The history of Boston College was not determined solely by the great men whose names are prominent across campus—Gasson, McElroy, Fulton.
The true history of BC has been formed by the 200,000 people who have graduated from the University since its founding in 1863. It is their images that grace the pages of co-author Ben Birnbaum’s introduction to the new book, The Heights: An Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863-2013.
One of the most poignant parts of writing the book, Birnbaum said, was “finding and publishing images of these people, who didn’t think they were part of history or part of memory.” They might have been students perched under a tree on the original BC campus in Boston’s South End, or young women of the Philomatheia Club fundraising for the school that would not admit them to study.
“It’s not just about the great men, it’s about everybody,” Birnbaum said.
Birnbaum, who serves as special assistant to University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.; executive director of the Office of Marketing Communications; and editor of Boston College Magazine, approached Leahy about creating an illustrated history of the University over six years ago, hoping to tell stories—through images, primarily—that people wanted to read.
With Leahy’s backing, the project began in earnest in 2008 when Birnbaum’s co-author, Seth Meehan, the assistant director of the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College and MA ’09, Ph.D. ’14, was hired to conduct research. He combed archives around the city, down the East Coast, and even across the Atlantic Ocean, utilizing records at the Burns Library, The Boston Globe, the Boston Public Library, Georgetown University, and the Vatican in Rome, among others locations.
Upon finding things that no one had used before, the coauthors realized there was more to their undertaking than they initially believed.
“We tried to dig up everything we could in an effort to make this as accurate as possible,” Birnbaum said.
Meehan particularly focused on increasing his volume of research with primary sources, gaining access to materials that others—including previous authors recording BC’s history—did not have access to.
“We had the president’s support to get into areas of archives at BC that had not previously been opened,” Birnbaum said.
Meehan also worked closely with University Archivist Amy Braitsch at the Burns Library to sort through thick records from the years following World War II, and said he was tasked with separating myths from real history in the limited material from before the war.
Birnbaum added that they could not have written the chapters on former University President Rev. W. Seavey Joyce, S.J., who served from 1968 until 1972, or the early part of Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J.’s term as Joyce’s successor without that permission. Meehan said that they told the story of some eras, such as Joyce’s presidency, in a decidedly new way based on their access to new material.
On the whole, Leahy was very supportive of the project, particularly as a historian himself who was invested in getting this account right, Birnbaum said. Leahy encouraged Birnbaum and Meehan to be honest in showing the “zigzag way in which an institution grows.”
That institutional growth encompassed many distinct stages of development, beginning when BC was a school in the South End, through its move to the Chestnut Hill campus in the first decades of the 20th century. The construction of dozens of additional buildings followed, and major land purchases would later incorporate the Newton and Brighton campuses into the University.
Throughout its history, BC has established a legacy in the realm of Jesuit, Catholic education, higher education, and society in general. Yet, Birnbaum and Meehan made an effort to ensure that various aspects—not all completely positive—were addressed as they chronicled the upward trajectory of development to where BC is today.
“There always has been development, and some of the stuff we found is not airing gossip, or pointing out the faults and every mistake that was made, but there are dips along the way, and we highlight some of those moments,” Meehan said. “We appreciate those pauses [in development], we don’t speed past them.”
An example of a pause in development—when BC’s plans perhaps proved more ambitious than its financial means—occurred when Bapst Library stood partially constructed from 1925 until 1928 as the University tried to scrape up more funds. After Bapst was completed, no new buildings were built for 28 years.
“BC had ambitions it couldn’t support … it would run as fast as it could, and it would exhaust itself, and then would have to catch its breath for awhile before it made its next move forward,” Birnbaum said. “The wonderful, brave thing about BC history is that it never gave up.”
Birnbaum noted that the institution’s confidence allowed for a more honest telling of its history.
“I think Seth and I were lucky to walk into this project at a time when BC’s confidence was such that we could be honest about our past,” he said. “[BC] is assured of its place, it’s confident of its contributions to both education and society, and the more mature you get, the better you can look at your past.”
Choosing more recent events to include in the book was a challenge, as the key elements of the years under the Monan and Leahy presidencies are far from solidified as history.
“If you don’t have a 25-year perspective, you really don’t know what was important and what wasn’t,” Birnbaum said. “This is the problem with history: things that are important in the moment turn out, when you see them in the shadow of the next 25 years of history, not [as] something you would want to mention in a history book.”
He did indicate, however, that the acquisitions of both Newton and Brighton campuses—achieved during the Monan and Leahy years—are all but guaranteed a place in history, due to the extraordinary possibilities that these additions opened for BC.
In creating the illustrated history of the University, with a focus on visual information, the coauthors credited Gary Gilbert, the director of photography in the Office of Marketing Communications and photo editor for Boston College Magazine, for his work repairing old photos and creating montages to consolidate vast amounts of photographic information in a small space, as well as book designer Keith Ake.
Transitions in BC’s history were central in organizing the information Meehan collected, and the book is divided into major sections outlining BC as a school, a college, and, finally, a university. Meehan said that he found the moments of transition—among them, the decisions to found, move, and expand—particularly fascinating.
For Birnbaum, in addition to depicting the ordinary people who made BC what it is currently, discovering people to be more interesting than he thought they were, and humanizing the towering figures of the University’s history greatly impacted his experience on the project.
“They really had substance, it was not about what they had been reduced to by BC history,” he said. “These are not plaster saints, these are not heroic figures, these are human beings who lived with the same human ambitions, the same human stresses, the same human desires that we all have. And the same fears that what we’re doing is not enough.”
Among them was Rev. Thomas I. Gasson, S.J., president of the University from 1907 until 1914, and the man responsible for moving BC to Chestnut Hill. Birnbaum and Meehan, in their chapter on Gasson, said that Gasson once wrote, “I am giving my life to the building of this new college … every bone in my body, every drop of my blood, every nerve and fiber is given to the making of a more resplendent Boston College.”
Featured Image Courtesy Of The Office Of Marketing Communications