Metro

Kevin Cullen

New BC High president an Eagle for life

Boston, MA: 11-21-17: TO GO WITH KEVIN CULLEN STORY........Boston College High School headmaster Grace Regan is pictured as she waves while being introduced on the field before the game. Boston College High School took on Catholic Memorial High School in a football game held at Fenway Park. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
jim davis/globe staff
Boston College High School headmaster Grace Regan waved while being introduced on the field before the game.

When Grace Cotter Regan was a kid, Thanksgiving dinner at her house could be as boisterous as a bar or as quiet as a church.

It all depended on who won the football game.

Her father, Jim Cotter, was head coach at Boston College High School, and the annual turkey day game against crosstown rival Catholic Memorial was everything.

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“If BC lost,” she said, “you wouldn’t even ask someone to pass the salt.”

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This week, amid the tangle of history, tradition, and memories that define families, was Regan’s first Thanksgiving game since being named the 28th president of BC High.

She is the first woman to lead the all-boys school in its 154-year history. She is also the first school president to have roamed the sidelines as the Eagle, BC High’s mascot.

She was a kid when she wandered into a costume shop in Chinatown and left with what, sort of, kind of, looked like an eagle. It’s now a staple of BC High games.

“That’s how I remember her — the Eagle,” says Mike McGonagle, class of 1970 and now a BC High vice principal. “She was just a kid. But, even then, she brought an energy to the school.”

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You can’t really call it a a homecoming for Regan because she never left. Born on the day her father started at BC High in September 1960, she has in her 57 years missed exactly one Thanksgiving football game against CM.

She had a pretty good excuse: Regan was working in Belize as a volunteer in a Jesuit teaching program.

By the time she could walk, she was a fixture on the team’s practice and game fields. She knew every inch of the old rocky field on Columbia Point.

“BC High was my second home growing up,” she said Tuesday afternoon, at the pep rally before the CM game. “I grew up here.”

Her father was a guidance counselor, the kind of guy who went to bat for kids whether they played football or the piccolo.

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Last year, BC High went through something of an existential crisis. With applications down, and concerns for the future rising, some people floated the idea of admitting girls. It touched off a deeply divisive debate within the school community and among alumni.

‘BC High was my second home growing up.’

— Grace Regan 

The search for a new president began with 400 names. That it ended with the selection of a woman surprised some. But in many ways, it was destiny.

“Some people think, ‘Oh, it’s because she’s Jim Cotter’s daughter,’ or ‘Oh, it’s because she’s a woman,’ ” she said. “But I’ve had a long career, working in education and working with the Jesuits, running an urban school. To me, it’s a very natural fit.”

Regan was head of school for St. Mary’s, a co-ed middle and high school in Lynn, and learned the importance of an urban school being a civic partner with its surrounding community. That, she believes, is how BC High will survive and thrive.

As a product of Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, and having watched generations of young men emerge from BC High, Regan is a firm believer in single-sex high schools. There are those who fear all-girls schools such as Notre Dame would be hurt, maybe even ruined, if BC High goes co-ed.

She believes BC High’s competition will increasingly come from high-achieving public schools. She wants more city kids at BC High; now there are only some 300 among 1,500 students. Catholic schools won’t have it easy.

“Not everybody is going to survive,” Regan said. “There’s going to have to be a lot of collaboration in the years ahead.”

This fall is spring training for Regan, as she doesn’t formally take over as president until January. But she’s been spending a lot of time there lately, and the other day she was walking down a corridor, talking to her sister over the phone, when she spotted school principal Steve Hughes.

She handed him her cellphone to say hello; they’ve all known each other for most of their lives — Hughes played football for the Cotters’ father.

“Nothing’s changed,” Steve Hughes said into the phone. “I’m taking orders from a Cotter.”

That kind of continuity is reassuring to the old BC High crowd — those who feel strongly about preserving tradition.

But tradition does adapt to circumstances. So when the chance to play the annual BC High-CM game at Fenway Park was floated, moving the location and the date to two days before Thanksgiving seemed reasonable.

Prior to the game, Regan joined her son Bartley on the field as he was introduced as an honorary BC captain. Bartley led BC High to a Super Bowl five years ago.

But now, underscoring the interconnectness of the city’s Catholic schools, he works at CM.

Three weeks ago, in a playoff game between the two schools on the BC High field named for Jim Cotter, CM stunned the home team with a dramatic 21-20 win with, yes, a Hail Mary pass.

But on Tuesday, the Eagles jumped out to a big lead and never looked back, winning 32-16.

As she headed onto the field to congratulate coach Jon Bartlett, Regan couldn’t help but think of her dad, of the moment he comforted her after receiving the diagnosis of ALS that would claim his life in 2010.

“Gracie,” Jim Cotter told her, “it’s not the crisis, but how we respond to the crisis. Strength and resolve. We are Cotters. We have been through worse and we will get through this together.”

During the on-field celebration, Regan came upon Coach Bartlett and his family embracing. She knew what it would be like at their Thanksgiving table.

“Hey, Brigid,” Jim Cotter’s daughter told Jon Bartlett’s daughter, “you can ask to pass the salt!”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.