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BU community honors Silber’s legacy at memorial

Boston University chair of the Board of Trustees Robert Knox said he was always amazed by former BU president John Silber’s dedication and integrity.

“He was a fearless man with a commanding presence,” Knox, who studied at BU during Silber’s tenure as president, said. “He was unafraid to express the truth as he saw it.”

Hundreds of BU faculty and Silber’s family and friends gathered Thursday in Metcalf Hall to honor his legacy and commitment to BU. Silber died Sept. 27 of kidney failure after a prolonged illness. He was 86.

Silber came to BU in 1971 and served as president until 1996. He served as chancellor from 1997 to 2003 and acting president for 16 months following the resignation of President Jon Westling in July 2002.

More than a dozen former colleagues, friends and students of Silber spoke at his memorial. The BU Symphony Orchestra and BU Symphonic Chorus played, while 2012 BU Opera Institute Phyllis Curtin fellow Celeste Fraser sang an opera piece as musical tribute.

Many speakers described Silber as a courageous man who stuck to his beliefs, despite their occasional unpopularity.

“Almost everyone we know at some stage in their lives bends with prevailing winds, but not John Silber,” said Trustee Emerita and Overseer Karen Elliott House.

House said that during Silber’s time as College of Arts and Sciences dean at The University of Texas at Austin, he was unafraid to clash with anti-Vietnam War protestors.

“Silber was the one man on campus who repeatedly faced protestors, not because he supported the war, but because he was against the lack of civility and know-nothingness that pervaded the protest movement,” she said.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prepared a video speech for Silber’s memorial.

“Silber was a man of integrity, character and courage,” he said in the video. “He also was my friend.”

Kissinger said he met Silber when the two worked on a 1983 committee analyzing the future of Central America organized by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Silber managed to produce a report that won unanimous support in the group, despite political divisions.

“I never wrote an article or appeared on TV where I didn’t hear from John with a word of encouragement or word of criticism,” Kissinger said.  “Both are important … He did not preach his objectives, he lived them.”

BU President Robert Brown, who offered condolences and support to Silber’s family, said the university appreciates Silber’s work at BU. Brown said Silber was responsible for transforming BU from a regional commuter school to a renowned research university with top-quality faculty.

“He envisioned a campus more coherent, integrated and green than he found in 1971,” he said.

Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities Elie Wiesel, whom Silber brought to BU in 1976, said in a video statement that he was honored to work with Silber.

“Just as there is a love at first sight, it was a friendship at first sight,” Wiesel said. “I don’t know what he’s doing up there in heaven … I think he’s trying to give advice to God.”

Wiesel said Silber was a brilliant man and a dedicated student of Kantian philosophy.

“Whenever he spoke, people listened attentively — he was not provocative, but enlightening,” he said. “All he had was a sense of not only justice, but a promise that a student is entitled to have the best teachers he or she can get.”

Former Executive Vice President Joseph Mercurio, who worked under Silber, said the late president was an incredible man who was constantly teaching those around him.

“He was a consummate teacher, using every possible occasion as a teachable moment,” he said. “He did love helping others, and I’m sure his kindness will echo in this room.”

Silber’s daughter, Martha Hathaway, said while Silber was a different man at home than at BU, he maintained his best qualities with both.

“Growing up, as he did at BU, he embodied teachable moments,” she said. “It wasn’t the Silber we shared at BU. It was our father.”

Silber’s legacy of commitment to academia will live on at BU, Brown said.

“John’s most enduring legacy was a commitment to the quality of faculty, academic programs and students,” he said. “With his grit implanted in BU’s DNA, we will continue to work hard.”

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