Jesuit Father William B. Neenan, a beloved Jesuit and accomplished administrator at Boston College who served in several key leadership positions during more than three decades at the Heights, passed away on June 24, 2014, in the Jesuit residence at Roberts House. He was 85.
As academic vice president and dean of faculties from 1987-1998, Fr. Neenan helped guide Boston College to its place among the nation’s premier universities. During his 11-year tenure, he oversaw a steady strengthening of Boston College’s undergraduate and graduate programs, with the University named among US News & World Report’s top 40 national universities and top 20 universities for teaching. He became vice president and special assistant to University President Jesuit Father William P. Leahy, in 1998, a position he held for the past 16 years.
Fr. Leahy praised Fr. Neenan as a scholar, administrator and Jesuit who dedicated his life to advancing Boston College. “Fr. Neenan was such a presence on our campus and was a tremendous Jesuit priest,” said Fr. Leahy. “We will all miss him greatly.”
A respected economist, Fr. Neenan came to Boston College in 1979 from the University of Michigan to become the University’s first Gasson Professor. The following year, he was named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a position he held until 1987.
Well known among students, faculty and alumni for the genuine friendship he extended to those he met — often in the form of a spontaneous handshake and introduction “Hello friend, I’m Fr. Neenan” delivered in a dining hall, on a campus shuttle bus, or while walking through the Quad — Fr. Neenan founded the “Iowa/Nebraska Luncheon Club,” providing BC students from the Midwest with an opportunity to gather and catch up on happenings back home. The luncheons became so popular among students that they spawned numerous other regional luncheons for undergraduates from all over the country. His annual release of the “Dean’s List of Recommended Reading,” a lineup of his favorite novels, biographies, histories and other books, became an anticipated yearly rite on the BC campus.
Throughout his 35 years of service, Fr. Neenan was an active and in-demand presence at Boston College and a highly sought-after speaker at alumni events nationwide. He attended countless reunions and alumni club gatherings, spoke at myriad student forums, served as chair of several administrative search committees and officiated at hundreds of alumni weddings. His mellifluous voice, familiar to all in the BC community, is among those of administrators and faculty members included on the University’s mobile “Tour of the Heights.”
In 2004, a gift from Margaret A. and Thomas A. Vanderslice ’53, Hon. ’03, established the William B. Neenan, SJ, Millennium Chair in Economics. Upon the announcement of the chair, Tom Vanderslice called Fr. Neenan “the soul of the University.”
Fr. Neenan became the namesake for another University initiative in 2009, with the creation of the William B. Neenan, SJ, Society, which recognizes alumni who make annual gifts in consecutive years. The establishment of the Neenan Society came in the wake of the “Neenan Challenge,” which set a goal of 25,000 alumni donors contributing $1 million in financial aid. During the 2008-09 fiscal year, more than 26,300 answered the call to support Boston College in his name.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, on January 9, 1929, Fr. Neenan was one of four children of Edward and Grace (Braunger) Neenan. He attended local public and Catholic schools and graduated from Trinity High School in Sioux City in 1946.
He attended St. Louis University for two years and, in 1948, entered the novitiate of the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus. He became a member of the Wisconsin Province when it separated from Missouri in 1955. He did philosophy studies at St. Louis University from 1952 to 1955, and received an M.A. in economics there in 1956. He remained at the university for another year, teaching economics, and then taught Latin and American history at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee from 1957-1958. He did theology studies at St. Mary’s College in Kansas from 1958 to 1962, and was ordained a priest at the Gesu Church in Milwaukee in 1961. After completing tertianship, he studied economics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1966. The following year he accepted an appointment teaching economics and social work at the University of Michigan, and taught there until 1979, rising to the rank of professor.
As a scholar, Fr. Neenan wrote numerous articles, reviews, books and monographs on subjects ranging from urban economics to public health and taxation, and has directed a string of economic institutes and seminars.
In 2003, Fr. Neenan received the Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam Award from the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, in recognition of his commitment to Jesuit education in New England. He received an honorary degree from Boston College for his distinguished service to the University in 2008, the year he celebrated his 60th anniversary as a Jesuit, and the Founder’s Medal from BC Law in 1996.
He served as a trustee for a number of schools and universities, including Loyola University of Chicago, Fordham University, Nativity Preparatory School, North Cambridge Catholic High School, Boston College High School, and Boston College Ireland Ltd., among others. He also served as director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities from 1988 to 1994, and as a director of the Jesuit magazine America from 1990 to 1991.
A self-described “immigrant” from Sioux City who, like his fellow Iowan Fr. Leahy, maintained a lifelong rooting interest in the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, Fr. Neenan was quick to acknowledge his fondness for his adopted home on the Heights. “I came with the intention of spending just a year here, and I ended up falling in love with Boston College,” he said.