An eagle’s-eye view of the Heights on April 20, 1938, Easter Sunday. Lawrence Basin, which was later drained and filled in to create Lower Campus, is pictured in the center of the image.
Did you know that when Father Thomas Gasson purchased the land that would become Boston College’s Chestnut Hill Campus, it was adjacent to not one but two reservoirs? You’ve probably heard of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir but the smaller one, Lawrence Basin, was filled in after World War II in order to build Lower Campus, including the spot that is now Alumni Stadium.
That moment in BC’s history marks the transition from “college” to “university” as argued by the authors of the two books featured in this edition of Beacon Book Club: The Heights: An Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863–2013 by Ben Birnbaum and Seth Meehan, MA’09, PhD’14, and Ever to Excel: A History of Boston College by James M. O’Toole ’72, PhD’87.
In fact, BC’s distinct eras frame these two important reflections on its first century and a half. The School was the vision of its founding fathers. The College coincided with the move to Chestnut Hill. And the University, BC’s current form, involved a transformed campus that made BC a residential institution, a shift toward coeducation, and an expanded and reimagined curriculum.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then The Heights is priceless. Originally published for the University’s sesquicentennial anniversary in 2013, its 225 pages depict Boston College’s origins, evolution, and maturity.
“Institutions produce two kinds of illustrated histories. One is the family album. The other kind makes it case as history, with illustrations. This book is of that kind. Though hundreds of images— many in print for the first time—appear on its pages, it is foremost about what Boston College did over the days of 150 years and how those days and years, in turn, shaped Boston College, as best we can know these things,” Birnbaum wrote in the book’s introduction.
O’Toole, the university historian and Clough Millennium History Professor Emeritus, wrote Ever to Excel, published in 2022, as a “social history” of BC. In other words, it focuses on the stories of hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and benefactors who have shaped the University.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve come to think history is valuable precisely because it connects to the stories of real human beings,” O’Toole said. “What are the actual people doing, not just in the president’s office, but on the ground?”
Director, Cornerstone Program, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Let Your Life Speak
– Parker J. Palmer
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Michigan native Elizabeth “Biz” Bracher ’91, MA’95, PhD’03, P’22, first came to BC in 1987 as a first-year student and has since spent all but two years at the Heights. She first met Fr. Neenan while waiting in the cold for a bus back to Newton Campus. Fr. Neenan had brought cookies for the waiting students. The two became great friends.
Now director of the Cornerstone Seminar Program in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences—which offers course-based advising opportunities for first-year students—Bracher, a voracious reader, keeps a copy of Fr. Neenan’s complete Dean’s List pinned to the wall by her computer.
“Fr. Neenan and I would have this conversation about not just the books on his list, but also what books you should read again every couple of years,” she says. “Charlotte’s Web. Tuesdays with Morrie. A Lesson Before Dying. Crossing to Safety. To Kill a Mockingbird. Let Your Life Speak.”
The latter is Bracher’s choice for Beacon Book Club. She chose it because of the ways in which Parker Palmer’s book so closely aligns with her work and says this passage best summarizes its message: “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”
Bracher is one of several teachers of the popular elective Courage to Know, which is designed to confront students with the most fundamental formational questions that guide their years at BC and beyond: Who am I? What am I good at? Who am I called to become? For as long as she can remember, Bracher has given away copies of Let Your Life Speak to graduating seniors because of its ability to take on new meanings.
“Every five years or so, you’re in a very different space developmentally—you might be in a different job, your relationships are in a different place,” she says. “I knew that when I started teaching in the Cornerstone program, that it had to be in a fundamental spot. And it’s amazing how much seniors appreciate the book.”
Upon This Rock: The Life of St. Peter
– Walter F. Murphy
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The legacy of William B. Neenan, S.J., at Boston College is beyond measure. For nearly 35 years, he personally curated his “Dean’s List” and shared it with the BC community. We honor and continue that treasured tradition through Beacon Book Club. In this edition, Haub Vice President for the Division of Mission and Ministry John T. Butler, S.J., better known at BC as “Father Jack,” shares Upon This Rock, a spiritual novel by Walter F. Murphy about the life of St. Peter from the moments after Jesus’ arrest and his denial, through the time of Peter’s death.
“Over 20 years ago, I read a book of Murphy’s that I thoroughly enjoyed. At first, I shied away from Upon This Rock because, as a rule, I do not like spiritual novels. To my surprise, not only did I like it, but I stopped reading it for enjoyment and made it part of my prayer life.
“We often think of saints and popes as these larger-than-life figures. Yet in this novel, Peter is a regular human being struggling with life, faith, and his multiple relationships. In other words, he was one of us. For me, I could resonate with a person of faith who loved Jesus and yet stumbled along the way.
“As a Jesuit, we have a form of prayer called Ignatian Contemplation. We imaginatively put ourselves into the scene and allow the action of the Spirit to move us in interacting with the characters in scripture. For me, Upon This Rock was an Ignatian contemplation, and I hated to come to the end of the book.”
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
– Katherine Gregory
Find it at the BC Bookstore
William F. Connell School of Nursing Dean Katherine Gregory’s selection—The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010)—is a true story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line and countless modern-day scientific revelations.
Gregory assumed the Connell School deanship in July 2021. She was previously the associate chief nursing officer, women’s and newborn health, research, and innovation at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Gregory also was the scientific founder of a company that aims to improve preterm infant nutrition and growth outcomes through software designed to optimize nursing care and clinical workflows, resulting in a patent in 2020.
A poor, southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her enslaved ancestors, Henrietta Lacks died of cancer on October 4, 1951. However her cells, known as HeLa cells, live on to this day. The genesis of HeLa cells and the discoveries made as a result of Lacks’ contribution to science is remarkable for many reasons, among them the lack of informed consent, as revealed by Skloot.
“Henrietta Lacks’ story is especially important now because it serves as a reminder to all of us who work in science and health that some of the patients, families, and communities whom we serve do not trust us or the work we do—and for good reason,” Gregory says. “As a scientist and a nurse, I feel that it is our responsibility to build and maintain trust with all of the people whom we serve. New strategies and approaches aimed at developing partnerships are needed. In the era of a pandemic, this is more important to public health than ever before.”
The Underground Railroad
– Colson Whitehead
Find it at the BC Bookstore
Boston College Law School Dean Vincent D. Rougeau’s selection—The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 2016)—is fitting for a time when the nation faces a reckoning of systemic racism and deep-rooted racial injustice.
Cora and Caesar are two slaves attempting to escape from a Georgia plantation in this fictional tale of the historical 19th-century path to freedom. Through secret trails, routes, and safe houses, the protagonists journey to avoid certain recapture and death at the hands of the slavecatcher, Ridgeway. Whitehead’s stirring novel won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, among other accolades.
A vocal advocate for change in legal education, Rougeau has been dean of Boston College Law School since 2011. The author of his own book, Christians in the American Empire: Faith and Citizenship in the New World Order, he has done extensive research on religious identity, citizenship, and community organization in multicultural societies. He is the inaugural director of the Boston College Forum on Racial Justice in America and president of the Association of American Law Schools. In July 2021, he will be inaugurated as the 33rd president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
David Quigley, Provost and Dean of Faculties
The Plague – Albert Camus
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“I had the great blessing, when I was six years dean in Gasson Hall, of hosting the Baccalaureate Mass in December. Fr. Neenan’s homily every year was about Camus’ The Fall, and he certainly made you want to read that book, as I did several times in those years. In the great spirit of Fr. Neenan, I’ve got my copy of a book I haven’t read since junior year English—Camus’ The Plague. [It] is as powerful as I remember it, even as it seemed such an alien work back in 1983. Now, living through it in this very different moment as a middle-aged academic administrator, it is giving me a little much-needed sustenance these days.”
Before becoming provost, Quigley served as dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston College from 2008 to 2014. As provost and dean of faculties, he has served as co-chair of the University Strategic Planning Initiative, overseeing the hiring of 250 new faculty and guiding the University’s academic programs and curricula—all while teaching history classes of his own. Quigley lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, Megan DeMott-Quigley, and they are the proud parents of three sons.