(Original publish date: May 20, 1994)
“I had no idea that I could ever be alive to have two successors,” President Emeritus Nathan Marsh Pusey quipped last weekend while standing in the same room with Neil L. Rudenstine and Derek Bok.
On Saturday, the Memorial Church provided the setting for this rare convergence of three presidents as scores of Pusey’s friends, former colleagues, and admirers helped rededicate the newly refurbished Nathan Marsh and Anne Woodward Pusey Room.
Located above the main sanctuary entrance, the space has been a much-used common room since its original dedication in March 1972.
During his presidency (1953-71), Pusey and his wife (also present) regularly attended the Church and firmly supported its mission. Pusey also backed Divinity School initiatives such as the establishment of a professorship in Catholic studies and the creation of the pioneering Center for the Study of World Religions.
“I was so gratified when they named this room for us on that occasion [in 1972],” said the seemingly ageless former president. “And I was completely stunned to hear that it had been done over again – and then to see my words here around the room.” Rendered in gold-leafed capitals on the cornice is an excerpt from his 1960 essay “What Makes a College Good?”
Pusey found a second surprise hanging on the wall: John Lavalle’s mid-’50s oil portrait of him, as recently copied by Will Cady Perkins. The original hangs in the Harvard Club of New York. Aptly enough, the composition features the spire of the Memorial Church, as does a second Pusey portrait on the March 1, 1954, cover of Time magazine that sits framed on a small table nearby.
Reflecting on his experiences at the Church, Pusey called it “a great privilege to hear Christianity explained by [Memorial Church preachers Charles Taylor, George Buttrick, and Charles Price], who were not narrow-minded or bigots …, but could see the universality of religion itself and in Christianity” and present this perspective in a way that inspired all who heard them. The Memorial Church is “a part of Harvard that is important and must be cherished and kept alive,” he said.
Pusey declared that he has always considered religion to have “not only an acceptable but a basic and central point in higher education.” Both religion and education should “effect a change in one’s whole value system,” he said, “and that means seeing something bigger than the material world.
“In a university, you can’t try to get people to practice religion. That doesn’t make sense. But there has to be a place to study religion, and there should never be any embarrassment about that.” At this historical juncture, Pusey said, Christianity “has to find that God is involved in other religions as well: in Buddhism and Hinduism and all the rest of them.
“People who care about religion or the inner life of people have got to find a new discourse and method of talking. That’s why I was so excited about getting that Center [for the Study of World Religions, which has fostered interactions among educated, practicing believers of many faiths since 1958].”
The room now named for the Puseys served the quieter purposes of the Isham Music Library from 1939 until 1970, when the library moved into new quarters at the Music Building.
In its original form, the Pusey Room retained a wall of built-in oak book cabinets, which have been removed for reuse in the basement.
The considerably larger usable floor area will now accommodate social gatherings as well as small lectures, meetings, receptions, and chamber-music recitals. A Knabe baby-grand piano, previously in the basement, now sits in the room. The instrument itself should be refurbished by next spring, according to the Rev. Peter Gomes, minister in the Memorial Church.
Aside from the copy-portrait of Pusey, the room contains five other paintings, including a 1985 oil of Gomes by Melvin Robbins. The room’s deeply saturated red walls were keyed to a peasant jacket in a German landscape by Georg Christian Schutz (1718-1791), Gomes said. Benediction, Daniel Chester French’s bronze sculpture (1923), also stands in one corner. The additional art works were lent by the Fogg Museum.
There are also new carpets and lighting, and the families of Professor Elliott Perkins ’23 and his wife Mary Frances Baker Willbraham Perkins provided many of the furnishings in the couple’s memory. The general refurbishment project was supported by Pusey’s friends and classmates to commemorate the 65th Reunion of the Class of 1928.
In addition to Bok and Rudenstine, the honorary rededication committee consisted of Charles Adams ’32, Phebe Bentinck-Smith, Francis Burr ’35, Thomas Cabot ’19, Hugh Calkins ’45, C. Douglas Dillon ’31, former FAS Dean Franklin Ford, former Business School Dean Lawrence Fouraker, Albert Gordon ’23, Mason Hammond ’25, Carl H. Pforzheimer Jr. ’28, Charles Price ’41, and David Rockefeller Sr. ’36.