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John McGavern, Buddhist, led university libraries

October 6, 2008

From The Boston Globe

Perhaps nothing reflected John H. McGavern’s Buddhist beliefs more than his reaction to being shot during a deadly bus hijacking in New York City on July 4, 1977, that made national headlines.

The gunman, Luis Robinson, a 26-year-old sailor, was on a three-day leave from the USS Detroit when he boarded the bus in Manhattan and forced it to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where he held the passengers hostage for 10 hours, wounding several of them during the ordeal, The New York Times reported.

Mr. McGavern was the first passenger to be shot. Two others on the bus were killed.

When asked how he felt about the episode four days later, Mr. McGavern told the Times, “If I wanted revenge on him, what would be the difference between me and him?”

Mr. McGavern, an Arlington native who helped centralize the University of Hartford’s library system during more than three decades as director, died Sept. 10 from congestive heart failure at Hanover Terrace Healthcare nursing home in Hanover, N.H. He was 82.

A “voracious reader” from an early age, Mr. McGavern channeled his love of literature, philosophy, and culture into a career as a librarian, said his brother, David, of Bedford.

The eldest of three children, he graduated from Arlington High School in 1945 and received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1949 from Harvard University. Mr. McGavern then worked at Harvard’s Lamont Library and at Harvard Business School, his brother said.

He received a master’s degree in library science in 1959 from Simmons College and was hired by the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College library.

After the library director left, Mr. McGavern was promoted to head librarian and worked at developing the university’s four libraries, which were then scattered throughout Hartford.

Over the next 34 years, the librarian became “an instrumental part of the beginning of the university libraries,” said Diana Simonds, publications director at the University of Hartford, who worked with Mr. McGavern for more than 30 years.

As the university worked to move the various colleges – Ward College of Technology, Hillyer College, the Hartt School, and Hartford Art School – onto one campus in the early 1960s, Mr. McGavern created a unified catalogue for all of the libraries’ materials, said David Isgur, director of media relations for the university.

Mr. McGavern oversaw the merger of the libraries into one library at the Harry Jack Gray Center in 1988, according to a memorial published on the university’s website.

Remembered for his dry, quick humor, as well as his wisdom and kindness, Mr. McGavern became “quite a beloved figure on campus in the early years,” Simonds said. “The faculty and the staff at the library were very devoted to him.”

His peaceful vision of the world and an innate understanding of human nature also distinguished the librarian. At Harvard, Mr. McGavern began searching for a spiritual belief that reflected his view of life. “He found that Buddhism best reflected his own thinking,” said his brother, and the philosophy became “important in how he viewed the world and reacted to it.”

His philosophy was best reflected in how he handled being shot, his brother said.

Robinson, the gunman, who was black and Hispanic, demanded $6 million and an airplane to escape to Cuba, saying he had been the object of racial mistreatment in the United States. The bus he hijacked was headed to Springfield and Vermont.

Before he surrendered, he shot and wounded Mr. McGavern in the neck, the Times reported.

After Mr. McGavern was shot, he gave the gunman a cigarette and lit it for him, his brother said.

Friends and family said the most important person in Mr. McGavern’s life was his partner of more than 25 years, Douglas Stafford, who died of cancer in the early 1980s.

“He never forgot Douglas. He just loved that man intensely; they were fine companions,” said his brother. “It was a very unique relationship, one to be envied.”

Being in a relationship with Stafford, an African-American professor of math and philosophy whom McGavern met at Harvard, was not always easy, friends and family said.

“He talked about the courage that he needed to withstand the homophobia and racism that they faced together, and he regretted that Doug didn’t live to see the changes to a more accepting attitude in the next 25 years,” said Connie O’Leary of Meriden, Conn., Mr. McGavern’s friend for more than 30 years.

Mr. McGavern retired from the University of Hartford in 1993, moving to Boston and later to Hanover, N.H.

“He retired when the library was finally computerized. He decided that was a good time,” Simonds said.

Nearing the end of his life, the “endlessly curious” librarian, who loved Virginia Woolf and Henry James, could no longer read because of macular degeneration, instead having friends read aloud when they visited him, said O’Leary.

“At the end, the only thing he wanted read to him were Buddhist texts,” she said.

In addition to his brother, he leaves two nieces and two nephews.

A private, informal service is planned for family and friends.

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