Classroom Match-Up: Brian Donaher and BC High

“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

by Thomas F. Muklvoy Jr., BIR Staff
Undaunted by the march of time, Brian P. Donaher makes no pause as he presses on, his 50 years of teaching in the classrooms of Boston College High School testament to a remarkable man’s lifelong commitment to the educator’s art, classics studies division.
In his poetic monologue, Tennyson imagined Ulysses fretting as he faced old age and, rusting “unburnish’d,” yearning for a replay of the dynamic dramatics of his younger years. There’s no fretting for Mr. Donaher at age 72; every class day is a replay for him, an evocation of epic historical events far removed from the hurly-burly world of the 21st century where context too often is lost in the ceaseless cultural call for immediacy.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year over five full decades, this gifted educator (BC High ’55; Holy Cross ’59; a year at Princeton; a master’s in classics at Boston College; a master’s in philology, i.e., linguistics, from Harvard) has asked his students to “get rid of their prejudices of time and place, to step out of their own contexts – bag that I-phone! – and try to get a grip on what Xenophon and Alexander and Caesar and Pompey and Cicero and other ancient celebrities were up to in their particular situations, try to understand why what they said and did made sense for their time.”
Mr. Donaher’s approach to classical language and history offers a timeless model for understanding between generations of any time. Might not an adult with BC High student credentials, in turning back the clock to his years in school, gain a fresh perspective on what his parents and teachers were saying and doing for him when he was young and confident and selfish in the teenage manner?
A challenge to his students
The historical value of the study of the epochal 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 suggests. “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 says, 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.
The young Brian Donaher began to figure this out close to sixty years ago, in 1951, when he graduated from St. Ann’s parochial school in Dorchester’s Neponset neighborhood and entered his freshman year at BC High, then located in Boston’s South End but soon to be moved to Dorchester. The faculty was wall-to-wall Jesuit; the freshman curriculum straightforward – English, Latin, Math, History, Religion; the uniforms of the day were black robes for the teachers and shirts and ties for the students; and tuition was $125.
“Mr. Donaher” (his name for the next four years) was captivated by the structure that made a Jesuit secondary school something apart, its days filled with the barking of priests and Scholastic teachers, the soothing words of preachers on Holy Days and retreats, sports put into perspective, and the insistence that a good education came at personal cost of extra daily effort and time set aside for homework of substance. 
He took advantage of his opportunities, the record shows clearly: Honor Society, Sodality, the Debate and Drama societies, Stamp Club, co-editor of The Botolphian, and some jazz appreciation on the side. This was a student on the move.
Not satisfied with only four years of Jesuits, in 1955 Mr. Donaher moved on to the College of the Holy Cross for further immersion in the classics and the ratio studiorum of Ignatius’s Order, the innovative (for its time) 16th-century insistence that a true classical education would include studies beyond theology and philosophy and religious rubric and present the humanities – drama, sciences, history, literature – for the edification of both teachers and students. All of this fit right into the maturing Brian Donaher’s wheelhouse.
In 1959, the newly graduated Holy Cross man moved on to Princeton in contemplation of gaining a PhD in the classics, but after a year in New Jersey, he decided he was too far away from everything that was important to him and he came home. Enter, in the fall of 1960, Father Ambrose J. Mahoney, S.J., the principal of BC High, who offered him a junior-year position at the school.
“The homeroom teacher’s curriculum was straightforward,” Mr. Donaher recalled. “Latin, Greek, English, and Religion.” But there was a twist for his students: He had traded his English class for the Greek class of a colleague because neither was comfortable with his original assignment.
A challenge from the principal
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 thought differently, though he was cautious in inviting him back for the fall: “Why don’t you stay here until you get it right?”
By any measure imaginable, Mr. Donaher has managed to get it right, and then some for some 6,000 students over the next 49 years and counting.
A dozen years ago, Bill Burke, a fellow BC High faculty legend, delivered an appreciation of his colleague that homed in on the style of a man who lives to teach: “BC High has been inspired by this tireless man’s energy and dedication for many years. It is his example and his standards that we have come to expect from teachers at our school. It is the Brian Donahers who have made BC High a great school, a place we alumni fondly remember and honor, especially if we have been Homeridae, sons of Homer, ‘Brian’s Boys.’
Mr. Burke then spoke of how Mr. Donaher and Father John Howard, S.J., had in the 1960s founded the school’s Homeric Academy, which “put BC High on the map in classics nationally” and made the name Donaher “known at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Boston College, Holy Cross, and Fordham, to name a few, for producing Homeric scholars for 35 years.”
And the beat goes on, says Mr. Donaher, pointing to the continuing flow of BC High classics scholars to college and graduate courses in universities around the country.
From the boys in the seats
We all know how easy it is to assess things from our comfortable seats while someone is performing alone in front of us; there is a tendency to the putdown. Over the last many years, BC High has offered its students the opportunity to grade how their teachers have performed on their classroom stages, and the following are a few comments about Mr. Donaher cribbed from those assessment files (he might get the allusions):
• “So many pills... Great guy, though, awesome jokes, great teacher. Lucky if you have him, smartest guy ever. 100 average frosh year thanks to his ridiculous extra credit. Don’t put the donkey in the bathtub!”
• “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 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 Gk. He is the best teacher I have ever had. Taking his class is an honor.”
A nice page for the scrapbook.
Keeping on keeping on
As the years have passed, Mr. Donaher’s world –- at home, at school, in Boston, and beyond – has undergone extraordinary changes.
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 teaching on the day when Barack Obama, a black man, took the oath of office as president, an occasion utterly impossible to have been envisioned through 1960 eyes.
He has kept on in his classroom through the administrations of ten presidents, one of whom was assassinated, an event that hit very close to Boston and Massachusetts. He has pressed on through several wars, one of which, Vietnam, put the spark to cataclysmic cultural upheaval at home and abroad.
Cardinals and bishops answered the call of an aging pope and gathered for Vatican II, and the Catholic Church soon moved into unchartered territory; a man walked on the moon; recessions, recoveries, and recessions, they kept on coming; busing came to Boston, and violence came to the streets; a pope was shot in St. Peter’s Square; a president was shot in Washington; terrorists struck our homeland and continue to threaten our well-being.
And Brian Donaher kept on teaching.
In terms of an event that had an impact particular to him and his school, “Vatican II was almost a deal-breaker,” he says today. “We lost a generation of Catholics, but some are coming back.” And the traditional parish-parochial school-parent-BC High  axis that kept a student in a productive educational frame of mind became frayed with the fallout from John XXIII’s Council, he says. “It hasn’t been lost, but after Vatican II it just wasn’t the same as before as time went by. Not to blame anyone; it was just different.”
Sitting down with an upbeat man
 To chat today with Brian Donaher is to talk with a man who remains assured about himself, his school, and his students. Pointing to the continuing strong association of religious principle to every school endeavor, to nurturing associations like community service, the Good Friday Walk, to the Kairos movement that encourages the notion of a “decisive moment” that sets a person on life’s path, and to the highly ambitious and curious student body he encounters every day, this many-faceted teacher is keenly tuned into his time and place, and to his family. He and his wife of 41 years, Marge (Margaret Stapinski) are parents of two sons, Patrick, BC High ’93, a musician and yoga instructor, and Luke, ’97, who is finishing up his MBA program at Boston University.
It would be easy after 50 years for Mr. Donaher to sit back and tell the world, “Been there, done that.” But it’s not in the nature of the man to take such a pose. He talks with excitement about how technology has enhanced the means of educating BC High boys, about the 400 pupils who are taking Latin this year from the seventh grade up, and the 100 tenth-graders and above who are taking Greek and getting into detail about Odysseus and his crew. He notes that there has been a change in the roster of foreign-language offerings and that the popularity index shows Spanish first, Latin second, French third, followed by Chinese and Greek. “We’re looking to organizing a class in Arabic,” he adds.
Maybe it’s an open secret on campus by now, but Mr. Donaher, his voice full of anticipation, tells of his dream: ‘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.”
Brian Donaher ’55 is on the case. Save the date.
This article was originally published in BC High Today, the alumni magazine of Boston College High School.