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In the Heights—as in any local newspaper—the big stories from near and far have jockeyed for space
Editor’s note: In June, the University Library, in commemoration of Boston College’s 150th anniversary, completed the posting of a searchable version of the Heights student newspaper, from its founding in 1919 through May 2010. BCM asked Reeves Wiedeman ’08, a contributor to the newspaper from 2004 to 2008, to see what he could learn from a walk through some of those online pages.
On November 19, 1919, the United States Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, spelling doom for the League of Nations, news continued to circulate of a successful test by European scientists of the general theory of relativity, and the Prince of Wales visited New York City. Also on that day, in Chestnut Hill, Boston College’s student newspaper, the Heights, distributed its first edition.
Henry Cabot Lodge, Albert Einstein, and Prince Edward earned no mention in the four printed pages, each smaller than a sheet of notebook paper. There were only two front-page stories, one about a senior class smoker, the other about a football win by “our stout-hearted lads.” Inside, the paper took a moment to explain itself: “The Heights is for Boston College. Every particle of space in every single issue will be devoted to the greater glory of Old BC.”
The Heights is peculiar in the way all college newspapers are. A university’s history can be divided into four-year micro-generations, which means that for the past nine decades, the Heights has never possessed an editorial voice: It has possessed scores, each distinctive sound left behind by one graduating class to be modulated or replaced by the next one. The paper’s newly digitized archive omits none of the sounds these men and women made. If you scored the winning touchdown against Notre Dame, it’s there. If you celebrated that touchdown with too much fervor, the police blotter will be there as well. If, like me, you worked on the newspaper and hope to forget most of what you wrote in your late teens and early twenties, well, all that is there, too. The Heights, over nine decades, has offered the stories that mattered to students, opinions that conveyed campus temperature, and advertisements featuring products that someone, somewhere, thought relevant to the lives of Boston College students.
In late October 1929, Boston College, only recently transplanted from the South End to Chestnut Hill, was a community of young strivers, sons of the working and middle classes who aspired to professional careers. The Great Depression, as it began, must have loomed as an extraordinary threat to those dreams, though it seems to have entered the paper mostly in connection with cheerier events, such as the 1933 freshman prom: “In view of the depression and the financial crisis, the price is the lowest for many years.”
What did preoccupy the Heights and the Heights in the 1930s was football, and lots of it. The paper published more articles mentioning the sport in this decade than in any later decade save the 2000s, when it began publishing twice a week. In the issue dated November 5, 1929, the first after Black Tuesday, a front-page story described a prospective meeting with Fordham as “a death struggle that will be the focus of national football interest.” (“The great Battering Ram of Fordham,” the Heights reported in its subsequent issue, bested the Eagles, 7–6.) Cigarette advertisements featured football players as spokesmen. For that year’s game against Holy Cross, played at Fenway Park, the Heights published a 34-page program. Its general tenor could be summarized in the closing line of an unsigned editorial in the issue proper: “Football . . . It’s a great game!”
Heights writers did make occasional forays into the world’s serious concerns, but rarely persevered. In the spring of 1933, the newspaper turned over space each week to Gabriel G. Ryan ’35, a student who wrote a column titled “State of Affairs.” Ryan contributed articles about politics, economics, and world matters—President Roosevelt’s emergency shutdown of the banks, a disarmament conference in Geneva, the possible repeal of Prohibition. (He concluded one dispatch, from Washington, D.C., regarding the “international monetary problem,” with this summary statement: “The beer was good.”) By semester’s end, the column was no more.
The first front page after Pearl Harbor included three stories on “the present emergency” along with pieces about the Christmas social, the appointment of a new junior dance committee, a banquet sponsored by the Spanish department, and an on-campus demonstration of color photography.
Then came reminders to register for the draft and articles about the difficulty one would face in finding a job if saddled with a draft number that was likely to be called. Ed Weiss ’42, a Heights columnist, began a piece on December 12, 1941, with this glum assessment: “The general consensus is that the future is not only uncertain but non-existent.” One week later, the paper described a slate of newly created spring courses in “piloting, dead reckoning, celestial navigation, nautical astronomy, and maritime law,” and in February a front page story announced that, due to “present world conditions,” the university rifle team, which had been disbanded, would be revived. Ads for tuxedos and formal wear, to wear at prom and campus balls, were replaced by more ads for cigarettes. “You want steady nerves to fly Uncle Sam’s bombers across the ocean,” one read.
The Heights editors, for their part, seemed to hope (like many Americans) that the whole thing would soon pass. Dick Keating ’42, the paper’s social chronicler, cheerily (or perhaps with mock cheer) noted that though the Japanese were “trying their darndest to disrupt our social program, we are carrying on with the noble tradition established by the lions who have gone before us.” He was talking about the Christmas dance. In January, Keating wrote that he had joined the war effort: To save ink he had cut the length of his column—in which he listed each attendee at the Christmas dance—by half.
Two weeks later, a new course in Morse code was announced at the bottom of the front page, with the goal of producing students capable of sending and receiving 10 words a minute. The top story that day, however, was that Dick Keating had accepted the role of Little Eva in a campus production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Students and faculty would have been away from campus in June 1954, when Army counsel Joseph Welch inquired into Senator Joseph McCarthy’s sense of decency, but they returned in time for the latter’s censure. The Army-McCarthy hearings themselves earned only one explicit mention in the Heights, in a weekly column on national affairs by a student, Bill Kenney ’54.
The Heights, for its part, had come out against McCarthy in October 1952, condemning him as a “demagogue” with “little regard for the intelligence of the common man.” But, by and large, the anti communist movement had support on campus. In response to a Heights survey several years earlier, in 1948, about how to improve the paper’s coverage, one reader had suggested, “Special column on world affairs—especially the current topic ‘Communism,’ and its evil effects on Christian life should be stressed.” The editors felt the need to append this note to their 1952 editorial decrying McCarthy’s efforts: “We are not now, nor have we ever been, members of the Communist party.” The editorial itself produced half a dozen published letters, most of them in disagreement.
On October 1, 1954, The Heights put the question of McCarthy’s possible censure to the student body. “When do we hear of the good he has done for the country?” one student responded. Opinion was divided, just as it was two weeks later in another Heights poll: “Should there be a Juke Box in the Snack Bar?” There was some opposition, but most of the respondents were in favor. “Yes,” one said. “It would liven up some of those dull classes on the first floor.”
Reeves Wiedeman ’08 is on the editorial staff at the New Yorker. In 2006 he was the Heights editor-in-chief.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly dated the December 12, 1941, issue of the Heights.
Read more by Reeves Wiedeman