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University Bids Farewell to John Silber

Memorial service remembers transformational BU president

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

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In the slideshow above, view images from John Silber’s tenure as president of Boston University, from 1971 to 1996. Photos by BU Photography

To the public, John Silber could be brilliant, but brittle. Elie Wiesel glimpsed a different side of the BU president in the early 1990s when he posed a problem to him: a Russian dissident friend, visiting the famed Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, feared arrest if he returned to the crumbling Soviet Union. Silber gave the man a one-year appointment at BU, until it was safe for him to return home.

“That saved his life. That’s really John Silber. He used his power to help other people,” Wiesel (Hon.’74), BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, said via video on November 30 at a memorial for Silber, who died September 27 at age 86.

Luminous personalities orbited Silber, among them Wiesel and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (Hon.’99), who also contributed a video eulogy, as well as author Tom Wolfe (Hon.’00), who regaled the 700 people in the GSU’s Metcalf Ballroom with stories about a man he first met as a reporter, covering a talk Silber gave to a civil service group—about the lack of creativity in the civil service. (Kissinger befriended Silber when both served on a commission on Central America appointed by Ronald Reagan.) State leaders flecked the crowd sitting before a speakers’ platform anchored by a painting of the late president in his crimson academic robe—among them Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and former state Senate president William Bulger (Hon.’96).

Wolfe recalled Silber’s arranging for him to be robed in white, in a nod to the author’s trademark white suits, when he received an honorary degree in 2000. Wolfe said he fell in love with the robe and wore it on the plane ride home to New York; during the flight a little girl asked her mother, “Is that the pope?” Although Silber lost his 1990 run for Massachusetts governor in part because of his pricklish candor during a televised interview, Wolfe said he later wrote in Silber’s name in several presidential elections because he admired his resolute stances.

Paraphrasing the Greek philosopher Epictetus, Wolfe said of Silber, “He did not assent to what was false, he did not deny what was true. He was a great man.”

As the University’s seventh president (1971–1996) and later as chancellor (1996–2003), Silber oversaw BU’s transformation from commuter school to international research university. He “came here to raise our standards, our sights, and our stature,” University President Robert A. Brown declared at the memorial. “The people he brought to Boston University and his standards of excellence are his greatest legacy.” Silber was also a professor at the College of Arts & Sciences and at the School of Law, as well as a University Professor.

Author Tom Wolfe (Hon.’00) paid tribute to John Silber at a memorial on November 30 for the late BU president emeritus. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Former BU executive vice president Joseph Mercurio (MET’81), who worked  under Silber for 38 years, echoed the description of a tough-outside-softie-inside man. He portrayed a demanding boss who would return memos with grammatical and writing mistakes marked in red, yet one who also would seek the best medical care for sick BU staff and faculty or donate money to those in a financial bind. (He was more frugal with his own needs, said Mercurio, who once loaned Silber $23.74 for spare parts for his ancient electric razor.) His considerateness wasn’t confined to intellectuals and executives—Mercurio recalled the president hosting a barbecue for maintenance staff and amusing their children by joking that the roasting lamb was actually his old greyhound.

BU’s institutional environmentalism dates to Silber’s tenure, said Mercurio, who received a 1988 memo from the president complaining about how dirty the campus looked Saturday mornings. He stressed the need for cleanup, but instructed Mercurio, “First things first. Don’t put this ahead of the budget.”

“Trained as a philosopher, like his father John was an architect at heart” who beautified the campus, Brown said, from planting trees to negotiating complex property purchases that enabled a more attractively designed University.

Robert Knox (CAS’74, GSM’75), BU Board of Trustees chairman, said that even Silber’s trademark temper could serve the interests of civility. As a freshman living in Myles Standish Hall in 1971, Knox attended a dorm visit by the new president, known to be hostile to the Vietnam-era prevalence of long hair and pot, both of which greeted him at Myles. Students were soon jeering his criticisms of their rebellious lifestyle, and one shouted a crude insult about the president’s right arm, withered since birth.

Silber dropped his prepared remarks, Knox said, condemning “the student’s shameful ignorance” while defending civil debate and mutual respect in words “both powerful and eloquent.…Instantly, the atmosphere in that room morphed from raucous and disrespectful to stunned silence as we collectively realized that our new president, although small in physical stature, was a huge and powerful intellect.”

Silber’s outbursts were always tempered when his opponents could logically defend their arguments, Knox added, citing a trustee committee meeting at which he spoke against an investment Silber strongly favored. Rather than letting rip the tongue-lashing everyone expected, Silber, although displeased, conceded the merits of Knox’s point and agreed to postpone a vote until the investment could be researched further.

Nor did Silber lack a sense of humor. When the Boston Globe ran an unflattering photo of him in 1988 (Knox described it as resembling “a very angry Grinch”), his staff used it to adorn a calendar for the next year. Silber authorized the calendar’s sale at the BU bookstore, where it sold out. The profits, including what Silber collected for autographing the calendars, went to the Chelsea public schools, which BU had undertaken to improve on Silber’s watch through the 20-year Boston University/Chelsea Partnership.

In his video, Wiesel spoke of taking Silber to Jerusalem’s memorial for Hitler’s victims, saying that it “affected him more than he admitted publicly. He did not teach the same way anymore. He did not behave the same way anymore.” As Silber aged and approached his own death, Wiesel said, “he thought of those who died then with much more clarity.” He mused that Silber might be looking down from heaven, wishing success to Brown and BU while “trying to give advice to God.”

The man who provoked these quips, admiration, and more than his share of antagonism also provoked a few tears. Pulitzer winner and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal Karen Elliott House (Hon.’03), an overseer and a trustee emerita, choked up during her remembrance as she said, “What a legacy. What a man.”

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