Daughter pays tribute to former BU president John Silber’s legacy


By Matt Robinson, Contributing Writer

Rachel Silber Devlin, daughter of former Boston University president John Silber, has written a memoir about her famous father.Photo/Allan Dines
Rachel Silber Devlin, daughter of former Boston University president John Silber, has written a memoir about her famous father.
Photo/Allan Dines

REGION – Growing up in Texas, Rachel Silber Devlin knew about big things. However, what may have loomed largest in her family was the presence of her father, John Silber, who served as president of Boston University for 25 years and ran for governor of Massachusetts in 1990.

Silber, who died in 2012 in Brookline at age 86, earlier in his career was a professor and administrator at the University of Texas. There, his daughter said, he worked tirelessly to improve the standing of the institution and to fight for the rights of others. Even so, there were no people for whom he fought as hard as his family and few from whom he expected as much.


High expectations

“Pop had very high expectations.” Devlin observed. “He expected us to work hard in school and behave well.”

Having attended Wellesley College and the University of Texas, Devlin has also worked diligently to make her mark in education. Most recently, her efforts have resulted in the lovingly revealing memoir, ”Snapshots of My Father, John Silber.”

He may be best known to others in the area as the revolutionary and sometimes contentious leader of Boston University and for losing the governor’s race to Republican William Weld. But Devlin has a very different take on the cantankerous and controversial scholar, athlete, statesman, and leader that she called “Pop.”


Silber’s softer side

“He was very warm and affectionate,” she maintained, recalling how her father always asked for at least one of his seven children to accompany him on errands and how he always made sure to include them, even in the most star-studded and significant events.

“My parents got to meet everyone they ever wanted to meet,” Devlin recalled, citing such frequent house guests as literary lights Tom Wolfe and Elie Wiesel (both of whom would be honored and involved at BU), master chef Julia Child, theatrical icon Angela Lansbury, and basketball legend Arnold “Red” Auerbach, as well as meetings with many heads of state and even royalty.

“When Pop was a professor at the University of Texas,” she recalled, “once a year he had a party for his students and teaching assistants…with hundreds of people, and the way he talked and joked with all of them was wonderful!”


Strong sense of justice

John Silber was president of Boston University for 25 years and ran for governor of Massachusetts in 1990.Photo/Digital Commonwealth/Lou Jones
John Silber was president of Boston University for 25 years and ran for governor of Massachusetts in 1990.
Photo/Digital Commonwealth/Lou Jones

While Silber was challenged by a birth defect that caused him to go through life with a shortened arm, he was also born with what Devlin sees as a “bold, principled personality…[and] a very strong sense of what was right or fair.”

She remembers him telling her of how, when he was only 10, he stood to allow an African-American woman to take a seat on a bus in San Antonio, much to the chagrin of other riders. When the woman refused to sit down for fear of retribution, Silber stood up anyway, angry at what his daughter suggests he saw as “a betrayal of every decent principle.”

As a census taker, Silber got to see first-hand the vast socio-economic disparities that existed in society. As a strong believer in education, became involved in the organization that would eventually create the Head Start early education program.

“That was his idea of true activism,” Devlin attests, “actively doing good works, not just protesting and shouting down the opposition.”

This sense of justice followed Silber throughout his life—both professionally and personally—and shaped not only his campuses but his home as well.

“He had a bold and intense personality,” Devlin says, citing many other occasions when he father “forcefully challenged ideas he disagreed with.” And while some saw this as stubbornness, Devlin saw her father as a beacon of stability in an ever-more-unstable world.”

“My father was a man of principle,” Devlin insists, “and he stuck to his principles because he believed them.” Silber was so dedicated to his sense of right and wrong that, after suffering kidney failure, he turned down a transplant.

“He knew that there were many younger people on the waiting list,” Devlin explained, “and he refused to take a kidney away from them.”

Another gift she said he gave to young people was the opportunity to have a truly open forum on a college campus—something some feel is sorely lacking today.

“He believed that the campus was a safe space to hear ideas and exchange ideas,” she suggested, “not to be shielded from hearing them. He believed all voices should be heard and that shouted slogans are no substitute for genuine dialog.”


Bringing her father to life on the page

In writing this book (which was bolstered by many interviews and her own journals and memories), Devlin hopes that she can share stories and show sides of her father that many may not know. 

“I wrote this memoir about my father because very few people know the real John Silber,” the poet, screenwriter, novelist, and essayist says, suggesting that her father “couldn’t be captured in a soundbite.”

“It’s a great story,” she concluded,” and, in a way, I’m trying to bring my dad back to life on the page.”

Rachel Silber Devlin will be discussing and signing her book at the Needham Public Library on Tuesday, February 26 at 7:30 p.m.



New Boston University academic program focuses on senior living (fiftyplusadvocate.com)

Taunton financial advisor gives back to state university (fiftyplusadvocate.com)

Helping Worcester’s Assumption University’s students focus on success  (fiftyplusadvocate.com)