Sifting Freshmen

The Faculty Sifting Freshmen. (Click anywhere on the photo to enlarge.)

As we again welcome freshmen this week for the 376th time, I thought you might enjoy two views of the process from a 1900 Harvard Lampoon in our collections. The first is entitled “Faculty Sifting Freshmen” showing the the College administation as a grizzled old gardener sifting potting soil.

The second is a little ditty entitled The Freshman’s Meditation. I may be wrong, but this ancient verse makes a neat little modern rap:

Click anywhere on the image to enlarge

Incoming freshmen take note: the chorus girls have entirely disappeared, and you shan’t have till next October “to make it up” should you decide to partake of the fizz.

Oh, those were the days…

I know you’ll all join me in welcoming the Class of 2016 to Cambridge, and the class of 2015 to Adams House.

Just in Time for Presidents’ Day

Hello All!

Several of you have written to me in the last few weeks wondering why things have been so quiet lately.  The fault, I’m afraid, is all mine. On the professional front, we’ve had a one of the strangest, snowless winters ever, with bright sunny days and temperatures routinely in the 40s, which means, for a fellow in the landscape design business like me, a real windfall, with our projects continuing right into January. Mainly however, the reason for the gap in transmissions has been the magnum opus you see below: Tales of A Suite: Rediscovering FDR at Harvard. Since August a few of our students and I have been laboring to put together a PBS quality documentary on the Suite, one that would set its historical background, explain its creation, and (hopefully) motivate people to become involved in our future. This last is particularly important as we move into the final stages of this project, endeavoring to launch our scholarship programs and fund a permanent $750,000 endowment to maintain the Suite and its programs. To that end, I thought we needed a clear, engaging mission statement, and here it is:


This full length film will now be shown to all guests visiting the Suite, and the HAA has expressed interest in releasing it worldwide to our alums. We’ll also be producing a short 5-7 minute version for corporate fundraising purposes. (Given the international nature of our planned programs, I’ve several candidates in mind for that: stay tuned. I’d also welcome any suggestions you may have in that regard as well.)

Finally, we’ve launched a very high profile invitation for this year’s FDR Memorial Lecture, and are waiting to hear back. I’ll be in touch as soon as we have an answer.

In the meantime, enjoy the film everyone, and Happy Presidents’ Day!

A New, New Fireside Chat with Dr. Cynthia Koch

Well, we’ve finally got a new New Fireside Chat launched, with two more taped, to be edited and released in December and January. For the next two episodes, we’re on the road, off to the historic Hudson Valley, ancestral home of Franklin Roosevelt, to speak with noted FDR scholars about the man and his times.

NB: These programs are now all filmed in high-definition, so if your Internet speed is sufficiently high, you can watch them as they were meant to be viewed. By default, the player sets to the lowest (fastest) speed. Simply hit the play button, and to your right various picture controls appear; simply adjust the number followed by “p” in the menu bar upwards to increase picture quality. (The other controls increase the picture size, which you might also wish to experiment with. Again, if your connection is sufficiently speedy, full screen, perfectly clear pictures are possible.) If you’re the patient type, you can watch these programs in high definition even with a slower connection: simply press pause early on, and let the gray buffer bar move sufficiently forward in front of the play head to accommodate your connection speed.)

If all that sounds to complicated, just press play, sit back, and enjoy!

Part I
In the first segment of this three-part program, Dr. Cynthia Koch, past director of the FDR Presidential Museum and Library at Hyde Park – and also our speaker at last year’s FDR Memorial Lecture –
discusses recent changes at the Presidential Museum, including the first ever major renovation of the exhibits, and what the visitor can expect to see in upcoming months. The conversation then shifts to Roosevelt’s upbringing in the Hudson Valley, and how spirit of the place shaped his personal and political thinking.

Part II
In part two of this three-part program, Dr. Cynthia Koch, past director of the FDR Presidential Museum and Library at Hyde Park, discusses how FDR used his Dutch heritage to for political ends; the discussion then turns to FDR as Educator in Chief, and how he used simple stories and historical examples to relate complex issues to the American people. Also revealed is FDR’s strained relationship with Hoover, and how Hoover redeemed his reputation under the Truman administration with his post WWII efforts in Europe.

Part III

The final portion of the discussion with Dr. Cynthia Koch, past director of the FDR Presidential Museum and Library at Hyde Park, concludes with the legacy of the FDR administration, and lessons for today’s political scene.

Thanks go out to Dr. Koch for hosting our filming set; Matthew Young ’12 our producer, and Joe Brancale ’13 our cameraman, and as always, to you our supporters, who make this all possible.

Some People Read History. Others Make It.
Come make a little history: support the FDR Suite Foundation!


Mt. Auburn Street, another hot summer day a hundred years ago

Just a quick note from 101º Cambridge to let you know of some of the improvements to the FDR Suite web site. The menus and content have been entirely re-arranged and updated for ease of use, and some spectacular new content added, in particular a new version of John Bethell’s excellent 1996 article Frank Roosevelt at Harvard (and what became of him later) which paints a remarkable portrait of FDR’s often complicated relationship with Harvard, and Harvard’s oft-strained relationship with him. If you haven’t read it, you most certainly should.

Thinking cool thoughts…

The New Fireside Chats, Vol. I, No. 1: John Gunther Dean

Everyone at Adams House and the FDR Suite Foundation is truly proud to announce the inaugural edition of The New Fireside Chats.

My guest for the premier episode is John Gunther Dean, Adams House ’47.

To summarize Mr Dean’s life in a paragraph is to conjure a passage from some James Bond novel. Born in the last days of the Weimar Republic to a wealthy Jewish family, Dean fled to the US from Germany after Kristalnacht. Growing up in Kansas City, he entered Harvard, became involved with a top secret intelligence operation during WWII, returned, took his diploma (plus several more, including a law degree from the Sorbonne) and then entered the US foreign service. His 30-year career including journeying into far Togo to establish the first US Mission there; brokering the peace in Laos (and preventing a coup); getting shot down in Vietnam; carrying out the flag at the fall of Phnom Penh (left, from the cover of Newsweek); surviving two assassination attempts as Ambassador to Lebanon; rescuing the Chum Museum ( a world heritage site) and speaking his mind about Israeli involvement in Pakistan, which ultimately cost him his career in the US Diplomatic Corps.

We caught up with Mr. Dean a few weeks ago, when he visited Harvard for his 65th reunion. In all honestly, I was prepared to meet an elderly man, retired and retiring, dotting on memories. There was very little of that. Mostly there was a remarkably vital, often feisty, always entertaining old soul who has known (and who has a distinct opinion of) most of the major players on the world stage since the 50s. Our interview, originally scheduled for a half-hour, stretched to an hour and a half. It’s been edited here for cohesion into three largely chronological 20-minute segments. The first covers Dean’s youth and arrival in the US, including his Harvard years and War II experience. The second picks up the first years of his diplomatic career and posting to Southeast Asia; the third discusses the later (and often far too eventful) parts of Mr. Dean’s career, as well as his reflections on the world political stage, and the value, even after 65 years, of his Harvard education.

For those interested, Mr. Dean’s full bio is available here. His book is available here.

A word or two on this first episode. The most remarkable thing about my last four years at the FDR Suite has been the fascinating host of new people, places and technologies I’ve been exposed to. The Chats project is no exception. Creating this series included moving from in front of the camera (never easy) to in front and in back of the camera (remarkably frustrating, and full of hidden shoals, not to mention a post-production staff of…. one. Where’s my latte! Get it yourself, fool!) This first episode bears witness to my newness at this game, and has shown the way for many future improvements, including some annoying sound issues here and there. Still, I think that considering this was our first time out, we pulled off a remarkably professional interview. The “we” here, by the way, is cameraman Joe Brancale, ’13; our own Adams Drama Tutor Aubry Threlkeld (whom we gratefully drafted as cameraman when our film students had all departed for summer); Annie Douglas, ’12, who pitched in to help with logistics; and our inimitable Tim Smith, ’08, recently Timothy John Smith, Esq., (congrats) who will be hanging out with us one more year (thank god for that!). Plus, our ever patient Masters, Judy and Sean Palfrey, who appeared in loco clientis during our first video trial runs, and who believed enough in this project to shepherd it through. Bravo to all.

Thus, may I present to you, from the (almost) restored FDR Suite, The New Fireside Chats, Episode 1: (Note: If you’re having trouble clearly viewing the video on the FDR site, you may also watch the Chats directly on the vimeo site, here. You will need a fast internet connection, and updated computer, in either case.)

The New Fireside Chats, Vol. 1, No. 1, Part 1: John Gunther Dean from FDR Suite Foundation, Inc on Vimeo.


he New Fireside Chats, Vol. 1, No. 1, Part 2: John Gunther Dean from FDR Suite Foundation, Inc on Vimeo.


The New Fireside Chats, Vol. 1, No. 1, Part 3: John Gunther Dean from FDR Suite Foundation, Inc on Vimeo.

Some people just read history. Others help make it.
Come make a little history. Support the FDR Suite Foundation!

FDR’s Secret Code

How’s this for an elliptical tale: I was sitting last evening in FDR Suite, attending a small get-together hosted by Claire Mays, ’81, who’s our first guest since the Suite was sufficiently completed to lose its air of camping. There were nine of us, and we were sitting around in an odd allotment of chairs – our comfy Morris chairs, of course, plus the new settee, but also a clustering of small wooden period chairs to accommodate the extra company, It struck me as I looked from smiling face to face that this is very much how the room must have appeared when Lathrop and Frank had a few friends over to sit around the fire sharing a couple of beers. (We on the other hand were sipping a rye-based period cocktail that Claire had discovered somewhere and kindly attempted to resurrect. If the general reaction of my fellow drinkers was any indication, this is one revival that probably won’t gain steam any time soon. No matter; it’s the thought that counts.) But to return to my story: there we were with the gaslights aglow, cozily ensconced against the wind and wet of a rare August Nor-easter, when one of the guests asked me if any of the items in the room actually belonged to FDR. The answer, I replied, was no – while every item in the Suite is either attested from documentation, or presumed from similar period rooms, the sad fact is that we don’t have anything from FDR himself. We come close – personal items from his classmates, publications from the period, etc, but nothing we know that FDR actually possessed. In fact, there’s remarkably little surviving from that period that can be absolutely known to have been in the Suite: letters home certainly, but not much else, except one very interesting book: FDR’s line-a-day diary.

This intriguing item, now at the FDR Presidential Museum in Hyde Park, was kept intermittently by FDR for years. It’s a handy little system, really – you just dotted down a note or two each day in a pocket-sized book, and soon you could look back and see what had been going on in your life that same date, one, two three, four years back. The interesting thing about FDR’s volume is that several of the pages were written in a private code, as you can see for the entry of 1903:


The text reads: “To Groton at 9 & get there just in time for Church. Lunch with Aunt K’s [Aunt Kassie, Mrs Price Collier] party.” Then comes the code, followed by: “Supper with all relatives at Whitney’s. Chapel in the evening” and then another coded sentence. The coded parts were not deciphered until the 1970s, when a researcher at the Archives, Nona Ferndon, first noticed them. It was eventually discovered that the code that FDR used substituted numbers for the first five vowels (1 for a; 2 for e; 3 for i, 4 for o, 5 for u, and distinctive portions of consonant letters for the the letter itself ( ¬ for T, – for H, etc.). The sentences can now be read as: “After lunch I have a never to be forgotten walk with my darling.” & “And I am going to New York next Sunday.”

So why all the mystery? La romance, toujours la romance: this was the day that FDR proposed to Eleanor at Groton,  and surely expecting maternal opposition, our president-resident decided for the moment to keep his thoughts secret. (Does this imply FDR feared Mama reading his diary? We know not, but Sara was not told until the week following, and made her opposition perfectly plain when informed.) The other, earlier coded entries also deal with a love interest; this time though, it was directed at Alice Sohier, who had turned down FDR the year previous, and who in sailing off to Europe, eventually sailed into the arms of another beau as his first lady, albeit of a far less famous kind.

OK Michael, I hear you say, all this cyclic narrative is most engaging, but what’s this got to do with the Suite? How are you so sure that this particular book was there? Well, look at the first entry for 1901. You may think that’s some kind of code as well, but what you’re really seeing is bleed-through from the next page. Flip the paper, and it says: “Sat. November 23 1901. HARVARD 22 – YALE 0. Wonderful game. Wonderful day for Harvard. Wonderful evening.”

Can’t you just picture our sophomore FDR at his desk in the Suite, penning that little note?

Well, I can assure you it’s certainly much easier now, with the renovations 3/4 completed, sitting around the hearth with a few new friends…

Yes, a wonderful day for Harvard indeed – and a wonderful evening.