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Perspectives on the Heights

John Mahoney (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Reid Oslin | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 13, 2012

Few faculty members in the 150-year history of Boston College have achieved such a fulfilling life’s work of distinguished scholarship and universal reverence as Rattigan Professor of English Emeritus John L. Mahoney, a treasured member of the University’s academic community since his own undergraduate days in the late 1940s.

Mahoney, now 84 and retired from scheduled teaching, is preparing to move — along with his English Department colleagues — from his tiny office in Carney Hall across the Campus Green to brand-new quarters in Stokes Hall. Over the years, he has witnessed massive changes in the evolution of Boston College, most notably in the realms of physical growth and academic influence.

A Somerville native, Mahoney enrolled as a BC freshman in September of 1945, only to be plucked away by the Army in the final military conscription of World War II. After service in post-war Japan, he returned to the Heights and graduated with the Class of 1950 — part of a surge of college students at BC and beyond, spurred by returning war veterans eager to take advantage of GI Bill education benefits.  

Mahoney began his teaching journey as a graduate assistant at BC, then was appointed as an English instructor at Boston College by Rev. Charles F. Donovan, SJ, in 1955. After an illustrious teaching career covering nearly five decades as scholar, mentor and department chair at BC, Mahoney completed his sterling academic cycle with an honorary degree from Boston College presented to him at the 2003 University Commencement.

While still a PhD candidate, Mahoney was introduced to his future wife, Ann, by a matchmaking waitress in a Harvard Square coffee shop. Today, John and Ann are the parents of three children, all BC grads who followed their father into the field of education: John L. Mahoney III ‘79, BC’s director of undergraduate admission; William ‘84, recently named director of communications at Belmont Hill School; and Patricia ‘85, an elementary education specialist in the Somerville Public Schools. The Mahoneys also have five granddaughters.

Mahoney recently took time to share his Boston College memories with Chronicle correspondent Reid Oslin, recalling the splendid career that has now spanned some 65 years, often enhancing his memories by reading passages from the draft of a memoir that he is preparing. Mahoney conversed with the skills of a master teacher: quietly emphasizing his key points; engaging his visitor in dialogue; even strategically pausing his presentation to allow the note-taker to catch up when necessary.

As Mahoney packed his books and academic and personal memorabilia for his upcoming office move, he also included the small container of blackboard chalk that he keeps on his desk - always at the ready for his next classroom visit.

What was your first introduction to Boston College?

I grew up in Somerville, and went to the parochial school in St. Joseph’s Parish. It was during those years that I began to think about what I was going to do for high school – we didn’t have one in the parish. Snob that I was, I said, “I’m not going to Somerville High School.” [laughter] Instead, I fell in love with idea of going to Boston College High School. I talked to my mother and father and they told me it was a lot of money, but they would do their best. My father was a printer and he used to take whatever we called the T in those days into the Custom House area in Boston to go to work.

But I knew that I wanted to go to BC High, I knew that the Jesuits taught there, I knew that they did a great job, and I knew that a lot of my best friends went there. I went and I loved it. I had some wonderful teachers. I loved BC High not just because of some pious, sentimental reason, but because there were Jesuits there who were scholars and wonderful classroom teachers – that’s what I loved about BC High. They cared about us as individuals, as if we were their sons rather than their students.

As we moved from freshman, sophomore junior years in the South End of Boston, there were problems up here [Boston College’s enrollment dropped because many students were serving in World War II]. So we did our senior year of BC High on the top floor of Gasson Hall. Not many people know that. What a thrill it was for us!

How did you wind up in the Army after your freshman year – and how did that become a part of your education process?

World War II was closing during my freshman year, but I was still drafted. I was a member of the last group of draftees in World War II. At age 18, I and many others like me were called into military service. I was inducted into the US Army on May 14, 1946, and soon after was on my way by train to Fort Belvoir, Va., for basic training.

It was not enjoyable experience [laughter] but I took advantage of free time for visits to Washington, DC. For some reason – maybe because I was a graduate of Boston College High School and then a freshman at Boston College – I was selected for an occupational specialty called geodetic computing. I used to go around with an Army surveyor and take the notes. My work was judged satisfactory, but I have to admit, now years later, that my mathematical and scientific skills are limited [laughter].

My next stop was Japan. I was shipped over to Yokohama, arriving there on December 19, 1946. They got me out quickly, didn’t they? There was little opportunity for real travel and education during my service in Japan, but I had Sundays free for myself. I began to take the local train to Tokyo and after a while I found that I could attend Mass at the Jesuit Sofia University in Tokyo, where I became friendly with a Jesuit brother who saw that I was welcomed in to breakfast after Mass. This is a poor, lame-brained kid coming from the outskirts in to go to Mass, finding Sofia, going into the chapel for Mass, and meeting this brother who said, “You are from Boston – you must know Boston College! Come and have breakfast with us – and come every Sunday.”

I walked around the city. I even once caught sight of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I got to know and like a great number of the native Japanese who lived and worked near our barracks outside of Tokyo, but I was still a US soldier and limited to a restricted area. There wasn’t much chance to do any elaborate travel.

April 18, 1947 was my departure date from Japan. We arrived in Oakland, California on May 7, where we were properly discharged, paid, and were on our own. I decided I would use some of my paycheck for a decent airline trip to Boston. I liked the idea of many stops and we moved at a leisurely way across the country to Boston – then to Charlestown then on a bus to Union Square in Somerville. That was a great trip for a kid just beyond 18, wasn’t it?

I was a city and family celebrity in Somerville for a while [laughter] but soon reality set in and I had to get on with my life. I was thinking of my education – especially after a separation from classroom life – and Boston College was always a part of my plan. Or should I say my dream?

What was Boston College like in those post-war days?

Ah, Chestnut Hill was certainly another place and certainly another story. Public transportation was my great vehicle: the bus from Union Square in Somerville to Union Square in Allston; then across Harvard Avenue to Commonwealth Avenue; then the train to BC. It was the reverse all the way home – it was a wearying trip.

The campus then – as now – was awe-inspiring. Classes in Gasson, the [old] Army Barracks – do you remember those? – classes in Devlin and Bapst; introducing us to Gothic architecture in all its beauty with which we fell in love. It just wasn’t the physical part, but the classroom - the teachers seemed challenging and impressive. BC High had prepared us well for those challenges at Chestnut Hill.

We had so many veterans that we actually had barracks [on campus]. I remember them being shuttled down Beacon Street on trucks. Later, I taught in those buildings.

There was always at least the attempt to avoid the “finishing school” label, to avoid the sense that we would now bring you back to your Catholic origins, back to an education like the one you had at Boston College High School, that sort of thing.

Who were the men sitting beside me? Some were young kids; others were people four or five years older. Not many “wise-guys,” saying “Wow, let’s tell the story about what happened with the dancing damsels in Japan.” I didn’t hear much of that at all. What I heard was, “I never thought that coming into an Army-like barracks would make all of us sit up straight and memorize things and say things like ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.”

Two out of three of those teachers were scholars; two out of three of those teachers cared about us; two out of three of those teachers wanted us to find our own way – to find the fields that would draw us. That was the spirit.  

The curriculum, as I look back, was rigid in the best sense of that word: philosophy, theology, a science, mathematics, perhaps not enough work in fine arts. Among my earliest teachers were Fr. Paul McNulty in English, Fr. Dan Dwyer in English, Fr. Anthony Eiardi in biology, Fr. Edward Douglas in theology – they were good professionals, exemplary Jesuits, encouraging teachers. But the best was yet to come.

First was Edward L. Hirsch in English, a master teacher of Chaucer, Milton and the 18th century in England. He was a mentor who continued to be a strong intellectual presence, a model, in my life. Then there was P. Albert Duhamel, a friend and colleague of Hirsch, and a lively and engaging teacher of Shakespeare and a variety of Great Books. Both Hirsh and Duhamel were special at the beginning of my literary life and education. They continued to be my strongest influences in my life and my career.

Indeed, the influence of Hirsh and Duhamel was at least partly responsible for my staying a bit longer at Boston College for a Master of Arts degree in English. I was admitted to the master’s program in English and again my good fortune continued.  I was awarded a teaching fellowship that granted me a no-tuition benefit and allowed me to teach freshman English to first-year undergraduates. I dreamt that I had died and gone to heaven! [laughter]

Scholarship and teaching has been your life’s work. How has it changed at Boston College and elsewhere over the years?

It was a splendid experience learning how to teach at the college level and learning about future career plans that would require a PhD in my special fields of interest, the Enlightenment and British Romanticism. They continue to be my specialties.

Part of the change had to do with people like Ed Hirsch, who had a Yale PhD.

It was a big change, and I suppose that I had a part in it because I became chair of the English Department when I was quite young [early 1960s]. My teaching career continued without interruption and the University began to stress the importance of research as a part of the full professional life.

I can still remember when I was notified by the dean, Fr. John E. McCarthy, SJ, that I would head the department. Change was the name of the game in those years. I was succeeded as chair by Richard Hughes, who then became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, perhaps the first lay dean that we had. I was asked to come back as chairman when Hughes became dean. What an active chairmanship it was – not necessarily because of me – but because these were busy times for a rapidly growing English Department and also our rapidly-growing Boston College.

I took very seriously the charge given to me in this office by President Michael Walsh, SJ, and his charge was that I build a strong faculty and curriculum for the English Department. I and my colleagues posted notices of faculty openings every year in the MLA [Modern Language Association], and we went to MLA meetings which were very good ways of calling attention to department needs. I recruited Andrew von Hendy, Bob Reiter, John Loufborow, Ann Ferry, Mark Gibbon, Paul Doherty – later the chair himself – and others. I will never forget those years.

What has Boston College meant to you?

It has been a great part of my life. I have always been in love with books and learning, but you have to go a step even beyond that. I wanted my learning to be free and open, capable of revision, all of those things. I began to get that at Boston College. Teachers who weren’t asking classes to memorize and be ready to repeat, but would say, “What’s your opinion of this?” – a real dialogue taking place. I began to see some of that, and a lot of people that I hired were hired because they had taken degrees at distinguished universities, so the recruiting process went out there and looked at people, asked for applications, went to the MLA meeting which always came at the beginning of the new year, and interviewed them one-on-one.

What were we looking for? Sure, it’s wonderful to have a PhD, and sure, it’s wonderful to be a college instructor. But will you carry the burden beyond in the way that Andy von Hendy and so many others did? That’s my answer.

It took me all the way from sitting in one of those Army barracks, to sitting in a building that looked academic, into a department that included my two heroes, Hirsch and Duhamel, into a department where somebody said “He might make a good chair,” into a department where I became chair and began a process of bringing in people from not just distinguished universities but from distinguished universities who had the beginnings, at least, of a research record and a publication record. That’s the way you build an even stronger Boston College.