Tension between Texas and Boston got a lot of play during John Silber’s memorial service yesterday on the Boston University campus. Silber, who had a short but legendary career at UT in the late 1960s before setting out to build BU into a world-class institution, died Sept. 27th at age 86.
Vartan Gregorian told the gathering that Silber, who had been ailing, called him to say goodbye. “I am going to die,” he told his close friend of over half a century, “it’s not worth living.” Totally in character to the end, Silber gave Gregorian—a past president of Brown University who now leads the Carnegie Corporation of New York—instructions for comporting himself at the memorial service.
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, in a videotaped message, reported receiving a farewell call three days before Silber’s death and then a letter. It contained “something very personal” said Wiesel, who, through his writings and lectures has almost become the face of the Nazi holocaust for many Americans.
Gregorian recalled how, in 1968, Silber recruited him as part of his quest to turn UT into one of the 20 top universities in the world. As the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Silber started knocking heads in his first year, freezing salaries of faculty he deemed mediocre and firing 22 of 28 department chairmen because they were failing to build their departments.
Karen Elliott House was a cub reporter for the Daily Texan at the time and spoke about covering what turned into an epic conflict between Silber and Frank Erwin. Silber, who was a relatively small man with a deformed and truncated right arm, challenged Erwin on the conflicts between his interests in real estate and his interests as an educator. Elliott House, who went on to a Pulitzer Prize-winning career, said Erwin’s response was, “Silber, you’ll never learn, where there’s no conflict there’s no interest.”
Silber confided the chain of events to Elliott House. She reported to the 750 people at the memorial service that when Silber refused to back down, Erwin said, “I guess I’m going to have to make you famous by firing you.” Silber shot back, asking what lesson he should learn from this experience. “Erwin thought for a moment,” said Elliott House, and replied, “Don’t ever take a number-two position.”
Writer Tom Wolfe, who followed a videotaped message from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, recalled meeting Silber for the first time. As a magazine journalist, Wolfe covered a conference of civil servants where the then-Boston University president held forth on the topic of “The Inherent Restraints on Creativity in the Civil Service.”
Wolfe learned that Silber was a man who just “couldn’t bring himself to flatter,” noting, “that was probably the most depressing speech the civil servants ever heard.” He also shared the story of how Silber utterly sandbagged him. The author of classics like The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff and who is known for sporting white linen suits, was about to deliver the commencement address in 2000. Wolfe was told that he would be given a robe to wear, but not that the garment to be slipped on him in front of a crowd of thousands, would be a gleaming white with a bright red velvet trim. Wolfe was so taken by it that he ended up wearing it on the flight home, recalling that people mistook him for the Pope.
Others who rhapsodized about Silber during the almost two-hour celebration included current BU president Robert A. Brown, another Texas native and a UT alumnus. A scrapper who jumped into the political arena to run for governor of Massachusetts in 1990, Silber’s most “enduring legacy to Boston University will be his commitment to the quality of the faculty, academic programs and students,” said Brown, “with big goals, big heart, hard work, and some punchy Texas aphorisms John helped Boston University make its own luck starting with very limited means.”
Kissinger called Silber “a patriot, a believer in freedom who did not preach his objectives but he lived them. He was totally reliable.”
Joseph Mercurio, Silber’s longtime lieutenant as executive vice president, simply called his former boss “a consummate teacher.”
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