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Oddities and endings
1. The great pretender
The history of any university includes sorry tales of individuals who for various reasons claimed degrees they’d never earned, frequently enough from a campus on which they’d never laid eyes. But no more unlikely—and poignant—claim to a Boston College degree was ever made than that proffered in 1894 by one John L. Sullivan, the last world champion of bare-knuckle boxing and the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing. Born in 1858 less than a block from where Boston College would open in 1863, Sullivan, who spent one year in a vocational high school before dropping out, certainly passed the College when he was a teenager fighting for cash in bars and exhibitions (and being arrested several times for doing so when the law prohibited it). As the Boston Strong Boy, he would build a lucrative career (he is said to be the first American athlete to earn a million dollars), with some 450 wins to his credit, including 38 professional victories (32 by knockout) and one loss, to Jim Corbett, in Sullivan’s last (and ill-advised) match, when he was knocked out in the 21st (yes) round. By 1894, he was on his way to impoverishment and an early death by whiskey when he published (with the aid of ghost writer) Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator, in which he claimed to have spent “about 16 months at Boston College” while considering a priestly vocation (the number of months was a moving target in Sullivan’s accounts, ranging as low as two). During an interview in conjunction with the book’s publication, he told the Boston Globe, “I have as good an education as a great many men on the stage. I studied for 22 months to be a priest. . . . I attended Holy Cross College, Boston College, and other institutions of learning and came to know something about Greek, Latin, and algebra.” One of his biographers recorded that, following one fight, he told the assembled press, “Maybe some of you ginks thinks that I can do nothing but fight, but let me put you wise that I’m admitted to be one of the prize products of the Boston College School of Oratory.” No one from Boston College responded to Sullivan’s claim, an act of mercy, surely. And it was reprinted in the many hagiographies (sample title: John the Great) that were published after his death at 59 in 1918. In 1988, however, Michael T. Eisenberg reported in John L. Sullivan and His America that he had read the names of every student who registered at Boston College between 1864 and 1914, “and that of John L. Sullivan is not among them.” In 1956, in response to a Globe query, University registrar Francis Campbell, in another act of mercy, said Sullivan “may have spent some time working out in the old [Boston College] gymnasium.”
2. Housing shortfall
In the fall of 1970, the student body outnumbered available beds by a couple of hundred (precise figures are not available), Boston College having admitted more freshmen than in the previous year as part of an effort to cut a deficit. Attempts by the University to buy or build new housing had been rejected by Boston, and arriving students were settled in neighborhood apartment buildings, the decommissioned Jesuit theology school building in Weston, study rooms, lounges, and chapels, and local hotels (some not quite local, as exampled by the Motel 128 and Charter House Motel in Dedham). One enterprising duo bivouacked in a pup tent behind Shaw House. As a stopgap measure (taken “in desperation,” according to an article in Newsweek that must have pleased no one in the University’s administration), Boston College secured permission from Boston to install 43 two-story modular homes on Lower Campus, in an area that had 21 years earlier been part of the upper reservoir. The structures arrived from Connecticut in halves on flatbed trucks, and a crane awaited to hoist them into place. As administrators, students, and manufacturer’s representatives looked on, the first unit broke from its cabling, fell the last few feet to the ground, and became a pile of splintered refuse. The Heights published photos of the proceedings with the caption “How to set up a modular dorm in three easy steps”:
“Step 1. Have your Executive Vice President and the unit’s builder shake hands while . . . the unit is lowered into place.
Step 2. Drop it.
Step 3. Have your Executive Vice President and the unit’s builder survey the damage.”
3. The spirit is willing
As reported by the Globe in November 1885, Boston College’s first cheer, adopted “by common consent,” was “Bos-t-o-n — ‘Rah’ — ‘Rah!’ — ‘Rah!’— Boston College — ‘st! — Boom! — ‘Rah!’ — — —!.” Fortunately, another eight years would pass before the Jesuits allowed students to raise an intercollegiate football team and thereby put the cheer to the ultimate test. It wouldn’t have been much of a test to begin with, as the inaugural team—while pleased to feature a 216-pound center by the name of McKenna and a soon-to-be dropout who’d go on to the title of “World’s Fastest Man”—lost to a team of MIT freshmen in its first contest. Over the years, the annual game against the College of the Holy Cross—the University’s Jesuit, Catholic, regional rival—became the signal contest. In advance of the 1947 Holy Cross game, Boston College students John Duff ’49, Mike Hirrel ’49, P’73, and Dick Riley ’49, JD’52, P’85, determined to blanket the Holy Cross campus with 5,000 flyers dropped from a small airplane. Flying out of Boston on the 40-mile journey, they loosed their load and returned home, only to learn that they’d dumped an illustration of an eagle clawing a crusader onto the presumably puzzled heads of the students, faculty, and staff of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, located two and a half miles from College Hill. Also hit were citizens “in the vicinity of the First Baptist Church, State Armory, and North High School,” according to a Globe report. Duff, the crew’s bombardier, told the paper, “our bomb site proved a failure.”
4. Ever To (not quite) Excel: Faculty edition
In 1961, the University received an $80,000 grant from the Atomic Energy Commission for the installation of an “atom-smasher” in Devlin Hall. Physics chair William Guindon, SJ, assured the Heights, “It’s not going to involve anything which will be transformed into a bomb or gadget, but you never know what you’re going to come up with when you start one of these projects.”
In 1964, comparative literature professor Vincent McCrossen informed a student gathering that the communist conquest of the United States was “92 percent fulfilled.” After taking a moment to tag liberals as “paracommunists,” he resumed his earlier tone of precision, forecasting that the country would fall to communism by January 15, 1966.
Also in 1964, Mary Kinnane, dean of women in the School of Education, explained to the Heights why a married woman’s place was in the home, not in the classroom: “A woman,” she noted with unassailable accuracy, “cannot be a full-time undergraduate student, a full-time wife, and a full-time homemaker.”
5. The show doesn’t go on — twice
In the summer of 1970, with the University on the edge of bankruptcy and following a year of campus protests that culminated in student strikes that effectively shut down the spring semester in early April, two quixotic and credulous fundraising campaigns were launched, their aim to finance a theater building. The first effort, promoted by local rock impressario Robert “Skip” Chernov and supported by the University administration, pinned hopes on a “Boston College Eagle Rock Festival,” scheduled for August 14 in Alumni Stadium and featuring 13 hours of Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Mitch Ryder, and others. Neighbors, however, fearing “possible incidents, drug abuse, rioting, and hippies sleeping on the lawn,” according to the Globe, complained to Boston’s mayor Kevin White, who pulled the concert permit. (The Boston Phoenix reported that, according to Chernov, “Boston College had already made plans to open its dormitories to anyone with no place to stay in Friday night.”) With time running out, University President Seavey Joyce, SJ, asked Harvard administrators for the use of their stadium as a venue. Harvard declined, having incurred the wrath of its neighbors due to concert mishaps earlier in the summer. Eagle Rock organizers refunded some 10,000 tickets, and a few hippies who didn’t get the word—or comprehend it or care about it—did indeed show up and disported themselves on campus lawns. (The Harvard Crimson reported that Mayor White’s executive assistant and future Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank said “The city will offer B.C. a chance to recoup its losses with free use of the John B. Hynes Auditorium for a rock event later in the year . . . when things have cooled down.”) At around the same time, the genial Globe music critic Ernest Santosuosso ’43 was interviewing Paul McCartney and asked the former Beatle if he’d perform a benefit concert that would support a University theater. McCartney tentatively agreed, and so plans were laid for “some sort of bubble structure, being either permanent or semi-permanent” that would be named for the musician, according to the Heights. Joe Maher ’71, JD’75, chairman of the University’s social committee, which was sponsoring the event, and Skip Chernov, who had a hand in this event as well, travelled to London to pin down the details with McCartney’s manager, but again the idea foundered due to unresolved security concerns. One skeptical city official who opposed the concert told the Globe that the University should decide if it is “going to continue as a tax-exempt educational institution or become a rock arena where spectators try to throw police to the lions.” Boston College would not have a theater building until Robsham opened in 1981.
6. Nom de plume
In addition to being the 13th president of Boston College, Thomas I. Gasson, SJ, taught economics, law, philosophy, and ethics and worked in the Indian missions. In 1906 Gasson spent a week in Pleasant Point, Maine, ministering to and evangelizing members of the Passamaquoddy tribe, who honored him as an “adopted son,” according to an account in the Globe. Gasson also began an association with the Sioux of South Dakota, when in 1909 the University rented its Massachusetts Avenue athletic grounds—students referred to the large field as “the Dump”—to the “Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Real Wild West” show. This spectacle, again in the words of the Globe, reproduced the “sports, perils, adventures, romances, pastimes, and routine duties of the prairie.” And while the Miller Brothers never earned the fame or profits that went to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and other first-tier extravaganzas, its visit provided revenue for the struggling University, which was trying to build on the Chestnut Hill Campus purchased two years earlier. The Indians in the show were Sioux, a tribe whose long and generally warm association with Jesuits traced back to the late 17th century and meetings with missionaries who had come south from “New France.” When Gasson met in front of their teepees with the 80 Indians taking part in the show, they presented him with a beaded vest, and bestowed on him—noted the Globe—”what is considered a very high name, that of ‘High Bird'” or “Zin Tka la Wanketuya.” Gasson became reacquainted with some of these Sioux in 1913, at a Catholic Missionary Congress held at Boston College Hall in the South End. When his presidency ended in 1914, he worked for a summer on the Sioux mission in South Dakota before being recalled to Georgetown for a teaching position.
7. Bird watch
Boston College lacked a mascot until 1920, when, stung by a cartoon in the May 9 issue of the Boston Herald that showed an alley cat sporting a “B.C.” flag on its tail, a writer to the Heights suggested the eagle, “symbolic of majesty, power, and freedom.” “Proud would the B.C. man feel to see the B.C. Eagle snatching the trophy of victory from old opponents,” the correspondent wrote, “their tattered banners clutched in his talons, as he flies aloft.” The following fall, eagles—sometimes bald, sometimes golden—began to appear on football programs. The first live mascot arrived three years later, when a ship’s crew off Cape Cod sent a rescued bird to the Heights. And though the raptor turned out to be an osprey, it was welcomed and nursed back to health and placed in an aerie atop Gasson Hall. The bird repaid this kindness by taking flight early one morning in October 1923, never to return. In 1924, the College received a true bald eagle—the gift of a Jesuit in New Mexico—and students named him “Herpy” after Newbro’s Herpicide, a popular patent medicine for preventing baldness. Herpy too, however, yearned for open skies; he broke his beak sawing at the bars of his cage, and was handily removed to the Franklin Park Zoo. He was replaced by a taxidermied eagle, his wings tightly by his side, who generated little excitement. In 1960, a live eagle returned. This was the golden eagle “Margo” (a mashup of “maroon” and “gold”). For much of the fall of 1961, Margo lived in a sophomore student’s garage in West Roxbury, from which she was once kidnapped by Boston University students prior to a BC–BU game. During a 1964 game against the University of Detroit, Margo was photographed facing off against a dog. With wings spread and beak wide, the eagle seems ready for the confrontation, while her keeper, in his “Eagle Trainer” jacket, seems unsure of his next move. (The story is told that the apparently irascible “Margo”—a succession of eagles bore the name—once set upon the Navy goat during a game against the academy.) Margos came to an end not long after the dog incident, when Humane Society representatives learned that the University’s eagle was, on her Saturday visits to Chestnut Hill, in the habit of washing down rodents with beer supplied by her many admirers.
8. Ever To (not quite) Excel: Student edition
The onset of Prohibition in 1919 led juniors to stage a mock funeral for John Barleycorn as part of a comic skit competition during Class Day exercises. Vying against members of the senior class for a $50 dollar prize (“in gold,” the Globe noted), the juniors paraded on Alumni Field bearing a fake coffin and trailing behind a water wagon pulled by two horses. The seniors mounted “a weird pageant of Bolshevism,” (maddeningly, no further description is available) but the prize went to the juniors. Afterward, senior Henry J. Fitzpatrick of East Boston “presented the class prophecy” (again sadly, the details went unreported).
On March 29, 1939, Donald V. Mulcahy ’40 set an Intercollegiate Association of Walking Goldfish Bowls record by swallowing 30 of the miniature carp, washing them down with five pints of milk. Three hundred students cheered Mulcahy, as, dressed in coat, tie, and fedora, he accomplished this feat beside the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, competitive goldfish swallowing having been banned on the campus. His record was eclipsed the next day by a student at MIT, who downed 42 creatures. The goldfish swallowing “fad,” inaugurated at Harvard in early March, was effectively over by the end of April.
Bill McTague ’68, a DJ for the University radio station WVBC, set a national collegiate record on February 24–27, 1966, when he broadcast uninterrupted for 70 hours. McTague, whose on-air name was “Jerry Reynolds,” took the microphone at 2 p.m. on Thursday and finished at noon on Sunday. He played 1,229 songs (of mixed genres), spoke every 15 minutes to assure listeners that he was awake, smoked 120 cigarettes, and consumed 25 cups of coffee, 16 sodas, and unnumbered candies, lozenges, hamburgers, and tuna fish sandwiches. According to the February 28 account in the Globe, “He shaved every morning.” McTague’s marathon topped the 69-hour mark set by a University of Notre Dame student the previous weekend. McTague went on to a career in radio broadcasting.
9. The Baron
A native of Austria who was said to have been educated in Vienna, Munich, and Rome, Baron Hermann von Walde-Waldegg arrived in the United States in 1934, where he worked at Manhattanville College (he was credited there with inventing a more efficient way of teaching German) before being hired, in May 1936, as chairman of Boston College’s German department. An anthropologist who worked in South America, the Baron, the Heights reported, was developing “a three-volume comparative history and anthropology of America before the Conquest,” “preparing an etymological Sanscrit-English, English-Sanscrit dictionary,” and “speaks 18 languages.” By the time the 35-year-old “quiet little scholar-explorer” (the Heights again) arrived in November, fresh from the discovery of “a buried civilization,” he had apparently persuaded the Jesuits to allow him to branch out, and by January 1937 von Walde-Waldegg, his wife, and son were ensconced on the third floor of a capacious home on College Road that the Baron had turned into the Boston College Museum of Anthropology. Five hundred guests attended the January 2 opening, including a Globe reporter who noted “spacious rooms, marble fireplaces, and beautifully carved woodwork,” and a Heights man who was captivated by “many strange sights” including “numerous stones, beads . . . a few war clubs, and . . . two large imposing idols.” Four months later, von Walde-Waldegg undertook another South American expedition (financed by “the Department of Anthropology”) with a promise to return to his German classes in September. He didn’t. “Some unforeseen obstacles,” the Heights murmured mysteriously on October 15. The Jesuits cut their losses in November, wiring $625 to von Walde-Waldegg, with the message: “travel cheaply—no hurry—have obtained German professor.” Soon after, they sent another cable, announcing that the trustees—a small group of Jesuits—had terminated the Baron’s employment. (A subsequent lawsuit by von Walde-Waldegg seeking back pay found for the University.) In 1940—a year in which the Baron appears in the Directory of Anthropologists with “no address” alongside his name—he published “Stone Idols of the Andes Reveal a Vanished People,” in the May National Geographic. And then he disappears forever, perhaps into Anschluss Austria and the maelstrom of war. The museum was converted into student housing by 1948 and was later razed to make way for Roncalli Hall. As for the museum’s exotic furnishings and the materials von Walde-Waldegg brought back from his 1937 expedition—including, the Heights had reported, “several thousand feet of film depicting the Indian tribes in different aspects of their tribal life, activities, and ceremonies”—they disappeared (along with the department of anthropology) as cleanly as did their curator and discoverer, and no record of their sale or other disposal can be found.