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William B. Neenan, SJ (1929–2014)
‘Just marvelous’: The lived life of Bill Neenan
By Ben Birnbaum
William B. Neenan, SJ, who went by Bill whenever he was able, was born on January 9, 1929, in Sioux City, Iowa, to Edward Neenan, a dental surgeon, and Grace Braunger Neenan. Grace Neenan died two days later of complications from labor, and Bill was given her surname as his middle name and then raised and nourished by the Neenan and Braunger families, and Sioux City’s institutions, which included, in his case, the Cathedral of the Epiphany parish, the Sisters of Charity grade school teachers, the Democratic Party, and the St. Louis Cardinals. His father remarried when Bill was in seventh grade, and Bill gained a stepmother, Margaret, and later a sister, Mary Josephine (Warnke) and a brother, Peter, all of whom he loved deeply, and all of whom survive him. He tended to refer to Margaret Neenan as “Mother Neenan,” a tender but also ironic note, given that she was not a great deal older than him. She handed it right back. Once, when he was academic vice president, I had to call him in Sioux City during Christmas break on a matter of business. He was staying with Margaret Neenan, who answered the phone. We had never met, but she knew who I was. (Bill effused BC stories in Iowa the same way he effused Iowa stories on Chestnut Hill.) “Ben,” she said, “the great man is asleep on the sofa. Would you like for me to wake him?”
A serious Midwesterner, Bill came East by a path that took him through St. Louis University, ordination in the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus, and a doctorate at the University of Michigan, where he was tenured in economics, and then to Boston College in 1979, where he’d been invited to hold a chair for visiting Jesuit scholars. Boston College made sure he never left the place, naming him dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (1980), then academic vice president (1987), then a special assistant to President Leahy (1998) and at the same time handing him an untitled but serious sideline in fundraising, with a focus on young alumni—responsibilities he held until his death on June 25, at age 85.
It’s hard to say when he became “Fr. Neenan” in quotes or, as the Boston Globe obituary headline called him (quoting Leahy) “the pastor of campus,” but my guess is that it started the day he pulled into Chestnut Hill, fully himself—witty, intelligent, curious, warm, considerate, engaged, fond of good talk and good stories and good jokes, good food and good Scotch and good gossip, but most of all fond of being alive in this world—and he remained all those things to the very end, dying suddenly in his longtime home, in the Roberts House Jesuit community on Beacon Street, after a morning at work, lunch, and a haircut in Newton Centre. (As were many of his relationships, his engagement with his barbershop was long-standing and, like much else in his life, a source of stories.)
It was said of St. Francis that he did not pray but became prayer; and it could be said of Bill that he did not make friends but became friendship—modeled it naturally and gracefully and continually. “You are a dear friend,” he reminded people on occasion, making sure they did not forget, reminding them that he did not forget.
What made Bill a dear friend to many of his peers is no secret. He was extraordinarily entertaining company and devoutly loyal; and while he did have a deserved reputation for scenery chewing, he was also passionately interested in and admiring of other people’s lives and accomplishments. Of a visit he made to my house for dinner many years ago, what I remember best is not the convivial table conversation, but the tour of the apartment he insisted on taking as soon as he arrived, and his delight in coming upon the toys and dollhouse, the musical instruments, the children’s artwork on the walls, and, in the master bedroom, which he invited himself to enter, a mural of trees, vines, birds, fish, and pendant fruit that I had painted on a wide, long, rolling closet door I could not at the time afford to replace. “Just, marvelous,” he declared—one of his favorite blessings—shaking his head back and forth like he’d just stumbled upon a long-lost Leonardo in a Brookline, Massachusetts, flat.
What made him a friend to so many students is a deep and important matter. He respected them, of course, took them seriously, heard them out seriously, humored them seriously, loved them seriously. (“He’s the grandpa you wished you had,” a student told me not long ago.) He also soothed them where it hurts when you’re 20 or so years old, his great theme being, relax, because you didn’t get to Boston College on your own, and you’re not going to be alone after you leave, and if you live right, and give up the silly notion that you need to carry the burden of all your existential questions on your own slim shoulders, you’ll be good in all ways.
Foremost, Bill exampled steadiness, confidence, faith, and reasonableness. Or: how to live a contingent life. So if your immune system blows up, as Bill’s did a few years ago, you don’t walk around with your hands in your pockets, but you invent a merry tradition of fist bumping and carry on. And if you can no longer hold your balance well, you go to the 2014 Commencement anyway, and process down the aisle, and do a Maurice Chevalier routine with your new cane.
In last fall’s interview with me, published in this issue (see below), Bill recounted: “I was born in St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. And then I grew up.” So it would seem. Later in that interview, Bill said of his life, laughing, as though bemused by the discovery: “I’ve never really planned anything.” Maybe he didn’t, but he knew well how to build as he went along, working, discerning (a good Jesuit word), improvising with joy the great task of living well. And here I want to note that Bill was a senior executive at Boston College for 18 years, and a successful one. He knew how to be hard, as he knew how to be soft; he had a keen eye for iniquity as well as for good; he acted on what he saw.
The wake for Bill at St. Ignatius was as one would expect, with a line of visitors stretching from the lectern around the front pews, then all the way up the nave, and others sitting in the pews and talking quietly while waiting to join the line or because they just wanted to talk among themselves. (His funeral would be webcast.) Age kept Margaret Neenan from attending, and the mourners to be comforted beside the coffin were Bill’s brother and sister and Eugene Merz, SJ, a spiritual director and retreat leader, who along with Bill had begun his Jesuit studies at Florissant, Missouri, on the late afternoon of Sunday, August 15, 1948. The two of them were among about half a dozen of the men who entered that day who came together for summer vacations and who had agreed, at some point, that when the time came they all would return to the Midwest and finish out together in a Jesuit house, friends, as they had begun. Merz appeared heavy with grief, swollen with it. I told him how much I’d admired Bill. “What do you mean? What did you admire about him?” the retreat director responded. “He knew how to live,” I said. He seemed satisfied with that, waited a moment and then told me that the best way for me to honor Bill’s memory was to always remember and live out Bill’s life lessons. And then he reached up and with his thumb pressed the sign of the cross on my forehead. I am not a Christian, but I know a blessing and a sacred commission when I receive them. Standing on the church steps a few minutes later, I ached to be able to tell Bill. “Marvelous, just marvelous,” he would have laughed.
On September 17, eight months before his sudden death, William B. Neenan, SJ, spent a scheduled one hour—and then a second hour—talking about his life as a Jesuit with BCM editor Ben Birnbaum and a video crew from the Office of Marketing Communications. This text is edited from that conversation.
So the first question, Bill, is, Where were you born and what was your childhood like?
Well, I was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on January 9, 1929, the waning days of the Calvin Coolidge administration. I was born in St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. And then I grew up.
I began school in mid-year at the public grade school. They had a kindergarten that began in mid-year. The Catholic school didn’t offer that privilege. So I went for a year and a half to public school. Then I skipped half a grade and wound up in the Cathedral of the Epiphany school in second grade.
There were 10 Catholic parishes in Sioux City. St. Boniface was the German parish. St. Jean was the French parish. St. Casimir was the Polish parish. St. Francis was the Lithuanian parish. As for the other six, we didn’t need to mention what they were, because they were Irish parishes, and ethnicity didn’t extend to the Irish. The others were ethnic. Though I didn’t know it, I grew up in an Irish Catholic ghetto.
Me and Dan Barrett, Tom Gleason, Jim Lally, Bill Sullivan, Jack Shannon—we were all little boys then—we used to listen on Saturday afternoon to the football games. And all these other kids were cheering for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. But my dad had graduated from St. Louis University, which is a Jesuit school, so from age three on, I have been inoculated against the Fighting Irish. It’s not an animus. It’s not a choice. It’s genetic.
And then I went on to Trinity High School—”Trinity High School, strong and great, Trinity High of the Hawkeye State”—where my dad had gone, and again it was a ghetto. I didn’t know that. When you’re living that way, it’s like a fish swimming in water. How do you like the water, fish?
My family was very involved in Democratic politics—my godfather was a state representative. And I remember—I had to be, oh, six, seven years old—my dad was president of the Iowa Young Democrats. So when Roosevelt gave a big farm speech in Sioux City in 1936, Dad was privileged to drive the great man from the railroad station to the Sioux City Cowboys baseball park, where 30,000 people were waiting.
Well, he got the great man in the back seat, and my dad then stood beside the car talking, like Neenans tend to do, and the car started to roll towards the Missouri River on its own. And I can imagine the great man thinking: Well, this is how it’s going to end—in the Missouri River, in Sioux City, Iowa. That’s not what he’d signed up for.
And Lawrence Baron, a young man who lived next door to us, got into the car to stop it, and Walt Mahoney, a friend of my dad’s, well he knew it was Dad that was supposed to drive. So he pulled Lawrence out of the car. And the car continued to roll with the great man in the backseat. And finally Dad leapt in and saved the day.
Well, anyway, that was a sidebar.
I graduated from Trinity High School, strong and great, in June of ’46. In those days we didn’t take the college boards. You just applied. And I applied to St. Louis U., where my dad had gone.
Am I ever going to get to ask you a second question?
What was St. Louis U. like for you?
Good question. It was transformative. I was going to college. But I didn’t know what I was going to be. Every little boy or girl from my background at some point thought about being a priest or a nun. But that was not uppermost in my planning. I was going to be a lawyer.
Then Tom Power, from Anamosa, Iowa, became my roommate in my freshman year. Tom had gone to Campion, a Jesuit boarding high school in Wisconsin, and there were four or five kids from Campion who knew some kids from St. Ignatius High School in Chicago. So early on I got involved in this Jesuit sort of thing.
What was it about the Jesuits that ultimately caught your imagination?
Well, I’m going back to the mists of time now, so I may have stylized my response a little bit. But I think I began to think about what God wanted me to do. It wasn’t terribly profound, but I had a religious life. And I sort of liked, from a distance, these Jesuits. And I’ve always liked intellectual life, and I associated the Jesuits with academia, teaching, the intellectual life.
And I was interested in social questions. As I mentioned I grew up in a family involved in politics. My dad was a dentist but hated it. Ran for secretary of state in Iowa and lost. Good for the family, but he was disappointed.
So I had this religious disposition. I liked the intellectual life. Interested in social questions. Problem was I had a girlfriend at Fontbonne University. We weren’t terribly serious, but she was a girlfriend. And I remember we chatted, and I said, well, you’ll be able to come to the novitiate and visit. Well, that didn’t happen. [Laughter]
But I was afraid of the piety. I’d known diocesan priests, and they tended to be sort of pious in a way that wasn’t attractive to me. So I was in anxiety. Would I be getting into pious nerd-type stuff for the rest of my life?
So where was the novitiate?
Florissant, Missouri, about 20 miles from downtown St. Louis. Today it’s a suburb. In those days it was country: 1,800 acres, cows and apple orchards, peach orchards, a vineyard. There were probably 220 Jesuits there. I think we had 45 first-year novices in my class.
I entered on August 15, 1948. We were told to be there by 5:00, and my dad and I, we arrived about 4:30. And Father Schwinn, the director of novices, came by, whom I didn’t know, and said, William, welcome to novitiate. I thought, well, this is impressive. He knows who I am. That was cleared up. He said, I know you’re William because you’re the last one to arrive. Well, that’s how I started. The last one to arrive.
What were the courses like?
We didn’t do much in the novitiate. It was mostly prayer and work and silence. I’ll give you the daily order—
Was silence particularly difficult for you?
You seem surprised. [Laughter] But it’s amazing—when everybody else is doing it, it’s not a problem, you know? If you’re the only one, just sitting here in the room at Boston College, to be silent, it’d be impossible.
The daily order was that we got up at 5:00 and at 5:30 we began our meditation. Then we went to the chapel for Mass, and then breakfast at 7:15. This was all silent, of course. Then we had cleanup. And then at 9:00 we had a conference with Father Master Schwinn, and then we had scutwork. See, the 100 novices—we cleaned up all the dishes. We worked in the garden. We mopped. And then we had lunch at noon. Then we had cleanup, if you were on cleanup. And then we’d sit around in our cassocks in the heat under trees. And then at 2:00, we had more manualia—that was cleanup work. And then we did some spiritual reading.
Then at 5:30 we had afternoon meditation, called flexoria. Flexoria comes from the Latin word flex—which meant our knees. And that was a half-hour meditation. Then we went to Litany of the Saints. And then we went to dinner. Then we had cleanup again. Then we had 45 minutes of recreation in English, then some final prayer and go to bed.
Now a little story here. Eddie Desloge was a veteran. He had been in the Navy, I think. I remember one night—it was in the fall. We took the long retreat, 30 days of silence in October. And we were sitting there. And Eddie Desloge told a dirty joke. I suspect today it may not have made the cut, but in the context, it was a dirty joke. And I remember that night going to chapel, and I mentioned earlier I was concerned about being stuck with a bunch of pious nerds. And I remember going to chapel, thinking, these guys are all right.
So I’m not saying that’s the cause of my remaining a Jesuit, but it certainly was a contributing factor, this dirty joke—which I can’t remember. I wish I could remember it, but—
We wouldn’t let you tell it anyway.
By the way, in my whole life, I’ve never thought about leaving the Jesuits. I mean, I mentioned how I came in. It was problematic and whatnot. But it’s just been a done deal.
How did you hook up with economics?
Well, I was interested in politics and social issues, so I thought I wanted to get a Ph.D. in political science. And then in the spring of 1952, my fellow novice, Paul Prucha, and I were taking a walk, and I was explaining why I wanted to go into political science, and Paul said—though we didn’t say Paul or Bill but mister—he said “Mr. Neenan, I think you’re interested in economics.” So when I went to see the rector about what I was going to do, I told him I wanted to be an economist.
And Paul, in subsequent years, didn’t remember that conversation at all. It changed my whole life. My whole life.
So I try to be cautious in throwaway lines, because somebody might be listening, you know? [Laughter]
You earned your doctorate at Michigan.
First I did my tertianship, studied theology for four years, and I was a hospital chaplain in Minneapolis. Oh, that was hard. You’d go around and you try to console people. Then you go to bed, and at 2:00 a.m. you’d get a call and somebody was dead on arrival, some guy on a motorcycle, the family there crying. Then I spent a month out in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, at the Sioux reservation. Total failure. I was supposed to give a series of talks, and I talked about the latest scripture criticism. Oh, I totally misjudged the thing.
But I just loved being at the University of Michigan. I mean, I could stay up now until 2:00 a.m. working on mathematics and economics. It was a luxury after going through the Jesuit thing, where you had to go to bed at a certain time. But I could stay up now until 2:00 a.m. It was just about a physical pleasure.
What was your research about?
Well, my thesis was titled “A Benefit/Cost Analysis of a Public Health Program.” It was when public health people were taking little x-ray machines to supermarkets and whatever to determine if people in the store had TB. And I found it wasn’t worth the candle.
Then Michigan offered me a tenure track job, so I called up Fr. Joe Sheehan, my provincial, and he said no. So I made an appeal and had a two-hour meeting with the provincial, three consultors, and the presidents of Marquette and Creighton, because this was a policy issue. They wanted me to work at a Jesuit college.
And it was a very heated discussion, but honest. I gave the reasons why I thought I should be allowed to do it. First, it would be good for me professionally. And, I said, it’s an experiment. We had a lot of Jesuits at that time. So to have a Jesuit at a big secular university would be a nice experiment. The presidents didn’t want a precedent being set where they could lose out on Jesuit faculty, but Fr. Sheehan said, stay at Michigan.
But the presidents were reluctant. They were concerned about the large investment they’d made in you? And now you were going off to consort with heathens.
Yeah. Yeah. Which I loved. [Laughter] Let me tell about that though, if I may.
I loved being a Jesuit in a secular environment. In a curious way, it made me more of a Jesuit. I’d go into class. Now, I’m wearing the priest’s uniform. The first year that I taught at Michigan, I did wear the priest’s uniform. And I’ll tell you why I generally didn’t wear it afterward. And it’s not ideology. I’m not making a point. I just feel more comfortable myself generally, traveling or meeting people, and so forth.
And so, I would come into class at Michigan, and I would tell everybody, my name is William Neenan. I’m a Jesuit priest, and you people now are all enrolled in a Jesuit university. You might as well sit back and enjoy it. You’re trapped. [Laughter]
Well, it was interesting. After about a year or two, I could tell who the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews were. The only people I think that ever called me Father in class were Jewish students. The Protestants called me Dr. Neenan, Professor Neenan, Mr. Neenan, whatever they called anybody else. The Catholics—they were a little ashamed, I guess, maybe, to call me Father in class. But I was a priest, so they couldn’t call me Professor or Mr. Neenan, so they’d say, hmm-mm-hump. [Laughter]
I was at Michigan 15 years, and I loved being there, and I got tenure, and one day I got a call from an economist at Boston College whom I’d met while I was on a fellowship in Washington, and he said, Bill, the Jesuits have endowed a professorship called the Gasson Professor for a Jesuit in any discipline, and we’d like to nominate you. I said, fine. And I had literally forgotten about this and was trying to finish a book, and he called and told me I had been selected as Gasson professor. Gasson? I didn’t know what Gasson was. So that’s how I came.
Intending to stay how long?
What changed your mind?
Well, BC was searching for a dean of arts and sciences, and I was told I’d be a good candidate. I said, I’m an academic. I’m not an administrator. Get away. Back off. But they told me I’d be a serious candidate. And I began to parse this, and I decided to become a candidate.
How long has it been?
Well, I came in ’79, so that’s 34 years, I guess.
You never planned this stay?
I’ve never really planned anything. [Laughter] My life has been so blessed. It really has been.
Remembrances: From the July 1 funeral Mass in St. Ignatius Church
Joseph Quinn, professor of economics: I had the pleasure of meeting Bill 36 years ago, before he ever came to Boston College, at the University of Wisconsin. We spent our summers there, at the Institute for Research on Poverty, back in the days when, as Bill used to say, there was money in poverty. The summer social season at the poverty institute began when Bill arrived. And came to an abrupt end two months later, when he left.
Bill joined us here on a two-year Gasson Professorship, fell in love with Boston College and the Jesuit community (and the Roberts House gang in particular), and he never looked back. I thought we had a small campus, until I walked it with Bill. It could take a half hour to cross the Dust Bowl, because he was constantly stopped and greeted, “Hey Fr. Neenan,” “Hey Fr. Bill.” If he encountered someone he did not know, the first words were usually his—”Hello friend.”
Bill came to my house for dinner many times. And at some point, inevitably, he would ask, “Friends, may I tell a story?” And so he would. Out would come: Lord Nelson and his brown trousers. The illegal U-turn in Ireland story. The four priests on the golf course.
Bill had dear friends everywhere: in the Boston College administration, among the Trustees, the faculty, the staff, the waiters at Papa Razzi and the Stockyard. He had friends everywhere except at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society where he once responded to a neighbor complaining that the lights at Alumni Stadium interfered with her stargazing. “Lady,” Bill claims to have said, “that’s why they invented Vermont.”
What really distinguished Bill Neenan was his friendship with thousands of Boston College undergraduates. Bill didn’t even teach courses here. Yet he knew more undergraduates and alumni than any 10 of us, and he stayed in touch with so many of them. He married many of them, and baptized their children. He married Diane and me in Detroit.
In September 1994, when Bill had been here for 15 years, Mary Lou Connelly, his longtime assistant, estimated that Bill had performed 125 marriages (and that was 20 years ago). They threw a party at Alumni House and invited all those couples he had married. The turnout was phenomenal, from across the country. Couples who were long divorced returned, for Fr. Bill.
Bill could have been a Franciscan, given his love of animals. Well, certain animals. Bill loved his Hawkeyes, his Wolverines, his Cardinals; and most of all he loved his Eagles.
We have been blessed that William B. Neenan, Fr. Bill, walked and talked—and talked—among us. Goodbye, friend.
University President William P. Leahy, SJ: During his life Fr. Neenan touched lives in simple and profound ways. He witnessed weddings, baptized many children, went to wakes and funerals frequently, and joined in dozens of family and alumni celebrations. He always brought warmth, laughter, an engaging personality, and a caring spirit. Of course he had that engaging greeting of “Hi, friend,” and he loved talking to people, including those he had never met before.
I remember him telling about a trip he and another Jesuit took to Canada some years ago. They stopped for lunch at a roadside diner, and he noticed a car in the parking lot with an Iowa license plate. Iowa has 99 counties, and each county has a plate with its own prefix and then the rest of the number. The license plate indicates the county and county seat. As a boy, Fr. Neenan had memorized all these prefixes. During lunch he wondered to his fellow Jesuit about who was driving the car with the Iowa plate. He decided it was a certain couple because the man had a tanned, weathered face. So, Fr. Neenan went over to the table, said “Hi, friends,” and then asked how were the crops around their county seat—I think it was Le Mars, a town north of Sioux City. The couple was completely disarmed and had no problem talking with this person they had never met and loved that they had been greeted by someone in Canada who was familiar with their part of Iowa. They did not know it, but they had just been Neenanized.
Fr. Neenan loved people and people loved him. He enjoyed being with people, and he allowed so many to become part of his life, a wonderful gift both for him and others. In life and in death he brought many people together, as our presence at this funeral Mass shows.
Fr. Neenan was a tremendous human being, and most of all he was a faithful priest and Jesuit. That is how I will most remember him. His life reminds me of a passage from the first book of Samuel in the Old Testament, in which the Lord declares, “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and my mind.” In his years as a Jesuit, Fr. Neenan drew from his Catholic roots in Sioux City, Iowa. He strived to know the heart and mind of God and his son, Christ, and to bring people to deeper faith, joy, and hope. I cannot think of a more powerful example and greater legacy for any human being.