I have lived through two major crashes of the stock market since I decided to become an economist. Since most people do not know that I spend my time as an economist studying volunteerism and the nonprofit sector, these crashes were followed by people approaching me to ask me what to do with their investments. As one man said on the day of the 1987 crash, “this is not a good day to be an economist.” What I actually do has very little to do with the workings of the stock market, especially since I have “repurposed” my education to become a Professor of Mathematics. However, I found myself thinking of this connection last week when I learned that a Jesuit priest, an administrator at Boston College during the time I was there, had been born in 1929, the year of the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. His name was Father William J. Neenan S.J., and he was also an economist.
Even before setting foot on the campus of Boston College, my college professors had told me to be sure to meet Father Neenan. He had a favorite picture in his office that he loved to have people recognize, and they told me exactly what to say when I saw it. They assured me that he would be thrilled that someone recognized his unusual picture. The funny thing is, I don’t think I was ever in his actual office, as he, who spent his days running what was the largest Catholic university in the country, spent most of his time among the faculty and students at Boston College.
Although we were a fairly large campus, he seemed to know everyone. He would often greet us by lifting his hand, as if to offer a “high five”, and, through a smile, say “Hello Friend.” Once in a while, someone would call him on this habit, saying that he did it because he did not know our names. When they did, he would respond by calling them by name, “of course I know your name, Nancy.”
Father Neenan was a natural mentor, and encouraged students at Boston College in many ways. When he became aware of the deep spirituality of one of my friends, he pulled her aside and suggested that she consider a life as a vowed Religious Sister. She took the advice seriously, but told him that she saw marriage in her future. When she did marry, more than twenty years ago, it was to a man who had himself spent time as a Jesuit. Today, her oldest child attends a Jesuit university, and she works as a pastoral associate in a parish near her home, a life not very different from the one that Father Neenan had suggested to her so many years ago.
When a young woman I know ran into financial difficulty in her first year at Boston College, he directed her to the relevant people on campus who could help her, while also encouraging her to take on a campus leadership position, thereby strengthening her commitment to the university. She graduates soon.
He mentored me as I set out on my journey as an economist, with plans to spend my life teaching with the Jesuits. His office sent me flowers in the hospital when I ended up there, only days after starting that first job. I don’t know if he knew that I eventually ended up at Ursuline College, but I am sure that he would understand when I told him that the commitment to social justice and educating the whole person makes Ursuline feel like a Jesuit college, and that I am very happy here.
Although he had important work to do at Boston College, he always seemed to find the time to say mass for the community of Catholic graduate students, a rag-tag group of graduate students and hangers-on who met on Sunday nights in what was otherwise an empty chapel. He was always one of our favorite celebrants, and it was a treat to hear the wise things he had to say.
I learned while on vacation recently that Father Neenan died on June 26th, although, as a Jesuit priest, I am sure that he would instead use the words “born into Eternal Life” to describe what occurred that day. I can imagine him being met in this last journey with the words “Hello Friend.” I can also imagine my sister, who preceded him in death by almost two years, being part of his welcoming committee.
You will be missed, Father Neenan, and we thank you for a life well lived. Your life touched many students and scholars, and your positive influence on the world will continue long after your passing.
Thank you for being our friend.