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In Memoriam: William B. Neenan, S.J.

vice president and special assistant to the president


William B. Neenan, S.J., a beloved Jesuit and accomplished administrator at Boston College who served in several key leadership positions during more than three decades at the Heights, passed away on June 25, 2014 at the Jesuit residence in Roberts House. He was 85.

A funeral Mass for Fr. Neenan was held Tuesday, July 1, at St. Ignatius Church. [Video]

As academic vice president and dean of faculties from 1987-1998, Fr. Neenan helped guide Boston College to its place among the nation’s premier universities. During his 11-year tenure, he oversaw a steady strengthening of Boston College's undergraduate and graduate programs, with the University named among U.S. News & World Report’s top 40 national universities and top 20 universities for teaching. He became vice president and special assistant to University President William P. Leahy, S.J., in 1998, a position he held for the past 16 years.

Fr. Leahy praised Fr. Neenan as a scholar, administrator and Jesuit who dedicated his life to advancing Boston College. “Fr. Neenan was such a presence on our campus and was a tremendous Jesuit priest,” said Fr. Leahy. “We will all miss him greatly.”

A respected economist, Fr. Neenan came to Boston College in 1979 from the University of Michigan to become the University's first Gasson Professor. The following year, he was named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a position he held until 1987.

Well known among students, faculty and alumni for the genuine friendship he extended to those he met — often in the form of a spontaneous handshake and introduction (“Hello friend, I’m Fr. Neenan”) delivered in a dining hall, on a campus shuttle bus, or while walking through the Quad — Fr. Neenan founded the "Iowa/Nebraska Luncheon Club," providing BC students from the Midwest with an opportunity to gather and catch up on happenings back home. The luncheons became so popular among students that they spawned numerous other regional luncheons for undergraduates from all over the country.

His annual release of the "Dean's List of Recommended Reading," a lineup of his favorite novels, biographies, histories and other books, became an anticipated yearly rite on the BC campus.

Throughout his 35 years of service, Fr. Neenan was an active and in-demand presence at Boston College and a highly sought-after speaker at alumni events nationwide. He attended countless reunions and alumni club gatherings, spoke at myriad student forums, served as chair of several administrative search committees and officiated at hundreds of alumni weddings. His mellifluous voice, familiar to all in the BC community, is among those of administrators and faculty members included on the University's mobile “Tour of the Heights.”

In 2004, a gift from Margaret A. and Thomas A. Vanderslice '53, Hon. '03, established the William B. Neenan, S.J., Millennium Chair in Economics. Upon the announcement of the chair, Tom Vanderslice called Fr. Neenan "the soul of the University."

Fr. Neenan became the namesake for another University initiative in 2009, with the creation of the William B. Neenan, S.J., Society, which recognizes alumni who make annual gifts in consecutive years. The establishment of the Neenan Society came in the wake of the “Neenan Challenge,” which set a goal of 25,000 alumni donors contributing $1 million in financial aid. During the 2008-09 fiscal year, more than 26,300 answered the call to support Boston College in his name.

Prior to his arrival at BC, Fr. Neenan was a professor of economics and social work at the University of Michigan, where he received his doctorate in economics and had taught since 1967. He received undergraduate and master's degrees in economics and a degree in sacred theology from St. Louis University.

Fr. Neenan wrote numerous articles, reviews, books and monographs on subjects ranging from urban economics to public health and taxation, and has directed a string of economic institutes and seminars.

A member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, he entered the Jesuits in 1948 and was ordained in 1961. In 2003, Fr. Neenan received the Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam Award from the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, in recognition of his commitment to Jesuit education in New England. He received an honorary degree from Boston College for his distinguished service to the University in 2008, the year he celebrated his 60th anniversary as a Jesuit, and the Founder’s Medal from Boston College Law School in 1996.

He served as a trustee for a number of schools and universities, including Loyola University of Chicago, Fordham University, Nativity Preparatory School, North Cambridge Catholic High School, Boston College High School, and Boston College Ireland Ltd., among others. He also served as director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities from 1988 to 1994, and as a director of the Jesuit magazine America from 1990 to 1991.

A self-described "immigrant" from Sioux City who, like his fellow Iowan Fr. Leahy, maintained a lifelong rooting interest in the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, Fr. Neenan was quick to acknowledge his fondness for his adopted home on the Heights. "I came with the intention of spending just a year here, and I ended up falling in love with Boston College," he said.