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In Memoriam: Boston College Rattigan Professor of English Emeritus John Mahoney Sr.

beloved faculty member and classroom teacher for more than 50 years


CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (9-1-15) -- Rattigan Professor of English Emeritus John L. Mahoney Sr. ’50, MA'52, H'03, a beloved faculty member, renowned classroom teacher and literary giant at Boston College for more than half a century, died early today after a brief illness. He was 87. [See below for information regarding visiting hours and services.]

The son of Irish immigrants who was raised in a Somerville triple-decker, Dr. Mahoney was a nationally acclaimed Romantics scholar and authority on the works of poet William Wordsworth. He imparted his love and vast knowledge of poetry and literature to thousands of Boston College undergraduates during 47 years of full-time, uninterrupted teaching, earning Massachusetts Teacher of the Year honors in 1989 from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

John Mahoney
John L. Mahoney Sr. (Gary Wayne Gilbert)

"Boston College has been a great part of my life," said Dr. Mahoney in a 2012 interview with the Boston College Chronicle, reflecting on his experiences as a student. “I have always been in love with books and learning, but I wanted my learning to be free and open, capable of revision. I began to get that at Boston College, with teachers who weren’t asking classes to memorize and be ready to repeat, but who would say, 'What’s your opinion of this?' – a real dialogue taking place.”

Dr. Mahoney used dialogue as a central component of his own teaching. “I always saw teaching as a matter of intuition plus preparation,” he told the Chronicle in 2002. “I was a teacher who was always prepared but I was not a formal lecturer. I blended lecture with class discussion in search of an exhilarating presentation.”  

Dr. Mahoney was also known as a prolific writer, editor and essayist, authoring six books and more than 100 published works. His books, including Wordsworth and the Critics: The Development of a Critical Reputation; Seeing Into the Life of Things: Essays on Literature and Religion; William Wordsworth: A Poetic Life; and The Whole Internal Universe: Imitation and the New Defense of Poetry in British Criticism and Aesthetics, 1660-1830, were used in universities throughout the world.

Boston College Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley praised Dr. Mahoney for his teaching gifts and the unique contribution he made as one of the University’s most respected and admired professors. “John Mahoney came to Boston College as an undergraduate in the late 1940s and with the exception of a few years across the Charles River for doctoral work at Harvard in the early 1950s, he has been an essential and beloved member of our intellectual community for nearly three-quarters of a century. He has left his mark on generations of our students and faculty colleagues, elevating the University with his commitment to the transcendent power of literature and the imagination. As we mourn the passing of this remarkable teacher-scholar, we celebrate all that he has meant to so many at Boston College over so many years.”

Added longtime colleague Mary Crane, who succeeded Dr. Mahoney as Rattigan Professor of English, “John Mahoney was at the center of the English Department at Boston College for many years. He was equally devoted to scholarship and teaching; both were a labor of love for him. He was one of those teachers who transform students’ lives, and many students stayed in touch with him over the years. He cherished every note, phone call, and visit that he received from former students. As chair of the English Department at Boston College in the 1960s, he initiated a series of hires that brought promising scholars to BC and moved the department to a new level of excellence.  As a colleague, he set an important example of generous and unstinting service to the department and the University.  John had a wide range of passionate interests, including not just poetry (his great love), but also theater, jazz, travel, and meteorology. He was always eager to discuss any of these topics and to share his enthusiasm for them with his colleagues and students.”  

Joseph Appleyard, SJ, who taught English with Dr. Mahoney early in his career, offered similar praise. “John was a good friend and mentor, a well-respected scholar of Romantic poetry, and one of the architects of the modern English Department's rise to prominence in the field of literary studies. But I suspect the achievement he would be most proud of, other than his long and happy marriage and his accomplished family, would be the generations of students he taught to love poetry."

A fervent believer in the value of higher education, Dr. Mahoney felt strongly that academia should not be insular or aloof. “We have to find ways of articulating what we do in the sciences, in literary criticism, in philosophy, in theology...in a language that is accessible to a society hungry for knowledge,” he told Boston College Magazine in 1994.

In 2003, Dr. Mahoney was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Boston College, to go along with his undergraduate and master’s degrees. He also held a doctorate from Harvard University.

The citation for his 2003 honorary degree read, in part: "Outstanding teacher, dedicated university citizen, and renowned Wordsworth authority, he has set a benchmark for faculty quality. His masterful teaching, prolific scholarship, fidelity to Catholic tradition, openness and warmth reflect the Jesuit heritage and unique institutional character he cherishes, breathing new life into classical notions of the humanities and liberal education."

Dr. Mahoney joined the English faculty at Boston College in 1955, serving as chairman from 1962-67 and again from 1969-70. In 1994 he was appointed as the inaugural Thomas F. Rattigan Professor of English. His last class as a full-time professor was chronicled by the Boston Globe in 2002, in an article that described him as “the favorite professor everyone remembers.” He continued to teach on a part-time basis following his retirement and remained active in the BC community until this past year.

Dr. Mahoney was considered a mentor to dozens of present day academic luminaries who have made their mark at universities nationwide.

Former student Stephen Fix ’74, an 18th-century literature scholar and the Robert G. Scott Professor of English at Williams College, cited Dr. Mahoney as the key influence in his intellectual formation and his decision to pursue a career in academe. “John changed my life,” said Fix. “His example inspired me to want to become a scholar and, especially, a teacher. I’ve met other great teachers in my life, but none is John’s equal. He encouraged me and countless others to see that literature can help us discover our deepest human values and commitments.”  

A gifted classicist and linguist who spoke Latin, Greek and French, Dr. Mahoney also held a deep passion for jazz as well as theater, and is said to have introduced many of his students over the years to the joys of music and theatrical performances.

His numerous honors included the University's Alumni Award for Excellence and the St. Ignatius Medal from Boston College High School, awarded to the school’s most distinguished alumni.

He leaves his beloved wife of 58 years, Ann, three children: John Jr., Patricia and William, all graduates of Boston College, and five granddaughters: Alison Mahoney, Emma Mahoney, Emily O’Brien, Erin O’Brien and Gillian Mahoney. He is also survived by his sisters Margaret P. Mahoney of Lexington, and Mary Louise Hegarty, and her husband, Cornelius, of Belmont.

Visiting hours will be held at the Douglass Funeral Home in Lexington, Mass., on Thursday, September 3, from 4-8 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will take place at St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill, Mass., on Friday, September 4, at 10 a.m. Burial will be private.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Professor Mahoney's memory to the Boston College Fund.

--Jack Dunn and Sean Smith, News & Public Affairs