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The ‘Unforgettable’ Helen Drinan

Remembering a BC Law colleague like no other.


Helen Drinan, whose sweet smile and helpful ways endeared her to thousands in the Boston College Law School community, passed away Sept. 8 at the age of 102. Tellingly, her loyalty and contributions kept her active on campus for 30 years, until her retirement at the age of 92.

Drinan, like her brother-in-law Robert F. Drinan, SJ, who was dean of the Law School from 1956 until he was elected to Congress in 1970, left an indelible mark on BC Law. Professor Mark Brodin described her as “our own Eleanor Roosevelt.” And Professor James Repetti heeded her political advice. “She was always upbeat and positive and quite willing to share her perspective on all political current events,” he said. “I was always sure to consult with Helen before I cast my vote in any federal or state election.”

A native of Iowa and graduate of that state’s university, Helen Drinan worked as a teacher until joining the Red Cross during WWII. She met her future husband, Frank, during that period, married him in 1947, began a family, and spent the rest of her life in Newton Highlands. Though not always in a classroom, Drinan remained committed to education as a volunteer—she was a Girl Scout leader and introduced Junior Great Books to many young readers—and community leader throughout her life.

After her husband’s passing, it seemed natural that Drinan should find her way to an administrative staff position at BC Law. Her intelligence and motherly instincts took care of a lot of issues.

“Helen’s presence among us was unforgettable not only because she was with us for three decades and more, or that she and her camera were ubiquitous at all school occasions, or that she gave needy students housing almost every year, or that she was our sage when it came to advice about law school dynamics or how to vote Democratic in local elections,” Professor Zygmunt Plater recalled. “But also for the warm, thoughtful, caring personal advice and encouragements she gave to us individually and in little groups, on good days and bad, over all those years. We thank her family for loaning Helen to us so generously. She will always be a wise, beloved part of the history of our school.”

Founders Professor of Law Mary Bilder said her strongest memory from her early days on the faculty was of Drinan sitting at the front desk in the old Barry wing reading the New York Times and cutting out articles for clipping files. “She was sort of a one person Google alert!” Bilder said.

Brodin captured other qualities that had an impact on BC Law and those around her. “Helen’s decades-long presence at the Law School helped define the community here in countless ways. She was the face of our student-friendly environment, with that wonderful smile and infinite patience. She represented better than anyone the Jesuit mission of service to our fellow citizens, and she lived it in her countless political, charitable, and civic activities,” he said.

“She was also my dear friend,” Brodin continued. “When she came to my office or I went to hers, I loved to hear her stories of attending to the wounded on the hospital trains during WWII, working closely with state and national leaders on matters of social justice and civil rights, and growing up in Iowa during the trying times of Depression and war. She was the grandest of ladies, our own Eleanor Roosevelt. Her departure from the school, and her passing now, have left a hole in the center of our world.”

Professor Francine Sherman, who saw Drinan on campus and on walks by her Newton Highlands home, was touched by her caring. “Her warmth and sense of humor were a daily joy,” Sherman said. “She was always asking about our kids and families, knowing the details of our work, and taking such pride in our students’ successes. She brought a feeling of family and intimacy to the workplace.”

Read her full obituary here.

Photo: Helen Drinan at her retirement from BC Law in 2011.