Cy Devery caught up with two old friends June 6 when he visited the Collings Foundation in Stow, Mass. – the AT-6F Texan and the T-33 Shooting Star.
Of course, Devery found plenty of human friends at the gathering as well, members of the Class of 1951 who were visiting Harvard for their 55th class reunion. But for him, the two antique airplanes were special. As an Air Force flight instructor in the early 1950s he had trained numerous pilots in these flying classrooms.
Dinner at the Collings Foundation was only one of several stirring and educational events the class enjoyed during their Harvard reunion. Founded by Harvard Business School graduate Robert F. Collings D.B.A. ’68, the nonprofit foundation stages “living history” events with its magnificent collection of restored aircraft and automobiles.
The aircraft collection, which includes many military planes, ranging from a World War I Fokker tri-plane to the jet-powered T-33 that Devery flew, provided an appropriate dinner setting for the class, nearly all of whom were impacted in some way by the Korean War.
The Korean conflict (1950-53) seemed to be a theme in the recollections of these graduates, a violent eruption in the ongoing Cold War that seethed just beyond the horizon of graduation.
Devery, for example, who concentrated in American History at Harvard, saw the war as a conflict between the ideas of the Enlightenment and an irrational, destructive force embodied by Communism.
“All my roommates went into some branch of the military. We all knew the war was coming,” he said.
Devery, who earned an MBA after his Air Force service and helped to pioneer the use of data processing in business, now lives in northern New Jersey, where he serves on the board of his condo association, is active in his church, and continues to uphold the Enlightenment values of liberal humanism, participatory democracy, and religious freedom that he first learned to appreciate at Harvard.
Eric Beckjord, a physics concentrator who went on to a career in nuclear engineering, was also troubled by a sense of the war’s inevitability and decided to sign up for a naval officer training program rather than wait to be drafted. He said that at least a half dozen other members of his class took the same route and trained with him at a base in Newport, R.I.
Beckjord spent three years at sea and described serving in the Navy as “a great experience … unforgettable.” But there were horrifying moments along with the excitement and camaraderie.
Early into his Navy service Beckjord’s ship was part of a huge fleet engaged in night maneuvers in the Mediterranean. The captain of a nearby destroyer miscalculated a turn, which resulted in his ship being cut in two by an oncoming aircraft carrier. The destroyer sank in about one minute, and only two men survived.
“When that happened, I said to myself, yeah, this isn’t a game out here,” Beckjord said.
Ironically, however, Beckjord’s most punishing combat experiences may have occurred while he was still at Harvard. As a member of the Harvard lacrosse team he recalls being knocked out by the carelessly swung stick of a Yale player and discovering upon regaining consciousness that his jaw was fractured. Beckjord gave up lacrosse after that and took up recreational sculling.
On another occasion, he and a roommate, George Plimpton ’48, the future journalist, writer, editor, and actor, threw rotten oranges and grapefruits at a rowdy gang beneath their Eliot House windows. The next day they found an elegantly worded note from one of the house tutors ordering them to clean up the mess.
Simmons Tate responded to the looming Korean conflict by joining ROTC and entering the army as a second lieutenant upon graduation. After the war ended, he earned a degree from Harvard Law School and practiced law for the next 50 years in his native South Carolina.
Although he was one of the few Southerners in the Class of ’51, Tate’s minority status did not engender in him a sense of isolation or a desire to re-fight the War Between the States.
“I had friends from all over the United States and from other countries,” he said. “That’s one of the things I enjoyed about Harvard. There was so much diversity here.”
After retirement, Tate began a Ph.D. program in history at the University of South Carolina and has just finished his course requirements. He now plans to begin work on his doctoral dissertation, “The Reception of English Common Law in South Carolina.”
“My eyes were opened by going back to graduate school,” he said. “You think you know a good bit until you’re introduced to people who really know something about a field. I’ve realized that I just can’t stop learning.”