Photos provided by Peter Thomson

Campus & Community

Personal glimpses into Harvard history

7 min read

Four alumni look back on University years gone by

Since its founding in 1636, Harvard has moved through many great historical dramas. History as a listing of events — as chronicle — has its uses, but often more insight is gained through personal accounts. Great events and small can often be better understood in the light of private recollections.

Recently, four men of Harvard took a series of backward glimpses that, taken together, help to illuminate the life and times of the University — and the country. David Mittell ’39 was a student during the Depression years; Henry Lee Jr. ’48 and Peter Thomson ’48 were students during and after World War II; John W. Sears ’52 was a student during the Korean War. Harvard was a major part of their lives then and remains so now.

Since their long-ago graduations, the four have worked in various fields — Mittell, in the wholesale lumber industry; Lee in the Foreign Service and in education. Thomson introduced and marketed advanced–design scientific and medical electronic devices, while Sears served a full career in politics, and continues as an estate and trust lawyer and trustee of various organizations. They all perform an abundance of volunteer services.

Besides their venerable Harvard connections, these men share something not uncommon in Crimson alumni/ae: a strong personal commitment to their alma mater combined with a dedication to public service. What was the Harvard experience that shaped their lives?

Meditating on his years at a between-the-wars Harvard, Mittell recalls, “As I look back 68 years, to our 1939 Class Day, I have a clear memory of supper on the terrace of Gore Hall, Winthrop House with roommates’ families and mine after all the festivities in the stadium (in those days Class Day was held in Harvard Stadium). One more day to go, then it would be all over. In my four years, did I take advantage of all that Harvard offered? Was I perhaps too overoriented towards my favorite sports: hockey, tennis, and squash racquets?”

But, of course, sports matter. “In the hockey I loved, one of the happiest days for me was in 1938, when the team was in New Haven. I was a member of the junior varsity when I was made the goalie on the varsity team. It is a great memory for me.”

But Mittell recalls not just athletic high points, saying that he is, “humbly proud of a serious paper done for historian Elliott Perkins, later master of Lowell House. I researched French economists (in French, which I could read well then thanks to Professor André Morize) back to the 1500s. From this effort, I became convinced that while prices can and do decline sharply from time to time (as they indeed had in the Great Depression of the 1930s), the longer-term line has to be up as it has been historically, lest the whole system fail. One hopes this conviction will continue to hold true in the future with the dizzying heights we live with today.”

During and after World War II, Harvard was transformed from a civilian academic institution into an important military training school for officers. This was not the first time in Harvard’s history that military concerns overtook its civilian academic purpose. Nearly 200 years before, in 1775, Harvard students were told to “reassemble” in Concord, Mass., to continue their studies. The students remained there until June 21, 1776, while approximately 1,000 Revolutionary soldiers were barracked among Massachusetts, Hollis, Holden, and the original Stoughton Halls.

And in 1915-16, prior to U.S. entry into World War I, courses were begun in military science and the Harvard Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was organized. France sent officers to train Harvard’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. And by the end of the “war to end all wars,” the Naval School had filled up Cambridge Common with temporary barracks.

But World War II brought landmark legislation that fundamentally changed the university experience — for the school and for its new students. This was the GI Bill. Many young men during World War II became Harvard students because of the GI Bill officer training programs. (Actor Jack Lemmon was one of these servicemen.)

The GI Bill allowed thousands of people to attend colleges or vocational schools across the country. Access to higher education was no longer largely confined to people with a specific financial or social standing. Gender and racial boundaries were breached. It also brought a new type of student to Harvard — men who were older who had lived through the Depression and the experience of war. Thomson, as an undergraduate and graduate student, and, later, Sears at the Law School, took advantage of the GI Bill.

Thomson looked back at Harvard during World War II: “As a scholarship student in my freshman year, Harvard offered numerous flexible work opportunities within the University to help such students financially. One of my jobs was as an early morning librarian for a course given to military officers to train them in military governance of soon-to-be occupied Japan. It was a classified job.

“Harvard academic officials were very generous to students leaving for military service and those veterans returning,” Thomson continued. “As a civilian freshman entering in July 1944, Harvard gave me full credit for my second unfinished term when I entered the Navy in January 1945. They also promised a space upon my return. In a similar fashion, when I returned as a veteran in September 1946, I was given a full-term college credit for a substantial Naval electronic course I completed in the Navy. These official acts of generosity helped me along my academic path.”

Lee noted that at that time, “Yale was described as having more collegiality where Harvard had more individuality. Harvard students usually got to know the people in their Houses the best. There would be House dramatics or athletics such as squash. The coming of the students with the GI Bill changed Harvard. Prior to the war, students could easily stay in the same circle of friends they knew all their lives.” Lee also pointed out that “the great masses coming after the war were unusually mature. Another significant difference is the substantially increased numbers of foreign students. There were always some of course, but not nearly as many foreigners as Harvard has today. All of these things improve the quality of education.”

Though living in momentous times, there are also smaller memories. For example, Lee says,“In those days, when you started at 17 or 18 years of age — Harvard just left you to find out information on your own. You weren’t told where your classes were. At first, this was hard, but I think in the long run it was a good thing. The Phillips Brooks House often offered wonderfully helpful support to freshmen.” Lee added that “getting tickets for football games — particularly the Yale, Army, and Navy games — was next to impossible, though the stadium seated 40,000 people.”

Sears remembered that “It was required that students wear a coat and tie to class — often a challenge to ingenious freshmen. One athlete in particular hadn’t gotten the tone of the rule when he showed up in a coat and tie — but not much else. As head proctor at Massachusetts Hall, I had to enforce the requirement.” A professor that Sears particularly remembers is John Finley, “He was a wonderful man who taught in the humanities.”

What drives Harvard graduates to become involved with their community? What strikes Lee is that “the most inherent attribute of the Harvard student is their consistent curiosity about the world around them. This becomes especially true after they retire. That is often when they take great interest in a variety of projects. They do not go into a decline.” Lee added that, ultimately, “Having a Harvard degree doesn’t mean the world owes you. You yourself have to do something! Yet, Harvard does provide a web — a netting, so to speak — for its students. It gives a cast of mind that lasts a lifetime.”

Special thanks to Edward Burdekin and Edward Gordon