News, Top Story, Administration

James Woods, Longest-Serving BC Dean, Passes at 90

The decades-long tenure of Rev. James A. Woods, S.J., namesake of the Woods College of Advancing Studies, was marked by a forceful commitment to transforming the lives of the countless students who stepped into his office.

Woods retired after 44 years at Boston College to the Campion Center in Weston, Mass., where he passed away on Nov. 20. 

As dean of the Woods College, Woods’ legacy is distinguished by the immense care and attention he paid to the individuals he knew and advised, according to Drew Havens, who arrived at Woods’ office in McGuinn Hall in 2007. 

Havens, BC ’11, said he faced health and academic problems at the University of Colorado, so his mother, a BC graduate herself, directed him to Woods College. In the dean’s office, Woods reviewed the course catalog with Havens and found classes he thought were a fit for him. 

“At the time I didn’t have the perspective of really a strong mentor figure in academics,” Havens said. “I really wanted to make him proud.”

Havens made the dean’s list at Woods and transferred into the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, where he completed the rest of his degree in two years, he said. He graduated with honors from both BC and later, Georgetown University Law Center. Now, Havens serves as a public defender in Los Angeles.

“I am grateful for the opportunity the Woods School gave me to commit to a life of service,” he said. “[Woods] was also very caring and loving and had a love for service and giving back to others. That’s the Jesuit way.”

The priest’s dedication to his community had an immense impact on individuals within the BC community, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., said in a release. Woods began his 44-year tenure as dean in 1968, making him the longest-serving dean in BC’s history.  

“Fr. Woods was such a force for good at Boston College from the time he arrived on campus, always positive, caring, and helpful to those around him,” Leahy wrote. “Many benefited from his encouragement, especially to pursue education and earn degrees at BC. He enjoyed life, and I will always remember him as a faithful Jesuit and priest.”

Woods, who was 90 years old at the time of his passing, displayed the utmost commitment to his students, according to Sarah Piepgrass, assistant director of academic services in Woods College.

He was the sole academic adviser at the college, she said, and stayed in his office until 10 p.m. each night so Woods College students—often working a day job or studying on a non-traditional schedule—could meet with him.

“With the students, he was a combination of, I would say, cheerleader and taskmaster, depending on what they needed,” Piepgrass said. 

This enthusiasm gave students the impetus to persevere in their education, Piepgrass said.

“He could look you in the eye and say ‘You’re going to do this,’” she said. “‘You’re going to be fine. And it’s not going to be easy, but we’ll help you and you’re going to do it.’”

Woods retired from his position as dean in 2012—a farewell that was marked by a four-hour “Celebration of Gratitude” in Conte Forum in April of that year. 

“Thousands of Woods College graduates cite him as the person who was most responsible for their professional success because he took the time to listen to, support, and encourage them on their respective journeys,” Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn wrote in an email to The Heights. “He was a wonderful dean and Jesuit.”

Dunn said that over the years he had the privilege to witness Woods’ interactions with prospective Woods College students.

“He was a great listener who was always supportive, and whose counsel was so greatly valued because it was based solely on a sincere desire to help the individual to succeed,” Dunn wrote. 

Woods’ contributions extended beyond the classrooms and offices of Woods College. Prior to his appointment as dean, Woods served as university registrar, centralizing and computerizing registration and financial aid before such methods were popular. 

He later oversaw the creation of a 30-course undergraduate hybrid program in 1971. Twenty-five years later, the “Evening College,” as it was formerly called, added a graduate school and rebranded as the “College of Advancing Studies.” In May of 2002, a donation from Katharine B. and Robert M. Devlin honored Woods as the college’s official namesake. 

Woods’ decades-long career was also distinguished by numerous accolades. In 1996, Boston University awarded him with the Ida M. Johnston Alumni Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in implementing higher education programs. Woods also received the Leadership Award in 2005 from the Association of Continuing Higher Education for his stewardship of diverse learning communities.

“His legacy is providing … a top-notch Boston College education to anyone who seeks it out at an affordable cost,” Havens said.

Paul Marzagalli met Woods between his junior and senior years in high school—in the summer of 1992—while he was attending a high school experience program at BC.

Woods, dean of the Evening College at the time, was one of the first people to welcome him to campus. From the outset, Marzagalli observed that Woods was an open and caring leader. 

“He was your prototypical Jesuit,” Marzagalli said. “He was smart [and] approachable, mentoring as almost a default state. He helped set the tone of the people around him.”

It was Marzagalli’s participation in this summer program, the BC Experience, that inspired him to put BC at the top of his college list. In fact, he even attributes his experience with Woods as a reason that he’s a double BC alum, graduating with an undergraduate degree in 1997 and a masters in 2005. 

Marzagalli said he also gained an appreciation for the dean through Woods’ relationship with his father, DeWayn Marzagalli, who began taking classes at the College of Advancing studies during Marzagalli’s sophomore year at BC. DeWayn Marzagalli, WCAS ’02, was a federal law enforcement officer whose relationship with Woods began in academic advising meetings about his degree, Marzagalli said.

The relationship grew beyond academics, according to Marzagalli, and the two became close friends. Marzagalli said his father graduated with a degree in philosophy in 2002, the same year that the college added “Woods” to its name. 

“He represented the idea that if you went to a Jesuit school, they would do their best to get your best out of you,” Marzagalli said.

Woods College Dean Karen Muncaster attested to Woods’ ability to take students under his wing and support them in both their personal and academic lives. 

“Sometimes he would teach them, sometimes he would yell at them,” Muncaster said. “If they needed money, he would take it out of his own pocket.”

Woods would give out money that he raised or collected—by hunting for soda cans and turning them in for cash—to students for any reason, whether it be for textbooks or a babysitter, she said.

“It’s his vision that propels us now,” Muncaster said. “His vision was anybody who’s capable should be able to get a BC degree, no matter what their circumstances.”

Muncaster said that, beyond the countless lives he affected, Woods’ legacy also continues in new programs within the college, such as a service learning initiative Woods College plans to pilot in the spring. 

“These are people who are smart, but life has just tripped them up,” Muncaster said. “And his thing was, ‘No, these are people who it’s our obligation as men and women for others to ensure that these students have an equal shot at an outrageously wonderful, rigorous Jesuit education.’”

Piepgrass said Woods never let appearances hold anyone back—he would help anyone find a way to do the work, all while maintaining a clear grasp and positive view of reality. Even as he neared retirement, this commitment never waivered, she said.

“In many ways, it’s easy to say, ‘be a man for others,’” she said. “But if anybody called him up and needed him … there was no hesitation.”

Marzagalli and Havens echoed Piepgrass’ sentiment, testifying to his widespread and extensive impact.  

“They say never meet your heroes,” Marzagalli said. “He is the case where you meet him and your experience lives up to these expectations.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Lee Pellegrini

December 5, 2021