Skip to comments.Unintimidable: Boston University's 'Silver Unicorn'
Posted on 09/29/2012 5:18:05 AM PDT by Kaslin
"I'VE NEVER been intimidated by anyone," John Silber once told me. "I don't know the meaning of the word."
I never doubted it.
Twice I worked for the former Boston University president, who died Thursday at 86. As a BU law student in the early 1980s I landed a part-time job as a researcher in Silber's office on Bay State Road. Several years later, with both law school and my exceedingly brief legal career behind me, I returned for a full-time job with the exalted title of Assistant to the President.
However lofty the title, reality was something else. Having John Silber as a boss, I quickly learned, was an ongoing adventure in being put in one's place. He could be -- as Massachusetts voters discovered when he ran for governor in 1990 -- abrasive, blunt, volatile, and aggressive. When he was in a temper -- and there were times when it seemed to me that he was in a temper five days a week -- I dreaded getting the summons: "Dr. Silber would like to see you now." Once, when I emerged from his inner office after a tongue-lashing so forceful it had probably been heard as far away as Nickerson Field, one of his secretaries tried to comfort me.
"He only treats you that way because he regards you so highly," she said. "It's his way of tempering you, like fine steel." I smiled wanly at her attempt to be kind, and went off to lick my wounds.
I left the job after 16 months, but other Silber aides stayed with him for decades. He inspired remarkable loyalty in people of extraordinary ability. I remember once asking another Silber assistant -- a brilliant older man, a gifted writer with an encyclopedic range of knowledge -- why he tolerated Silber's rages. "Because," he told me, "John Silber is a great man."
Clearly he accomplished some great things, above all the transformation of Boston University into a renowned institution of higher education. His hiring in 1971 drew national attention. A striking story in Life magazine, titled "Quest for a Silver Unicorn," chronicled the efforts of BU's search committee to recruit a president "who could lead Boston University to levels of strength and excellence the school had never known before." At the time it wasn't clear whether such an individual even existed; four decades later it is hard to imagine who else could have succeeded so spectacularly.
Though I no longer remember the context of our conversation about intimidation, it was only in retrospect that I came to understand that because Silber wasn't daunted by other people's belligerent manner, he respected those who weren't daunted by his. As a young 20-something, I wasn't experienced enough to realize that the best way to deal with his outbursts would have been to stand my ground and bark right back at him.
On the other hand, I did figure out that one great upside of Silber's personality was that I could ask him anything without fear of giving offense. He had a notable physical defect -- his right arm ended in a stump just below the elbow, with a kind of vestigial thumb -- that he made no effort to disguise, and I used to wonder how he could do things that clearly required two hands. He always wore shoes with laces -- never slip-ons -- and I asked him one day how he was able to tie them.
"What do you mean, how?" he growled. "Like this!" Then he bent over, and with his stump and his left hand, swiftly untied and retied one of his wingtips.
Silber despised political correctness -- an attitude that extended even to his own physical deformity. I recall with delight the time his harried executive secretary walked into the room where he was meeting with several staff members. Laying some papers on his desk, she griped that she had been "busier than a one-armed paperhanger."
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she began apologizing profusely. "Oh, Dr. Silber," she gasped, "I'm so sorry! I can't believe I said that!"
"Why?" he deadpanned. "I'm not a paperhanger."
That was Silber: tough, temperamental, controversial, unintimidable -- and droll. He wasn't the easiest person I ever worked for, but he was certainly the most vivid. The "silver unicorn" had a long and memorable run. I'm glad I was along for part of it.
I have trouble respecting someone with such a violent temper. I never found that to be a redeeming trait in anyone.
May his memory be eternal!!!!
John Silber is a reminder that not so long ago, there were a great number of socially/culturally conservative Democrats—not just Barney Franks and Ted Kennedys. Many Freepers do not believe (or remember) that, but it’s true!
Most of the Roman Catholic Democrats were socially conservative, but now we just have a bunch of pseudo-Catholic ‘Rats like Nancy Pelosi and Tom Menino.
He sounds like a total narcissist
I think Zel Miller was the last of that breed.
bump for later
Blue unicorns are nicer....unless you tick us off. Then, we tap dance on your head.
I remember when he first started at BU the faculty hated him-he was interviewed on 60 minutes.
While I can’t remember the exact quote, it went something like this-
“When i first got here the students were complaining about the state of the dormitories, so I took a tour of the dormitories.”
“The first impression I got is that none of our students were ever taught to clean their rooms”
Jeff Jacoby wrote this - he’s NOT a man easily fooled...