old PhD candidates who had just gotten out of the service too, and the chairman of the department called me in and asked “Do you want to get a scholarship to do research on your thesis? The people at Fordham are looking for a professor to start up there. Would you like to go there?” So I took a job as an instructor, then assistant professor at Fordham from 1946 until 1952. While I was there, I finished my thesis. I made a very careful study, interviewing large numbers of priests with regards to their backgrounds, their decisions to go into the seminary, and the kinds of careers they had. A lot of people that I knew read it – and some of the Jesuits that I knew are still suspicious of me [laughter]. That was the start of my academic career.

I was also lucky to have gotten married while I was down at Fordham – to a Waltham girl [Mary] whom I had met on a blind date to a BC-Holy Cross football game. She was – and still is – a very bright woman. She was a graduate of Bentley and an accountant; Mary had a job as an accountant for John Hay Whitney and made more money than I did [laughter].  We had our first child in 1951 and we decided that we really didn’t want to live in New York, and so we came back to BC.

What was Boston College like for a young faculty member in those days?

When I came back to BC, it was still listed as the “Department of Social Science” – not “Sociology.” There was one older Jesuit, Fr. John O’Connell, who had done his PhD work at Harvard. He was very much into ethics, so he was the only person when I was a student here, except for a fellow named George Fitzgibbons who had a PhD from Harvard, who was the one who sponsored me into sociology. When I came back to teach in 1952, there was Fr. O’Connell, Fitzgibbons, Bob Williams and myself. That was the department. Once in a while we would have a social worker come in as a guest speaker.

Our office was in Gasson Hall – we had one desk and a couple of chairs. Fr. O’Connell stayed in St. Mary’s Hall. Later we moved over to Lyons.

From 1952 until 1958, growth of the department was a very slow process. We had some part-time lecturers. I had published a number of chapters and articles and was quite active in the Catholic Sociological Society. In 1958, I became president of the society. It kept me busy.

That was an interesting period in the history of the Catholic Church. Did it affect your academic research?

Most of my academic work was in the sociology of American Catholicism. Back around 1958, I got a grant from the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs to do a study of the academic man in the Catholic college. I got a leave of absence from BC and went around the country interviewing people. I interviewed about 300 people. It took months. Then I started moving more directly into the Church analysis. I did grant work for the US Department of Education, studying non-public schools in three or four different states; I studied the priesthood; and I did some research on the Catholic hierarchy.

I was later invited to be a Visiting Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium in 1964-65. I was invited down to give a paper at Vatican Council II on the dilemma of the priesthood, which I did. While I was there, I got into trouble: I signed a petition asking Pope Paul VI to add a Post-Vatican Council II commission to look into the question of celibacy. There were about seven or eight Americans who signed it.

About three or four months later, the New York Times had a story that Pope Paul VI had rejected the appeal for the commission. They listed the names of the Americans who had signed it – and of course mine was one of them. Some people have not forgiven me since! So, I got into trouble in some quarters [laughter]. But celibacy still is a legitimate subject for study.

I have seen many changes in the Church as well as BC. It has been an interesting subject to have been involved in academically as well as personally.

What are the major changes you have seen at Boston College over the years?

I taught from 1952 until 1988 at BC – that’s when I turned 70. But after I stopped teaching full-time, they asked me to stay on, so I stayed until 2002 as a part-time lecturer – just one or two courses. It worked out very well.

There have been some dramatic changes – there’s no question about that. When I think back on the Jesuit scholastics in their birettas and cassocks and the priests as the dominant faculty members, and there were few lay faculty members and no lay faculty association at all, we lived in small offices and crowded conditions, no secretaries. I’m not criticizing – it was just the reality.

Gradually, it evolved – starting in the late 1950s. A lot of the [GI Bill] veterans had finished their educations and we started getting a new group coming through – students who lived in the dormitories.

In the ’60s, women were admitted into Arts and Sciences and the Honors Program. My recollection involves the administration during the years that I was there, and the presidencies of Rev. Joseph Maxwell, SJ, Mike Walsh, SJ, W. Seavey Joyce, SJ and J. Donald Monan, SJ. The two who were most involved in the development of BC were Fathers Walsh and Monan.  

Mike Walsh was a biology man and he was the one who called me in and asked me if I would chair the sociology department. I told him “Yes – but I want to be honest with you. There are damn few Catholics out there who teach sociology. If you want the department to be strong, you have to open it up to non-Catholics.” He went along with it and I immediately started hiring. There were very few Catholics coming out at the time.

We got the department going and got a group of people who started to write and publish, too. We picked it up and got it started. I don’t take any credit for it – it was really the era, as it was happening in other departments as well.

How did you become involved with academic advising for student-athletes?

That was a dramatic thing for me. Back in the ’70s I thought that we weren’t doing enough to take care of the athletes academically, and I said something to Bill Flynn, the director of athletics at the time, who was a classmate of mine. He called me back a couple of days later and asked me to go down to Villanova, where he had heard they had a pretty good program. I was serving on the Athletic Advisory Board with some alumni and other faculty and we started something better – which today is Learning Resources for Student-Athletes. I was so pleased at that.

We started with a study hall where athletes would come over from the dorms at night and would be in a place where they could study without being interrupted by other people. We had a graduate student who was there to help advise them. What makes me feel good is that at least started our athletes on getting an advantage in terms of the prospects of graduation. It started with just a couple of people, but it did develop into a program that made BC distinctive in terms of the numbers of athletes that graduated.

I am so pleased that it gradually developed. Over the last 15 years or so we have a graduation rate right at the top. I thought that this was something that was worthwhile that I had been a part of at BC.
Academic success is more important for their lives than it is for BC. It gives them some credentials that give them a shot at a successful work life.