A Fifty Year French Love Story: Jeff and Margaret Flagg

It’s a cliché that French is the language of love, but beyond every cliché lies a bit of truth, and French has been the medium of the most affectionate, earnest expressions of romance in modern times—statements of love that pale in comparison to even the most tender of Boston College text messages, like, “I’m at White Mountain, what do you want?”

For the past 50 years at Boston College, students who wanted to follow in the same tradition as Baudelaire or Balzac, Flaubert or Voltaire could learn the language from two professors who both studied la langue française and delighted in the very love celebrated by the country’s most eminent bards.

Jeff and Margaret Flagg have worked in Boston College’s French Department for 55 and 34 years, respectively. Besides working together, they’ve been married for 46 years. Through the decades, the two have seen the construction of numerous University buildings, including Robsham Theater and Higgins Hall, and have attended numerous events, such as BC’s centennial anniversary welcoming former President John F. Kennedy as a speaker on April 20, 1963. Although the two will be retiring this fall, the Flaggs have made a lasting impression on the French department and have actively engaged with BC’s history and culture over the years.

Margaret was born in Dorchester, Mass. She proudly refers to herself as “OFD,” common slang for “Originally from Dorchester.” When she was 5 years old, her parents moved to West Roxbury, 15 minutes from the retail pharmacy owned by her father, which stood on the corner of Huntington Street in Boston. Margaret was an only child, but she was brought up in a large Irish-American extended family, and was constantly surrounded by many cousins close to her age.

Jeff grew up in Framingham, Mass, about 20 miles west of Boston. His parents were both raised there, and his family was always very small. While Jeff’s father was one of four, none of the siblings had married, and his mother, like him, was an only child. His mother was overjoyed when she heard about Margaret’s big Boston family who welcomed in Jeff and his parents as their own.

Margaret initially attended the Randall G. Morris School and then went on to the Saint Theresa of Avila School, both of which are located in West Roxbury. After that, she became a student at the Fontbonne Academy—a private Catholic all-girls high school in Milton, where she was first exposed to BC’s campus. As a sophomore, Margaret was a member of the literary club and visited the John J. Burns Library to peruse its British Catholic Authors Collection.

“That was not to be my last visit to the Burns Library—but it was the last visit I went in a grey uniform with a white collar,” she said.

Although she didn’t experience the academic side of BC until high school, the University itself has always been a part of Margaret’s life. Two of her cousins graduated from BC, while another pair graduated from The Woods College of Advancing Studies (WCAS). When her family would get together, they would all gather around her aunt’s piano and sing the “For Boston” anthem. Despite an acceptance to Columbia University and a fellowship to Fordham University, Margaret decided to attend BC as a French major, due to her family connections and history with the school. Following graduation, she taught high school in Brookline, Mass, for a few years until she returned to BC for her Masters of Arts in French.

Two hours west of Chestnut Hill on I-90, Jeff was at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After graduating, he pursued his Masters of Arts in French at Brown University. He got the chance to teach high school students for a year and was then offered an opportunity to teach at BC in the French department, with the provision that he get involved in another program to continue his studies. He began taking courses at Boston University and got his doctorate 10 years later. Conveniently, Margaret was allowed to take graduate courses over the summer at BC and use them for his BU degree. This is where he eventually met Margaret in their Pre-Romantic French poetry class.

“When I came to BC to teach, I didn’t have any prior connection [to the University]. I’d heard and respected the place, but it was through Margaret and her family’s history that I learned to acquire that same level of love and devotion,” Jeff said.

In 1971, Jeff and Margaret were invited by a mutual friend, Joan Jackson, who had been an assistant in the department of romance languages and literatures, to her house for St. Patrick’s Day night. Margaret had made French bread, but it hadn’t risen properly and was flat. Despite its rock-hard texture, Margaret decided to bring the bread anyway. That very night, she connected with Jeff.

“There’s something special about a girl that knocks on a door with French bread,” Jeff said.

The two married on Aug. 4, 1973. Shortly after, they moved into a house in West Roxbury, and Margaret continued teaching in Brookline. She went on to work at Wheaton College and then Ursuline Academy until she had the opportunity to teach intensive French courses at BC in 1985. As the course load of the classes increased, Margaret and Jeff began to team-teach the class.

“When people hear that I work with my husband, they ask me how I do it. I tell them what an adventure it is to work side by side as both spouses and colleagues,” said Margaret.

“We’ve learned so much more about each other, the good and the bad. When you teach literature, you form an intimate connection with the soul of the author. That’s so important to us. To share that together is amazing.”

Besides their deeply rooted history with BC, Margaret’s family has also been extremely involved with Massachusetts politics. Margaret’s father Bill Fermoyle was always a quiet presence politically in Cambridge and Somerville. Fermoyle helped form a coalition of people from Somerville to elect a young man who had lost his first election for city council, Thomas P. O’Neill, better known to the American public as Tip. O’Neill had wandered into the backroom of her father’s pharmacy and asked for backing in his next election—Fermoyle had just helped to elect the first Democratic mayor of Somerville, John “Pat” Lynch. Fermoyle responded, “You look like an honest man, so I’ll help you out.”

A month after Margaret’s father died in 1976, she and Jeff were at the WGBH Channel 2 Public Television Auction headquarters in Brighton. It was about 12:30 a.m. when three huge figures walked in, one of them being O’Neill. Margaret went up to him and said, “Mr. Speaker O’Neill, my father was a pharmacist in Somerville.” He looked at Margaret and said, “Are you Bill, Leo, or Ray’s daughter?”

“Now, Tip was a very big man and after I told him I was Bill’s daughter I got the bear hug of the century. If it weren’t for the Fermoyles, O’Neill Library may have had a very different name,” Margaret said.

Throughout their time at BC, Jeff and Margaret have been actively involved with the Burns Library. The library is a repository of Irish literary text, artwork, and culture. The two most recent Burns Library directors, Robert O’Neill, and Christian Dupont, credit their involvement with the Eire Society of Boston as a precursor to their involvements with Burns Library.

The Eire Society is a society founded for the celebration of Irish culture. As president of the Eire Society, Margaret collaborated with Robert O’Neill, and Christian Dupont to host many events. Their first project in 1987 involved the acquisition of the Book of Kells. Margaret was instrumental in raising funds for its acquisition and later responsible for donating it to the Burns Library.

Another important milestone in the mid-1980s was Jeff and Margaret’s work in establishing a French immersion program at BC. The idea was that professors who were fluent in French would teach a course in their discipline to students taking French. In order to generate funds, Jeff, along with the then-chair of the department Vera Lee and Katherine Hastings, special assistant to the academic vice principal, went to Washington D.C. Between the U.S. Department of Education and National Endowment for the Humanities, they were able to obtain a grant for $150,000 for the program.

“A language is a way of teaching about cultural commonality and cultural difference,” Jeff said. “We’ve always tried to see how the French experience is similar and different to our own while also integrating the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. To understand the culture you have to understand how the language fits together.”

Jeff and Margaret had a deep friendship with the historian Thomas O’Connor, a professor and faculty member at BC for more than six decades and considered to be the unofficial Dean of History. He encouraged them to start working on a book about Boston French connections, one task they hope to evolve after retiring, in addition to traveling to France and Ireland.

“People ask what your bucket list is and I don’t have one,” said Jeff. “I really enjoy our life the way it is. To have a little more time to go to the Burns, museums, lectures, traveling, and working on our research will be great.”

For the first time in over 50 years since teaching at BC, their summers will extend beyond Labor Day weekend, and without classrooms to return to, Jeff and Margaret will have nothing to do but fill an empty bucket list by traveling the world, baking fresh bread, and enjoying each other’s company. And Paris is supposed to be beautiful in September.

Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor

March 24, 2019

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