A servant of humility — and of strength — Rev. Donald Monan
The Rev. J. Donald Monan was recently at a doctor’s appointment when the wait unexpectedly extended through lunchtime. A nurse handed him half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich she had packed.
“ ‘Thank you so much. This is just delicious,’ ” the 92-year-old priest exclaimed, according to the Rev. Joseph M. O’Keefe, who delivered the homily Wednesday for Monan, Boston College’s president for 24 years. “You’d think it was beluga caviar.”
The moment reflected Monan’s kindness and humility — qualities that belied his stature as one of the most influential leaders at BC and in the city beyond.
“That’s who he was: unfailingly modest and thoughtful, grateful, and gracious,” said O’Keefe, rector of the Ciszek Hall Jesuit Community in New York City. “He was the quintessential gentleman.”
The Mass, at the soaring Saint Ignatius Parish on BC’s campus in Chestnut Hill, drew a long list of prominent alumni and political leaders, reflecting the deep influence Monan had on Boston during his tenure leading the Jesuit school from 1972 to 1996.
Mourners in the pews included Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Police Commissioner William B. Evans, former advertising mogul Jack Connors, and former US attorney Wayne A. Budd.
Still, O’Keefe said, “No matter whether you were a major donor or an alumnus of modest means, Don would treat you with warmth and respect.”
Monan helped BC grow from a regional commuter school on the brink of insolvency into a highly regarded Catholic university on a par with Georgetown and Notre Dame.
Under his leadership, the university instituted a strict accounting system, brought in new budget managers, and greatly increased its alumni donor network, allowing it to dramatically boost its academic stature, physical size, financial health, and athletic prowess.
“He saw possibilities that no one else saw,” O’Keefe said. “He was a visionary. And during his long tenure as president and ever since, that vision has become a reality.”
Beyond campus, Monan, an Aristotelian scholar with a doctorate in philosophy, was frequently sought as a trusted mediator in some of the city’s most delicate disputes.
In 2002, he was appointed head of a commission to overhaul the state judicial system. In 1999, he played a key role in keeping the New England Patriots from decamping to Hartford. In 1993, he helped broker an agreement that led to the replacement of Boston Garden by the FleetCenter, which is now the TD Garden.
As a Jesuit, Monan liked to approach such negotiations as a quiet conciliator, in keeping with the notion of “Eloquentia Perfecta — rhetoric at its best,” O’Keefe said.
“No one did it better than Don,” O’Keefe said, “with his velvety, Bing Crosby voice.”
Monan was also a die-hard hockey fan, and his pallbearers included Jerry York, BC’s hockey coach, and Christopher Calnan, a current player on the team.
At the national college hockey championship game in 2006, Monan took a 9-year-old boy by the hand to meet the Eagles in the locker room after BC lost to Wisconsin, recalled Geoffrey T. Boisi, a former BC trustee who delivered one of the eulogies.
“Father said, ‘You’re going to be there one day,’ ” Boisi recalled. “The boy said, ‘Does that mean you’re giving me a scholarship?’”
The boy, it turned out, was Colin White, Boisi said, who would go on to be a star hockey player for the Eagles.
Monan was also a passionate golfer, Boisi said, “a stealth competitor who had this controlled intensity about him.”
On the golf course, he was even known to engage in a little gentle trash-talking, if he was in the hunt for a win. “‘You’d better say a prayer to make that one,’” he would tell Boisi, as Boisi lined up a 10-foot putt.
“Two holes later,” Boisi said, “when you had to make that dreaded three-footer, he’d say, ‘I’m not sure even a prayer will help sink that.’ ”
Just a few hours before Monan died Saturday at the age of 92, Boisi and a friend went to visit the ailing priest at the Campion Health Center in Weston.
As Monan was getting ready for bed just before midnight, Boisi told him that his beloved Eagles had just defeated Boston University in the Hockey East semifinals at the Garden.
“He smiled,” Boisi told the mourners. “The only thing that would have made him smile more is if we would have told him we beat Notre Dame.”