In the fall of 1960, Father Ambrose J. Mahoney, S.J., the principal of Boston College High School, offered Brian Donaher a junior-year homeroom teacher position at the school. The curriculum was straightforward: Latin, Greek, English, and Religion. Come the next June, the rookie teacher wasn’t sure that he had the game for the job, and said so to Father Mahoney. The principal was of a different mind: “Why don’t you stay here until you get it right?” he said.
By any measure imaginable, Mr. Donaher managed to get it right – and then some – in teaching the classical languages to thousands of BC High students over the next 51 years. He began teaching when John F. Kennedy was on the last laps of his successful run to become the first Roman Catholic to occupy the White House and he was still teaching on the day when Barack Obama, a black man, took the oath of office as president, an occasion, he said in a 2010 interview, “utterly impossible to have been envisioned through 1960 eyes.”
Mr. Donaher died peacefully last Friday at his home in Quincy. He was 75. He leaves his wife of 43 years, Margaret “Marge” (Stapinski), and two sons, Patrick A., of Quincy, and Luke E. and his wife Jennifer, of Hartford.
“It is hard to know what to say with the loss of such a well loved and respected teacher, mentor, colleague and friend,” said BC High president William Kemeza in delivering news of Mr. Donaher’s passing to the BC High community and school alumni. “Recalling those encounters we had as colleagues, students or friends, let’s offer our prayers of thanksgiving for the way he enriched the lives of so many people and our gratitude to his wonderful family who will always remain a part of our community.”
Mr. Donaher was born Boston, raised in Dorchester, where he attended St. Ann’s School before moving to BC High, at the time in its last years in the city’s South End. After graduation in 1955, he stayed with the Jesuits at Holy Cross College, Class of 1959, then earned master’s degrees in the classics from Boston College and Harvard.
The historical value of the study of the epochal individuals and events of the classical eras of Greece and Persia and Rome and Gaul and Carthage and the barbarians is of a high order, Mr. Donaher maintained. “If you do it well, you can walk in the shoes of ancient history-makers and explore their ideas in their own languages.”
That is “the bonus section of a classics program,” he said, “a meaty adjunct to the rigorous study of grammatical structure and the exploration of root words and terms that inform the writing and speech in English of a 21st-century classics scholar.”
“That was the Brian Donaher I knew,” said Lawrence D. Blake, another longtime teacher at BC High who also served as principal for a time. “He was a wordsmith, an etymologist who understood that using the right words to make your case has high value. In addition, he was a professional in the classroom, an engaging educator with a finely honed sense of humor.”
Then there were the boys in the seats, who these days get to have their say about their teachers. The following comments were cribbed from the students’ assessment files over the last few years:
• “So many pills... Great guy, though, awesome jokes, great teacher. Lucky if you have him, smartest guy ever.”
• “His command of the classics coupled with his mastery of 103 simian dialects distinguish him not only as a terrific, nay, phenomenal educator, but also as a very versatile hominid.”
• “The best teacher I’ve ever had. The other guy was right on when he said they should build a temple/shrine to him.”
• “One of the coolest teachers in the school.”
• “Easily my favorite teacher, He’s one of the nicest and most knowledgeable people I know.”
• “Mr. Donaher is a cool guy. Even though he is the eldest of the teachers, he stills tells great jokes. He da man!”
• “So I only got a C, but Mr. D. is the only reason I didn’t fail Homeric Greek. He is the best teacher I have ever had. Taking his class is an honor.”
A nice page for the Donaher scrapbook.
In that 2010 interview, written by me for the school’s alumni magazine, BC High Today, Mr. Donaher talked wistfully of a dream he was nurturing: “In 2013 we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of BC High. You know how there have been these front-to-back public readings of books like “Moby-Dick”? Well, why don’t we begin soon to line up students and alumni who would meet on campus during graduation weekend in our sesquicentennial year, take to the school stage, and read the Odyssey in the original from beginning to end? What a sight that would be.”
That was Brian Donaher, classical scholar and teacher, marrying the past to the present, as always.
Donations in Mr. Donaher’s memory may be made to the “Brian P. Donaher ’55 Scholarship Fund, c/o Boston College High School, 150 Morrissey Blvd., Dorchester, MA 02125