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Jeff Jacoby

Working for BU’s ‘silver unicorn’

‘I’ve never been intimidated by anyone,” John Silber once told me. “I don’t know the meaning of the word.”

I never doubted it.

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Twice I worked for the former Boston University president, who died Thursday at 86. As a BU law student in the early 1980s, I landed a part-time job as a researcher in Silber’s office on Bay State Road. Several years later, with both law school and my exceedingly brief legal career behind me, I returned for a full-time job with the exalted title of assistant to the president.

However lofty the title, the reality was considerably more humbling. Having John Silber as a boss, I quickly learned, was an ongoing adventure in being put in one’s place. He could be — as Massachusetts voters discovered when he ran for governor in 1990 — abrasive, blunt, volatile, and aggressive. When he was in a temper — and there were times when it seemed to me that he was in a temper five days a week — I dreaded getting the summons: “Dr. Silber would like to see you now.” Once, when I emerged from his inner office after a tongue-lashing so forceful it had probably been heard as far away as Nickerson Field, one of his secretaries tried to comfort me.

“He only treats you that way because he regards you so highly,” she said. “It’s his way of tempering you, like fine steel.” I smiled wanly at her attempt to be kind, and went off to lick my wounds.

I left the job after 16 months, but other Silber aides stayed with him for decades. He inspired remarkable loyalty in people of extraordinary ability. I remember once asking another Silber assistant — a brilliant older man, a gifted writer with an encyclopedic range of knowledge — why he tolerated Silber’s rages. “Because,” he told me, “John Silber is a great man.”

Clearly he accomplished some great things, above all the transformation of Boston University into a renowned institution of higher education. His hiring in 1971 drew national attention. A striking story in Life magazine, titled “Quest for a Silver Unicorn,” chronicled the efforts of BU’s search committee to recruit a president “who could lead Boston University to levels of strength and excellence the school had never known before.” At the time it wasn’t clear whether such an individual even existed; four decades later it is hard to imagine who else could have succeeded so spectacularly.

Having John Silber as a boss was an ongoing adventure in being put in one’s place.

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I don’t remember the context of our conversation about intimidation, but only in retrospect did I come to understand that because Silber wasn’t daunted by other people’s belligerent manners, he respected those who weren’t daunted by his. As a young 20-something, I wasn’t experienced enough to realize that the best way to deal with his outbursts would have been to stand my ground and bark right back at him.

On the other hand, I did figure out that one great upside of Silber’s personality was that I could ask him anything without fear of giving offense. He had a notable physical defect — his right arm ended in a stump just below the elbow, with a kind of vestigial thumb — that he made no effort to disguise, and I used to wonder how he could do things that clearly required two hands. He always wore shoes with laces — never slip-ons — and I asked him one day how he was able to tie them.

“What do you mean, how?” he growled. “Like this!” Then he bent over, and with his stump and his left hand, swiftly untied and retied one of his wingtips.

Silber despised political correctness — an attitude that extended even to his own physical deformity. I recall with delight the time his harried executive secretary walked into the room where he was meeting with several staff members. Laying some papers on his desk, she griped that she had been “busier than a one-armed paperhanger.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she began apologizing profusely. “Oh, Dr. Silber,” she gasped, “I’m so sorry! I can’t believe I said that!”

“Why?” he deadpanned. “I’m not a paperhanger.”

That was Silber: tough, temperamental, controversial, unintimidable — and droll. He wasn’t the easiest person I ever worked for, but he was certainly the most vivid. The “silver unicorn” had a long and memorable run. I’m glad I was along for part of it.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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