Assumption Dedicates Common Room to Beloved Former Professor Mike O’Shea
On the wall in Room 234 of Founders Hall on the Assumption College Campus, hangs a poster by Honore Daumier, depicting two men in the foreground admiring what they have created. In the background lies a crowd of people who look like exact photo copies of the men in the front. The caption beneath reads, “It is certainly flattering to have produced so many pupils.”
Room 234, newly named the Mike O’Shea Common Room, holds this poster, which hung in Professor O’Shea’s office for many years.
On Wednesday, January 20, members of the Assumption College community shared in the opening of the Mike O’Shea Common Room. O’Shea, who was a longtime English professor at Assumption College, passed away in January of 2007, but his legacy has not been forgotten. In fact, this naming of the O’Shea Common Room was made possible by the faculty and alumni of whom he impacted during his time at Assumption.
O’Shea had a passion for education and literature. He graduated from Saint John’s High School in 1954, and went on to study at Assumption College. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from the College, he pursued a Master of Arts in English from Boston College. Finally, he acquired a Ph.D. in Old English from Stonybrook University.
His tenure at the College lasted 43 years, where he taught courses ranging from Irish drama to Shakespearean literature. Shortly after he retired, he was named Assumption’s Professor Emeritus of English.
However, O’Shea has history not just with the room that was named after him, but the Kennedy Science Building as well. When he was a junior undergraduate in 1957-1958, he and his friend served lunch to then Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. O’Shea served Jackie, who told him without a hint of sarcasm that “this is one of the finest meals I’ve ever had.”
Faculty and students alike remember O’Shea’s love of literature and how he brought life to the classroom. Many believe that the common room reflects the character of O’Shea, and the kind of impact he had on Assumption College.
Louise Carroll-Keeley, Provost at Assumption College, noted how the room echoes O’Shea’s qualities. “The room is an embodiment of what he did best, which was to bring people together,” Carroll-Keeley said. “He always brought people together.”
Moreover, she spoke of how respected and valued O’Shea was in the Assumption community. When Carroll-Keeley came to the College in 1983, she recalls O’Shea as being “perhaps the most respected faculty member here.” She went on to say that this respect is “evident in the desire of his colleagues to create a tribute to him by designating a space.”
O’Shea infectiously spread his love of literature and poetry to everyone he was around. O’Shea’s wife, Julie, who works in the d’Alzon Library, recalls one time when O’Shea flew out to Minnesota to attend a conference that produced all of Shakespeare’s history plays in three days.
“I attended a marathon performance of all five of J.M. Synge’s plays put on one afternoon and evening in New York,” she added.
Professor Barry Knowlton, who graduated from the College in 1984, could also attest to O’Shea’s enthusiasm and passion. “His exuberant enthusiasm and critical acuity helped me develop as a reader and writer,” Knowlton said.
Knowlton recalls that when O’Shea retired in 2006, he sent an email to the English Department stating that he had taken all of his belongings and that whatever was left in his office was up for grabs. Knowlton now has several of O’Shea’s items in his office, including a poster advertising a production of three of Shakespeare’s Histories, a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, pictures of the York Minister and the death of Harold from the Bayeux Tapestry, a coffee mug and bud vase. “[They] remind me of him every day,” Knowlton explained.
At O’Shea’s retirement party, Knowlton introduced O’Shea to Eloise Knowlton, who is now the dean of Assumption College. “She has ever since considered it fitting and edifying to begin her work at Assumption by meeting and speaking with him,” Knowlton said about O’Shea.
Professor David Thoreen of the English Department also spoke about O’Shea at his retirement party. In his speech, Thoreen recalled the countless conversations he had with Assumption alums in which they would always ask “is Mike O’Shea still there?” Whether in line at Leo’s Pizza or at a bookstore in Providence, Thoreen noted, alums of Assumption College would remember Mike O’Shea and the imprint he left.
“While Mike may not be in touch with all his students, many, many of them were touched by him, influenced by him, and not just as a teacher, but, I believe, as a model Christian in a profane culture,” Thoreen said in his speech.
What was most special about O’Shea was not his enthusiasm or his love of literature, but his dedication to his students. The resounding feedback from faculty and staff showed that O’Shea strived to nurture his students intellectually more than anything else. Knowlton, who took O’Shea’s course “Shakespeare’s History Plays,” said it was possibly the most enjoyable course he took at Assumption.
O’Shea’s attention to students was reciprocated. Professor Becky DiBiasio, the chair of the English Department at Assumption, distinctly remembers O’Shea “wearing tweed jackets and carrying at least two L.L. Bean canvas bags overflowing with student papers and books.”
His students must have remembered his fashion choices as well, as they gave him a trophy which read: “To Mike O’Shea, the Greatest Fop of Them All.” Professor Thoreen remembers O’Shea calling it the most meaningful thing ever given to him by students.
While lighthearted, O’Shea was also genuine and sincere. O’Shea’s daughter, Molly, actually took his Irish literature class while he was still teaching at Assumption. One of the things that stuck out in her mind was that O’Shea would always end the class by saying “take care of each other.”
“As I got older I realized how honest and sincere those words were,” she said.
While he was respected by many of the faculty at the College, his first priority was his students.
“It was always all about the students,” Carroll-Keeley said.
The poster that hangs in Room 234 perhaps encapsulates this sentiment best. O’Shea hung it in his room to embrace its irony. For him, it was not about producing photo copies, but producing unique individuals with fresh minds.
In Room 234, to the left of the poster, is a framed copy of O’Shea’s note to the department when he retired and donated his things, including the poster. At the end of the letter, he states how he is always mindful of this message, a message that beautifully captures the legacy he left behind at Assumption College.
“It is not about us; it is about them, each one of them.”
Kimberly Dunbar, Director of Public Affairs, Assumption College