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A Sea Change on the Hill, part 3

By Phyllis Hanlon

Left to right: Peter Perkins, Robert Ricci, Melvin Tews, James Michael Mahoney ’37Peter Perkins

After 39 years in the math department, Peter Perkins has decided to retire. Sort of. He and his wife have purchased a home on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., to be closer to their children and grandchildren. However, Perkins will not entirely sever his connections with Holy Cross. Twice a week he’ll drive 200 miles—four hours each way—to teach a math class at the College.

Spending close to four decades at one institution has given Perkins ample time to witness the evolution that has taken place. He cited the obvious major change at the College during those years—the switch to coeducation. “This change has brought more professionalism as well as national recognition to the school,” he says. Despite the hubbub that surrounded the proposal, Perkins notes that the shift did not create the turmoil that some people anticipated. Holy Cross experienced an increase in academic reputation and performance as a result of the decision, according to Perkins.

The sharp increase in endowment has had a tremendous impact on Holy Cross’ growth and increased prominence in the academic world as well. Together with financial support from alumni, generous corporate and government grants have enabled equipment purchases and special projects, Perkins says. “The math department has been involved in independent theoretical research. Grant money certainly helped promote that.”

Perkins weathered the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s at the College as protests and walkouts associated with the country’s involvement in Vietnam and changing political environment sizzled. None of these events affected him as much as a particular commencement ceremony in the mid ’70s. “I was serving as associate dean at the time,” he says, “and in that role I was privileged to sit onstage.” It was the year Mother Teresa received an honorary degree, and Perkins had the opportunity to meet her and shake her hand following the festivities.

In spite of his continued, but lighter, teaching schedule, Perkins does intend to engage in some typical retirement activities. “Now that we’re living on a lake, I’ll have to buy a kayak and a canoe,” he says, “even though I’m not really a boat person.” Perkins also plans to write a book that explores the connection between science and religion. He claims the proximity of colleges—University of Vermont and St. Michael’s College are nearby—will help him complete the project.

Robert Ricci

Forty years ago Robert Ricci came to Holy Cross, partly because the College was based on and practiced Jesuit philosophy. As he retires this year, he is thrilled that the current president, Fr. McFarland, will maintain and promote that same philosophy. He is so pleased that he would almost like to stay another 20 years, he says, “just to see how this all pans out.”

A chemistry professor, Ricci notes that the department featured a master’s program, the only one on campus. In 1976, while serving as department chair, Ricci proposed to then-president Fr. Brooks that the school forego the graduate program and hire laboratory assistants instead. “This idea prompted enormous changes all around the College,” he says. “It eventually extended to all the sciences and the fine arts departments.” As a direct result of the added staffing, the chemistry department was able to develop its “discovery approach” to teaching, according to Ricci. He co-founded this lab-centered style of teaching chemistry, which gained national recognition. “The department was very fortunate to have complete support and agreement of all faculty for the program,” he says. “It resulted in synergism.”

Ricci also emphasizes benefits the students have derived from the new teaching method over the years. “Holy Cross typically produces more American Chemical Society-certified students than any other liberal arts college in the country,” he says.

Noting that “there’s still a little chemistry in me,” Ricci says he will not execute a complete and immediate retirement from Holy Cross. He intends to revisit the campus to follow up on a couple of unfinished projects, one of which is experimentation with color. The College has invited him to teach an occasional course based on his color theory. “I explore the nature of color and the colors of nature, how color is produced by birds, the sky, leaves—all things in nature,” he says.

Describing Holy Cross as “a wonderful place to practice chemistry,” Ricci praises the enthusiastic, bright young men and women who attend the school. “The students have been a wonderful inspiration for me,” he says. “They are an unspoken fringe benefit.”

Melvin Tews

As he so aptly states, Melvin Tews began his teaching career at an “interesting time” in history. In 1967, he accepted a teaching assignment in the math department in the midst of student revolts, here and across the country, as well as faculty rumblings. Chair of the department for two terms, Tews also served as chair of the Governance Committee, which was charged with reviewing the then-administrative process and making suggestions for improvements. “Those were times when there was a lot of push for faculty to be given more power to make decisions,” he says. Some of the changes eventually implemented were quite dramatic and others rather matter-of-fact, he notes.

Tews cites several important changes at the school, the most momentous of which was the move to a coed student body in 1972. “The class of ’76 was the first to graduate women,” he says. He also mentions the dramatic shift in the thinking of the athletics departments. “They used to try to compete with the best colleges in every sport. Now they’ve gone into the Patriot League,” he says. Faculty and Fr. Brooks spearheaded and supported that action, Tews remarks.

The curriculum underwent another significant transformation, according to Tews. “The way in which education takes place has changed,” he says. “In the ’70s, the faculty voted out all requirements for graduation—students only needed a major. In the early ’80s, we went back to a core curriculum.” One program in particular deserves special mention, Tews says. The introduction of the First-Year Program, a nationally recognized program, put students and faculty together in a yearlong approach to learning that focuses on a particular theme. All reading material, speakers and discussions relate to that theme, according to Tews. “In the spring, the group takes a field trip to D.C. to visit the Holocaust and other museums,” he says.

Tews notes that the math department experienced its own significant changes as well. “We wanted to get the students more involved with the actual learning process,” he says, “so we’d do labs and guess at various theorems based on observations.” The idea was to engage students in producing math rather than just telling them the results, Tews explains. The addition of computers to the department also altered the learning process. Once Tews had secured grant money to purchase the equipment, the department faculty members collaborated and developed math-focused exercises for the students.

Tews fondly recalls “two especially nice sabbatical leaves.” On his first trip, to the University of Sussex in England, his wife and children, then in fourth and sixth grades, accompanied him. Attending English schools and interacting with the British in their homeland provided invaluable cultural knowledge and experience, he says. His second sabbatical trip, to Melbourne, Australia, offered an opportunity to see areas of a university other than just the math department. “I was able to spend considerable time overseeing and assessing Holy Cross’ program at the university. I really enjoyed that,” he adds.

Tews and his wife plan to continue their travel escapades, both domestically and internationally. His interest in nature is drawing him toward volunteer work with the Wachusett Greenways, a local conservation group. “I’ll make more modern maps of the hiking trails,” he says. “It’s a nice opportunity to hike and learn some of the updated technology of map-making.” A lifelong sailor, Tews hopes to explore windsurfing, canoeing and model sailboat racing. As part of his retirement plans, he’d like to shed his role as moderator of the Holy Cross sailing club.

“After all,” he says, “I am retired now.”

James Michael Mahoney ’37

When James M. Mahoney ’37 began his career at Holy Cross’ Dinand Library in 1936 as a work-study student, the facility boasted a staff of two, stacks that were closed to the general public and a paper-card catalog system. By the time he retired in May 2000, a major renovation project had added two wings, a new Lucar-lux lighting system and high-tech computers that allowed access, not only to holdings at the library, but also to books and educational materials from all over the world.

With his sights set on a teaching career, Mahoney took a “temporary” position at the library after completing a year of graduate school. This part-time job sparked a newfound penchant, and Mahoney obtained his master’s degree in library science at Columbia University. Excluding a three and one-half-year stint in the Army, he remained at the Holy Cross library until 1986 when he retired—for the first time.

During those early years, Mahoney rose from general assistant to assistant librarian and finally to head librarian. Those years brought many changes in the physical, academic and social aspects of the school. In 1972, the library introduced computers for cataloging books. Rather than dealing with drawer upon drawer of paper-note cards, library patrons were able to access information through an electronic database. Mahoney notes that several renovations took place during the ’70s as well.

“ Originally, there was only one entrance at the top of 54 stairs,” he says. “Two entrances were created, making the library more accessible for the handicapped.” Impressed with the spectacular lighting system inside the Worcester Auditorium, Mahoney spearheaded a project to install similar lights in the library’s main reading room.

“Retirement” in 1986 brought Mahoney to a second career at the College as rare books and special collections curator, a part-time position that he held for the next 14 years. In addition to organizing and overseeing the school’s extensive rare book and artifacts collections, Mahoney began giving two and one-half-hour campus tours to new employees.

From the beginning Mahoney enjoyed rich relationships with the students, faculty and administration alike, giving special acclaim to Fr. Swords and Fr. Brooks, two of the College’s presidents to whom he attributes the school’s growth and success.

Mahoney, who “really” retired in June 2000, spends much of his time with his eight children and 10 grandchildren. He and his wife still attend Holy Cross alumni events and other activities on campus. Continuing the Mahoney tradition at the library, daughter Jacquelyn Mushinsky notes that her dad is not the typical male. “He cooks and cleans, has cellar and yard projects in the works and is very involved with Holy Cross and his grandchildren,” she says.

Phyllis Hanlon is a free-lance journalist from Charlton, Mass.


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