Many in the crowd hugged and greeted one another in hushed tones before the start of the academic year’s first Morning Prayers at Appleton Chapel. All grew still as President Claudine Gay prepared to speak at the short service, a College tradition.
“I want to tell you about my very brief career in reality television,” she began, eliciting ripples of laughter. Then she proceeded to tell a tale from her childhood involving her mother, who died just before Commencement.
“This is my first ‘first day of school’ without my mother. I share her with you to celebrate her, and so that you may come to know me better,” said Gay.
It was 1975 in Savannah, Georgia, and Gay was 5 years old. Her mom had landed her a coveted spot on “Romper Room,” a franchised children’s educational program that ran for 41 years on local stations across the country.
Gay’s role as a member of the cast was to play with the other children, sing songs, and learn lessons along with the TV audience and the show’s well-mannered bumblebee, Mr. Do-Bee.
“Things got off to a good start,” she said. “Then the puppet show began.”
Enthralled by the puppets, she got up from her seat on stage several times to head backstage to figure out how the puppets worked and what was behind the curtain. “Even unscripted local television has its limits,” she said, explaining what happened next: She was — with good humor — “ejected” from the show.
Gay said she had all but forgotten about her short on-camera career until she found her “Romper Room” diploma while sorting through her late mother’s belongings. She began to think about all of the effort her mom, Claudette Gay — an immigrant, young mother, and then-college student — went through to give her every opportunity she could. And the pride she must have felt to see her daughter’s achievements.
Gay shared that, as the diploma affirms, she remains a “Good Do-Bee,” and that she hopes to be a great colleague and leader for all in the Harvard community. And all have a part to play in the community’s shared mission to make a real and positive impact on the world, she added.
“Harvard is not just for her students,” Gay said. “Our reach, our embrace, our obligation is wider than that — and can and should be wider still.”
The Morning Prayers ceremony dates to the founding of the College in 1636. The 15-minute service takes place each weekday during the school year before the start of classes and is led by various local clergy and members of the Harvard community.
Tuesday’s service was led by Matthew I. Potts, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School, and included a reading of Psalter Number 24, prayers, and the hymn “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.” The Choral Fellows of the Harvard University Choir sang “A Seraphic Strain,” composed by Carson Cooman ’04, based on a poem by Phillis Wheatley.