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John R. Smith Eulogy

office of the chancelor

Eulogy For
September 15, 2004

When I was considering becoming the President of Boston College in 1972, there was only one member of the administration I asked the search committee to see. It was the Chief Financial Officer, John R. Smith. In the wake of the crises that shook all of higher education between 1968 and 1972, the College was known to have a whole host of serious problems: questions about the University’s academic and religious identity; disaffection of its alumni; mutual distrust between older and younger. But one problem dominated all the rest – the very real threat of financial insolvency. I had studied the financial statements of the last three years carefully. My question for John was: “Can Boston College survive?” No Pollyanna John, he had neither a “yes” nor a “no” answer. But he had concluded, as did I, that it was eminently worth the try.

Just a week ago, a very different Boston College glowing with health and promise and with the enthusiasm and vitality of young people all about, began a new academic year. It was surely divine providence that God chose that setting, that John so loved and helped create, to call John back to Himself.

I know I speak for everyone in the congregation in extending my most sincere sympathy to his dear wife, Helen, to John’s children, Margaret and Jack and Bob and Tom – to Dick and Yvonne – and to each of the grandchildren. John had an uncanny ability to appreciate people in their individuality, and he loved each of you very much. All of us here this morning share your loss.

I have learned from John that there are rewards to being both priest and colleague and friend. Helen asked me if I would speak today in a homily, but also for those who were close to John, in the form of a eulogy.

And indeed, I could not be faithful to John’s own life if I were to try to separate his life as husband and father and friend and thoroughgoing professional financial executive from his life of faith in his relationship to God. To the tip of his fingers, John was a brilliant, insightful, imaginative, rigorously professional financial executive, and at the same time, he was an unmistakably good, religious person, kind and considerate, irrepressibly humorous, intuitively sympathetic to anyone with a problem. John was always modest about his gifts, and yet he could not miss recognizing how extraordinary those gifts were. But it was one of John’s children who recognized that simply being technically best was not enough; John’s deepest aspiration was to make sure that his extraordinary gifts have an influence beyond the merely professional – that they would be of help to others.

I personally believe it was this aspiration that helped bring John Smith to Boston College.

In thirty-two years of close association with John, I have always had the sense of John’s being supremely at home at Boston College, a sense of his having found himself, in a way that he never experienced in the more one-dimensional world of business. It was this institution of higher education that gave full scope to John’s rigorous ideals as a financial manager and his Christian aspiration to have a meaningful influence on others in their critical life choices.

The role that faith plays in any of our lives is as elusive to describe as it can be powerful and pervasive. John certainly never wore his faith on his sleeve in a way that would make anyone uncomfortable. There are two equally sure paths one can take in finding God as a Christian. One is to recognize that God is totally other than and outside of this world, as God truly is. It was this insight of faith that launched the monastic movement to leave home and family and commerce and statecraft to devote one’s life to prayer and worship of God. But God is not only other than the world. As Christians, we believe that God entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and in so entering the world, in dying and rising for us, gave a new dignity and nobility to each of us and, if we so wish, to all of our undertakings. It is a Christian thing to leave the world with its cultural engagements and challenges in order to find God. And it is also Christian, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, to find God in all things. “Whatever you do” says St. Paul, “do it in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What turns professional accomplishment into religious meaning is motivation of faith.

The great Jesuit archaeologist of the last century, Teilhard de Chardin, whose scholarship involved digging through the dust of antiquity, graphically yet simply expressed this Christian vision of human life in saying that God is found not only in withdrawal from the world in prayer or meditation. God is “at the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush…of my heart and of my thought. By pressing the stroke, the line…on which I am engaged, to its ultimate natural finish, I shall arrive at the ultimate aim toward which my innermost will tends.” If the city of God could be built through the scholar’s pen, and that is the basic Christian insight and belief that underlies Boston College and every Jesuit university that aspires to professional excellence, that same city of God is equally to be built by a mother’s love of a child or the sophisticated devising of a loan program to assist parents in educating their children or in conceiving a new technique for financing a university’s complex capital needs.

John’s faith and his prayer gave a religious dimension to his professional work; his work gave visible substance to his faith.

In his work as chief financial officer, John made three major contributions to the health and vitality: He put in place the systems and controls that averted almost certain insolvency; borrowing from his business experience, he introduced a comprehensive accounting system that made possible dramatic and ongoing enhancement of our campus; as no one else, he contributed the focus and the energy to begin creating an endowment that will lessen the burden for every student who attends the College.

But while John helped the College become professionally business-like, he never saw the College as a business. John’s horizon was always large enough, and he was always modest enough, to recognize the primacy of the educational and religious mission of the College.

For that reason, John was able not only help heal the body of the university – but to add lightness to its soul.

John managed all of his professional accomplishments with a modesty and a rapier-like sense of humor and a passionate interest in every facet of our complex university that gave sparkle to every team meeting and to every conversation in which he engaged. John truly was an original, and I am sure that that originality enlivened the spirit of the University, it enlivened also the spirit of each of us who worked with him.

The University’s endowment is meant to last in perpetuity. John Smith left an imprint on Boston College, and through the College, on incalculable numbers of students and their families, that will endure as long as its soaring granite towers. Best of all, who of us can doubt that God understood this wonderful, immensely kind, tough-minded, sensitive, practical, gracious man even more than we, and will enjoy his company as did we.