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Marian Brown St. Onge, poet and women’s studies leader at BC, dies at 77

Dr. St. Onge with her son Joe in late July, not long before she was diagnosed with cancer.Handout

After years of teaching at Boston College and directing a study-abroad program, Marian Brown St. Onge began publishing poetry with an emotional range that stretched from tender moments with loved ones to scenes of disquieting terror.

“When I learned the Jews were to be shot on Friday,/I tried to save them,” the unnamed narrator says as her poem “Flame-colored Chemise” opens, and then adds:

“When I went there on Friday morning, the pits were so full

that the living had to lie down in neat layers

on top of the dead

Oh, there’s a pretty one! A soldier shouted

as he picked off a woman in a


flame-colored chemise.”

Dr. St. Onge, who formerly directed BC’s Women’s Studies Program and was the founding director of the college’s Center for International Programs and Partnerships, died Aug. 18, just 10 days after being diagnosed with an aggressive case of pancreatic cancer. She had turned 77 a day earlier and had lived in Cambridge.

While directing the center, which is now the Office for International Programs, Dr. St. Onge “greatly extended” its outreach “through her indefatigable global travels and prolific partnership creation,” Boston College said in a tribute posted online.

“BC has made a commitment to international study and with good reason,” she told the Boston College Chronicle in 1999, when the program set an enrollment record.

“There is not a profession now where you don’t need some kind of exposure to other cultures or societies,” she added. “Seeing something from another perspective enriches you in so many ways, and you carry that with you through the rest of college and into your professional life.”

A former president of the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association, she was often honored with awards, fellowships, and appointments.

Not long before retiring in 2006, Dr. St. Onge was a visiting professor in international affairs at American College of Thessaloniki, Greece.


“Marian and I had offices near each other for several years during our time at BC,” Mary Ellen Kiddle, retired coordinator of the college’s Spanish language program, wrote for BC’s tribute. “I remember her high energy, enthusiasm, her beautiful smile, and her friendly relationship with both students and fellow faculty.”

In retirement, Dr. St. Onge wrote poetry and was working on a biography of the Rev. Louis Favre, a Catholic priest in France who had helped Jewish refugees and resistance fighters escape to Switzerland during World War II, until Nazis captured and executed him.

“Her houses were just overflowing with books, and a love of ideas and possibility,” said her son Andy, who lives in Oahu, Hawaii.

He said his mother possessed an “intellectual curiosity, a passion for learning and knowledge, and that curiosity was contagious.”

Dr. St. Onge arrived at Boston College in the early 1970s as a graduate student, began teaching in 1977, and stayed until retiring. While there she helped expand the horizons for students who wanted to study beyond the confines of the campus.

“When the office was first created, there were few study-abroad opportunities for BC students — and those who did go abroad had to withdraw from BC and enroll at the foreign schools,” she told the Chronicle in 2006.

“We now have over 70 partnerships around the world, and every year more than 1,000 BC students and faculty participate in programs abroad, which are fully integrated with BC,” she added. “Of course, the growth of international study is not limited to BC. But our students have identified study-abroad opportunities as critical to their personal and spiritual growth elements that are vital to the Boston College experience.”


Marian Fullerton Brown was born on Aug. 17, 1944, in Montclair, N.J., where she grew up as the younger of two siblings.

Her mother, Lois Svensrud Brown, attended the University of Southern California and wrote for Hollywood glossy magazines before marrying.

“She was a woman before her time,” Andy said of his grandmother. “I think some of the unrealized possibilities for my grandmother were transferred, in aspirations, to my mom.”

Dr. St. Onge’s father, John Clark Brown, was a successful inventor of kitchen utensils.

She graduated from what is now Montclair Kimberley Academy and initially attended Agnes Scott College, a women’s school in Decatur, Ga.

In 1966, she graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in European history and French, having studied in Bordeaux, France, her senior year.

Afterward, she lived for two years in London, working as a fashion advertising executive for The Observer newspaper.

In 1968, she married Dr. Richard A. St. Onge, with whom she had two sons, Andy and Joe, who now lives in Hailey, Idaho. Their marriage ended in divorce.

While she raised her sons, the family spent a year in Bearsden, Scotland. She drew from that experience for her first book, coauthored with her friend Susan Hight: “Try Glasgow: An Uncommon Living Guide to the City.”


In the 1970s she began lecturing and teaching at Boston College, from which she graduated with a master’s in 1975 and a doctorate in 1984, both in French literature.

From 1981 to 1986, she was married to George Lee Sargent Jr., and settled in Cambridge after their marriage ended in divorce.

Dr. St. Onge lived there for the rest of her life, spending part of her time in Truro with her companion, Marshall Smith.

“I have always been interested in history, poetry, and romance languages,” she once wrote in an autobiographical sketch.

Dr. St. Onge, who combined work and travel, noted that her “passport is more colorful than most, and I have worn out more than my fair share of luggage.”

She received a Fulbright fellowship in the 1990s and was honored by the Clinton administration for her work on a project to help restore Bosnian libraries.

Upon taking early retirement from Boston College, “I had dreams of dedicating my energies to studying poetry and writing poems of my own,” she wrote.

Her poems found homes in numerous publications while she worked on the Favre biography.

In “Sing to the one who can’t: on a line from Basho,” a poem Dr. St. Onge published in a journal in 2012, she wrote about her mother’s death. The poem begins:

“An autumn night — don’t think your life didn’t matter.


A simple refrain I sing for my mother

of falling leaves and letting go,

to ease her spirit and my own.”

In addition to her sons, Andy and Joe, and her companion, Marshall, Dr. St. Onge leaves her brother, Clark Brown of Los Angeles, and three granddaughters.

At Dr. St. Onge’s request, there will be no memorial service.

She was “very close and attentive” to her granddaughters, Bruna, Neve, and Soleil, Andy said. “She loved her granddaughters profusely.”

Just before Dr. St. Onge died, Bruna wrote a tribute that said in part that her grandmother “inspired me to want to be independent, confident, classy, and strong.”

“Not many women are able to pull off being undeniably beautiful and intimidatingly brilliant,” she added, “but you make it look like a walk in the park.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.