Construction on the Recitation Building—later renamed Gasson Hall—began on June 19, 1909. 

Photo: Burns Library

Bringing BC's History to Life

Clough Millennium Professor Emeritus of History James O’Toole on his new book about the history of Boston College.

To University Historian James O’Toole ’72, Ph.D.’ 87, the story of Boston College is first and foremost about people. For his new book, Ever to Excel: A History of Boston College, O’Toole conducted twelve years of research on the students, alumni, faculty, administrators, and staff who have shaped BC since its founding in 1863. We asked him about the process of writing this social history.

What sparked the idea for this book? It grew out of the lead-up to BC’s sesquicentennial anniversary in 2013. As we thought about how to mark 150 years, the idea arose to do something expressly historical. University President Father Leahy is a historian by training, so I must say, it was kind of an easy sell.

Book cover

How did you decide to focus this history on people? People say they don’t like history, and I’m sympathetic to that, because there’s a lot of historical writing and teaching that’s just “this happened, then that happened.” Over the course of my career, I’ve come to think history is valuable precisely because it connects to the stories of real human beings. The field as a whole has moved toward social history, too. What are the actual people doing, not just in the president’s office, but on the ground?

What is something readers might not know about BC’s history? When BC moved to Chestnut Hill, then-president Father Gasson arranged for a bill to be filed in the state legislature to redraw the line between Boston and Newton along what is now College Road. The bill never passed, but the motive was clear: Boston College wanted to stay in Boston. I was also constantly impressed by what I learned about Newton College of the Sacred Heart. Newton College has often been overlooked, but the women who went there got an outstanding education.

Why is it important to reflect on the University’s history? Well, one way in which it’s important has to do with the Catholic identity. Though BC welcomed non-Catholics from the beginning, it didn’t originally have to think about that identity—it was walking around campus. Over time, the school has had to be more deliberate and conscious.

As society changes, how does the institution change, while still holding on to the essential values that make it what it is? And what can that history teach us about the future? It’s easy for people in any institution to think, This is the way the institution is, and it’s going to stay this way. History teaches us that isn’t true. The larger circumstances will change and make new demands—some we foresee, and many more we can’t. BC will always have to keep asking itself how the education it provides addresses society’s needs. But history also shows us the values that have persevered since the beginning. To this day, students here talk about service and the common good. You don’t have to ask. They volunteer it.

How did you decide where to end this book? The anniversary Mass at Fenway Park in the fall of 2012 seemed like a fitting cap to BC’s third half-century. In many ways, Fr. Leahy’s presidency isn’t history yet—it’s the ongoing present. In fifty more years, another historian will look back and put it into context. 

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