Professor Profile: Vietnam Veteran Finds Vocation In Philosophy And Jesuit Ideals
Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 29, 2013 20:09
Upon entering room 257 of Stokes Hall North, dozens of books—stacked neatly within the several bookshelves that border a space otherwise adorned with framed photographs from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and China and pictures of various Perspectives I classes—overwhelm any visitor. This ethnically diverse and thoroughly enticing office belongs to Rev. Paul McNellis, S.J., a professor of political philosophy and social ethics, a Vietnam veteran, and a man well-versed in the language and culture of numerous peoples.
Although he was born in Miami, Fla., McNellis spent his childhood primarily in St. Paul, Minn., as the oldest of nine children. Following high school, he attended the University of Minnesota from 1965-67 for political science and thereupon left to enlist in the U.S. Army. McNellis joined the U.S. Army in 1968. He was commissioned through Officer Candidate School as an infantry officer and received Ranger, Airborne, and Special Forces training before being assigned to Vietnam in 1970 as an advisor to Reconnaissance Company with the 47th Regiment of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
McNellis’ military experience therefore differed greatly from that of many fellow soldiers in that he worked alongside predominantly Vietnamese soldiers and families of the Pleiku, Kontum, and Binh Dinh provinces. While in Vietnam he received three awards for bravery in combat: the Bronze Star for Valor by the U.S. Army, and the Cross of Gallantry with bronze and silver stars from the South Vietnamese Army.
After completing military service and upon his homecoming in the U.S., McNellis became frustrated with the press accounts of events within Vietnam—the media wrote primarily on American soldiers, rather than on the struggling Vietnamese citizens whom he knew best.
“The war wasn’t over for the people I was closest to, and I wanted to see what was going on for myself,” McNellis said. Thus, he returned to Vietnam as a freelance journalist prior to covering the Easter Offensive of 1972 for the Associated Press. In 1973, McNellis became a television reporter briefly for an NBC affiliate out of Minneapolis, Minn., before he received a scholarship to study Vietnamese at the University of Southern Illinois.
Meanwhile, McNellis’ passion for the ailing and impoverished citizens of Southern Vietnam instilled in him a desire to provide further aid—he had written to various non-governmental organizations requesting return trips to Vietnam. When a positive response from Catholic Relief Services beckoned him to Cambodia in 1974, McNellis declined his grant from Southern Illinois. “I knew that if I accepted the offer, I would have contemplated being in Cambodia the entire time,” he said.
After working with refugees in Cambodia until autumn of 1975, McNellis then returned to the U.S. to complete his undergraduate studies at Cornell University, where he obtained a bachelor’s in Southeast Asian history and Asian studies in 1977.
Quickly following graduation, McNellis decided to join the Jesuits of the New York Province, and, as part of his Jesuit formation, studied in Munich, Rome, and Oxford. Thereafter, McNellis gained his master’s in philosophy from Fordham, a bachelor’s in theology and a licentiate in philosophy from the Gregorian University of Rome, and a doctorate in political philosophy from Boston College, all by 1993.
Following his numerous academic endeavors, McNellis pursued his truest passion: teaching. At multiple institutions, McNellis has taught varying courses in history, theology, and philosophy—he directed many programs and classes at St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, taught scholastics in Vietnam on general ethics and moral theology, led the Gregorian’s political philosophy program through which he offered many seminars, and has worked as an assistant adjunct professor within the philosophy department at BC since 2000.
McNellis currently teaches the highly acclaimed Perspectives I class to freshmen, which he considers a very special privilege.
“They keep me young—or, their youth helps me to grow old slowly,” he said, and he enjoys the fact that he is able to watch their progression into young men and women. “In May, they really are not the same people as they were in September.” And, judging by the plethora of class photos and student-made gifts that enrich his office, it is safe to say that McNellis’ students appreciate his fatherly and vast wisdom.