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Rev. William C. McInnes, 86, longtime Boston College teacher, dean

Rev. William C. McInnes was also president of Fairfield University during tumultuous change in the 1960s and led the University of San Francisco in the 1970s. He returned to BC in 1998. Rev. William C. McInnes was also president of Fairfield University during tumultuous change in the 1960s and led the University of San Francisco in the 1970s. He returned to BC in 1998.
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2009

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The Rev. William C. McInnes, a Jesuit priest and longtime Boston College dean, who was president of Fairfield University during tumultuous change in the 1960s and led the University of San Francisco in the 1970s, returned to BC in 1998.

It was supposed to be his retirement. But the Rev. McInnes, 86, became “the heart and soul’’ of the alumni association as its chaplain. He was a familiar face at all events and celebrated many Masses while suffering from leukemia for years, leaders said.

The gregarious Dorchester-born priest taught business classes at BC’s Carroll School of Management, counseled students, and rarely warmed a rocking chair as he wrestled to clarify what he called “spirituality in the Third Age’’ of life. Friends knew not to try to reach him at home until after 9 p.m. because he was usually out at a meeting or event.

“He was always on the run. He just never wanted to slow down,’’ said John Feudo, vice president for alumni relations.

The Rev. McInnes died Tuesday at his home at the Campion Center in Weston from cancer and complications from a recent fall.

Feudo called him “brilliant and engaging.’’

“He was someone who was a real straight shooter and didn’t hesitate to tell you how he felt about any topic,’’ Feudo said.

Friends called him an outgoing man who mentored countless students and had a knack for forging connections.

“He could speak to the pope or the pauper on the street corner, and make the pauper think he was the pope. Father was amazing,’’ said longtime friend Gracie Connell, a Catholic middle school teacher in Lake Tahoe, who met the Rev. McInnes during his days leading USF.

As his health failed in the past month, the Rev. McInnes sought out old friends to visit him for lunch, including Connell and Dr. Brad Moy of San Francisco, whom he first met when Moy was a freshman at USF.

The Rev. McInnes, who led that university from 1972 to 1977, became a mentor to Moy after discovering he was living in a storage closet at the university recreation center. Moy was working as a manager of the center but could not afford a room, he said.

“He has helped make me who I am,’’ said Moy, who credited the priest with encouraging him to study medicine and become an internist. “I learned a lot from him.’’

The Rev. McInnes spent his early childhood growing up in a three-decker in Boston with his sister, Helen, and brother, Paul. His parents, William and Mary (Byrne), later bought a house in Quincy.

“At the time, it was like moving to the moon,’’ the Rev. McInnes told an interviewer for the New England Jesuit Oral History Program last year.

He went to public schools and entered Boston College in 1940 to study business at his mother’s suggestion. He saw a listing on a BC bulletin board seeking men to join the Army and become weather forecasters, and he enlisted in 1942.

The Army trained him as a meteorologist at MIT and sent him around the world to forecast weather. He was stationed in India in the Assam Valley for six months and later in Shanghai.

In 1946, he was discharged from the Army and enrolled in St. John’s Seminary, planning to become a diocesan priest.

One of his BC professors suggested he become a Jesuit instead so he would “have weekends off,’’ he quipped in the 2008 interview.

He later became one of the first Jesuit educators to specialize in business administration. He earned a master’s degree in business from BC and earned a doctorate in business from New York University. He was ordained in 1957.

He began teaching at BC in 1959 and was made assistant dean of the business school in 1964.

That same year, the Jesuits appointed him to lead Fairfield University in Connecticut.

The Rev. McInnes recalled he was summoned to a secret meeting with a superior and had no idea he was going to be offered a job that would change his life. His first words in the meeting were, “Now, what have I done?,’’ he said.

At Fairfield, the Rev. McInnes shepherded the university through major change, including the admission of women in 1970. Enrollment during his presidency increased from 1,290 to 2,500, according to the school.

He dealt with a 10-day student strike and a student takeover of two administration buildings.

The college also was embroiled in a landmark court battle in which plaintiffs challenged federal funding for universities run by religious groups. The Supreme Court found in 1971 for Fairfield, a ruling that resulted in major new construction on campus.

The Rev. McInnes oversaw creation of the School of Nursing, the Graduate School of Corporate and Political Communication, and the Center for Lifetime Learning at Fairfield.

In the interview, the Rev. McInnes said he faced criticism because he refused to punish students for demonstrating.

“We never had any physical damages on the Fairfield campus, and we did not have any fatalities or serious injuries. But we lost several outside friends, because they did not appreciate the way we were handling the crisis,’’ he said.

He was USF president from 1972 until 1977, when he was named to head the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. He held that post for 12 years.

During those years, he met Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

In 1990, the Rev. McInnes became parochial vicar of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Storrs, Conn. He was also campus minister to the University of Connecticut.

His niece Christina Watson of Cohasset said he reveled in the chance to return to BC in 1998. He was an adjunct professor in the school of management and also was faculty adviser to the Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit honor society.

“He was awesome. He always had a great sense of humor and he was very humble. He never tooted his own horn,’’ Watson said.

Susan Gallagher, a past president of the BC Alumni Association, said the Rev. McInnes touched many lives with his subtle way of sharing his wisdom.

“He was teaching me things without me even knowing it,’’ she said.

In addition to Watson, the Rev. McInnes leaves several other nieces and nephews.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill. Burial will be at Campion Center Cemetery in Weston.