The Rev. William Neenan’s time at Boston College was supposed to be a brief interlude from teaching at the University of Michigan.
“I was going to be at BC for two years and then go back and spend the rest of my life in Ann Arbor,” he told the Globe in 2000. “But I fell in love with BC and its students.”
The affection was mutual. Before his visiting professorship was over, the college asked him to become a dean, and he stayed at the Chestnut Hill campus the rest of his life, later serving as academic vice president and as vice president and special assistant to the president. The titles, however, do little justice to Rev. Neenan’s impact on the college, say those who knew him. From daily lunches with students in the Eagle’s Nest dining area to raising millions from alumni to officiating at the weddings of scores of graduates, he became the Jesuit nearly everyone knew.
“He was in some ways the pastor of campus,” said the Rev. William P. Leahy, president of the college.
On Wednesday, a couple of days after returning from an annual retreat in Wisconsin, his Jesuit provincial home, Rev. Neenan worked in his BC office all morning. He was soon to leave for a haircut and an afternoon meeting when he died in the Jesuit residence at Roberts House. Rev. Neenan was 85 and his health had been failing due to bouts with bronchitis and other illnesses.
Throughout his 35 years at Boston College, Rev. Neenan kept his childhood in Iowa in his thoughts. As an icebreaker, he might open a serious meeting by quizzing those present about the major rivers in his home state. More than three decades ago he founded the Iowa/Nebraska Luncheon Club, which inspired other regular gatherings on campus for students to commune with people from their home regions. And Rev. Neenan never tired of teasing those in his adopted home about the clear superiority of the Midwest.
“I found many people on the East Coast are challenged in a language way, and to be with people from the Midwest who speak English accurately is comforting,” he said with a smile in a 2006 interview with the Boston Irish Reporter. Creating the Iowa/Nebraska club, he added, allowed those “from the area to get to know each other better, and to make fun of everyone else.”
Around the time he founded the club, he also began annually issuing what became known as the “Dean’s List” of recommended reading, 27 books drawn from his personal reading habits. So popular was Rev. Neenan among undergraduates and alumni that the college soon began fielding 10,000 requests a year for the list.
Rev. Neenan also was in demand by BC couples and he officiated at seven or eight weddings each year. “I think he holds the record by a long shot of the number of young couples married by a Jesuit,” said Jack Connors, a founder of the Boston advertising firm Hill, Holliday and a college trustee.
“He obviously fell in love with Boston College,” Connors added, “and Boston College fell in love with him.”
William B. Neenan was born in Sioux City, Iowa, where his father was a dental surgeon. His mother died in childbirth.
His father remarried when Rev. Neenan was a teenager, and in 1946, he graduated from Trinity High School in Sioux City. He spent two years at St. Louis University, a Jesuit school, where he was inspired to join the order.
“Bill told me that when he said he was thinking of joining, my dad said, ‘Well, you picked the best,’ and Bill has always felt that way,” said his younger brother, Peter, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“He was a quintessential Jesuit,” said Rev. Neenan’s younger sister, Mary Jo Warnke, of Plain, Wis., “and he was also a very holy and caring person.”
Rev. Neenan received a master’s in economics from St. Louis University and a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan. He taught at St. Louis University, at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, and at the University of Michigan before leaving in 1979 for a visiting professorship at BC.
Connors and others credited Rev. Neenan with helping Leahy and his predecessor as president, the Rev. J. Donald Monan, transform Boston College from being a commuter school to a nationally recognized university.
Among his many honors, Rev. Neenan received the Founder’s Medal from Boston College Law School. The New England Province of the Society of Jesus presented him with the Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam Award for his commitment to Jesuit education. For his service to Boston College, he was awarded an honorary degree in 2008, his 60th anniversary of becoming a Jesuit.
In 2004, Margaret and Thomas Vanderslice established the William B. Neenan Millennium Chair in Economics, and five years later the college created the William B. Neenan, S.J., Society for alumni who make annual gifts in consecutive years.
Despite the accolades “there was no standing on ceremony for Father Bill Neenan,” Connors said. “He was just a sweet, approachable guy who loved life, and when you were with him, you loved life, too.”
The Rev. Joseph Appleyard, executive assistant to the provincial of the New England Province, said Rev. Neenan was unusual among those who rise through the ranks of academic administration.
“I would say, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating, that I don’t think he had any enemies, and that’s kind of rare for an administrator,” Appleyard said. “It’s very hard to be dean and then academic vice president and have everybody like you. That was the case. He could even deliver bad news with grace.”
At an age when he traded handshakes for fist bumps because his immune system was compromised by illness, Rev. Neenan would be invited by students to give talks and offer life lessons. He was among four Jesuits who made a guest appearance in a campus video that featured students dancing and lip synching to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.”
“There’s been no one here in my time that’s had this kind of engagement with the whole campus,” Leahy said.
In addition to his brother and sister, Rev. Neenan leaves his stepmother, Margaret, of Spring Green, Wis.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. Ignatius Church on the Boston College campus.
Though Rev. Neenan was a Jesuit for 66 years, “he was devout in a very modern way,” said the Rev. James Keenan, a BC theology professor who lived with Rev. Neenan at Roberts House the past dozen years.
“Everybody knew he was a priest, but he very rarely wore a collar. His priesthood was in himself, rather than in ritual. You met it in his person,” Keenan said. “He always had people laughing. He liked the upper side of life.”