Toggle Menu

Adams Lore

A few weeks ago the Gold Coaster sat down with Bob and Maria Kiely ’99 to discuss their new online project

GC: Maria, tell us about Adams Lore. What motivated this project?
People who aren’t connected to Adams House are always asking what it was like to live there and people who are connected to Adams House love to reminisce about their time there. I think the creation of Adamslore satisfies both the curiosity people have about Adams and the desire people have to tell their stories. Adams House has a rich history made up of the experiences of all the people who have passed through over the years and our new blog, adamslore is a place for all these stories, memories and anecdotes to be shared.

GC: Bob, Adams House these walls most be full of wonderful memories. Are there any that stand out?

Since I mentioned a number of individual students and tutors in my earlier articles on Adams, (See: A House Remembered Part I and Part II), I’ll try to stick with events that engaged all or many in the House. We inherited some traditions and initiated others. Well established by the time we arrived were Friday Teas, The Adams Raft Race, Formal SCR Dinner in the Library before the Winter Feast entertainment, Winnie the Pooh Readings, Sophomore Dinner, Spring Waltz, Senior Dinner and, of course, optional nude bathing during certain hours in the swimming pool. We always looked forward to the Friday Teas when students could come to relax at the end of the week, sip Earl Grey tea, taste cucumber sandwiches (some piled high on their plates!), homemade brownies and cookies and about once a month hear fellow Adamsians play chamber music in the music room. They were civilized events and I often had a chance to meet and talk with students I hadn’t already met.

Bob and Maria Kiely heading for the Spring Waltz, 1998

The Raft Race was quite another matter! Raucous, loud, a little crazy. In the days before the drinking age changed, they were co-sponsored by some beer company that provided kegs and bleachers for the crowds that came down to the river to watch hand-made crafts from all the Houses and MIT. Adams usually built totally unseaworthy rafts that either sank or came in last. I handed out prizes, including one for the raft that came in last! Then we all came back to Randolph Court for a barbecue and home-made music, much more professional than the rafts. After a few years, the Dean put a stop to the whole thing because townies started throwing rotten vegetable and rocks at the rafts, someone fell into the Charles and had to be rescued and given a shot to prevent infection from the polluted river. So it was!

The SCR dinner in the library before the Winter Feast followed a pattern that had been set for years: drinks in the Upper Common Room, students singing the Boar’s Head Carol while holding a platter with a plaster boar’s head, the Master toasting his colleagues at an elegantly served dinner, and Jana and I lighting the plum pudding after it had been drenched with brandy by the Director of the Dining Hall. Afterwards in the Dining Hall Winnie the Pooh cast a kind of childhood magic over the Winter Feast that everyone loved. Masters had traditionally played Christopher Robin, but I found his lines too few and serous, so after a year or two, I assigned myself the role of Eeyore which gave me greater dramatic scope. Professor David Maybury-Lewis always was the narrator with a perfect Oxford accent; and Bob Tonis, former Chief of Harvard Police was a great Pooh who liked nothing better than to sing off-key. The mix of formal and informal, traditional and spontaneous was something I liked about Adams House and the flexibility of its residents.

Among the traditions initiated by the Kielys, usually proposed by students, were Drag Night, Cinco de Mayo, Soul Night, and Chinese New Year—all in the Dining Hall at dinner time. Drag Night was, of course, the most entertaining mainly because absolutely everybody got into the spirit, many dressed accordingly even if they were not part of the entertainment on stage. One of my favorites was performed by two roommates, one of whom threw encyclopedias at his roommate while he was dancing a flamenco. The tosser was a poor aim so no harm was done. The first Chinese New Year got off with a bang, literally. As an amazing and large papermache dragon carried by students writhed through the Dining Hall, the dragon-bearers set off firecrackers that created so much smoke that the fire alarms went off and the Dining Hall had to be evacuated until the Fire Dept came. After that the fireworks were lighted outside. Speaking of alarms, I remember too a totally unplanned event one very cold night when new alarms that had been placed in Randolph Court rooms were so sensitive that a tiny bit of dust would set them off. They were so loud that it was unbearable to remain in the building. When my wife and I looked out our bedroom window, we saw the courtyard filled with students in various forms of undress shivering under sheets and blankets. We rushed downstairs, opened the doors of Apthorp House, invited them in and made pots of hot chocolate. I wish I had taken a picture of the study. It was funny yet moving. It looked like the deck of a sinking ship with passengers huddled together to keep one another warm.

Of course, Adams House was NOT a sinking ship. Anything but! That’s what I loved about it.


GC: Maria, I think you’re unique among Adams House alums in that you were actually born here. What was that like?

The thing about being born at Adams House is that I never knew anything different so it all seemed very normal to me. It is only when I tell people about things that happened at Adams House or when I think back on certain experiences that I realize how very special and unusual it was.

When I was in sixth grade, some Adams House students put on a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Randolph Court. I would sit in the window seat of the second floor living room in Apthorp House with the window open and watch them rehearse every day for several weeks. I was totally fascinated by the whole process. I loved hearing them recite the lines, work out the blocking, bring in set pieces and costumes (or lack there of, I believe Puck was nude for most of the play.) I also just loved watching all the students interact. They were an endless supply of cool big brothers and sisters to spy on. By opening night I knew every line of the play. I had learned an entire Shakespeare play backwards and forwards without even realizing it. The next year in my seventh grade English class my teacher assigned everyone a passage from Shakespeare to memorize and recite. I was given Puck’s final speech. I was thrilled and told her I already knew it. She sort of rolled her eyes and said something like, “Of course the English professor’s daughter has already been taught Shakespeare.” If only she had known that my teachers were a group of young, enthusiastic, budding actors who were totally unaware of my presence.

When I was twelve I was playing pinball in the tunnels by the laundry room and a male student came running down the tunnel wearing a blue sequined mini dress and black patent leather stilettos. He smiled as he passed me at a full sprint and I remember thinking, “Wow, he looks so cool. I hope someday I can run that fast in heels like that.” Growing up in such an open, welcoming and diverse community it never occurred to me as a child that anyone seeing that guy would have had another type of reaction.

Living in Apthorp House meant that I was used to people coming in and out all the time. Students lived upstairs on the third floor, tutors used the basement as their art studio and practiced for hours a day on the piano in the music room. I always felt very safe and comfortable in Apthorp House but I was a kid with a big imagination and, even though I tried to convince myself otherwise, I was still afraid that there might be monsters in the basement. Doug Fitch could not have known about my fears when, a week before Halloween when I was six years old, he burst through the basement door into the breakfast room wearing a ghoulish mask that he had just made. I screamed at the top of my lungs and fled for the safety of my bedroom. He must have felt bad for scaring me because he came to apologize but I was too freaked out to see him. Later that week he gave me a peace offering of little pink and purple felt toys he had made that could be snapped together to form different animals. I loved the toys but I was wary of the basement door for a long time after that.

Adams House was my neighborhood, Apthorp House was my home and many Adamsians (students, tutors and staff alike) were my extended family. The year after I graduated and my parents left Adams House, I was having a meeting at the Barker Center and I suddenly felt exhausted and feverish. At the end of my meeting all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed. Without thinking, I hurried home and found myself at the front door of Apthorp House. Realizing I no longer lived there I burst into to tears and went straight to the House Secretaries offices in C-Enrty. The comforting figure of Otto Coontz rose to greet me with a hug. I told him what had happened and he helped me to lie down on a couch and said, “You might not live in Apthrop House any more but Adams will always be your home.” That is still and always will be true.

GC: Bob, do you think the House changes when the Masters change, or does it simply evolve on its own? Obviously randomization is now a factor, yet the Houses still maintain elements of personality. At least, Adams does.

Surely the main character of the House in the days before randomization was due to the students who chose to live there. During our 26 years, Adams was either the number #1 choice or in the top 3 among freshmen. The House was always racially, geographically very diverse. We had some talented soccer and hockey players, rowers, squash champs, but rarely anyone from the football or baseball teams. Concentration in the humanities, arts, music, literature was high even among pre-meds and pre-law students. Actors, actresses, singers, Crimson, Advocate and Lampoon staff were always well represented.

Although now professor emeritus, Bob still teaches a freshman seminar, Beauty and Christianity. Here are Bob and his freshment in the Kiely Conservatory fall, 2014

How much the Master influenced that is hard to say, but I have a few concrete examples of the kinds of influence that could be exersized. I chose the Senior Tutors— preferring Assistant Professors rather than administrators— because I wanted the House to be an extension of students’ education at all levels. I also chose the tutors in consultation with students. My preference was always former Adamsians. I knew them and knew they would be great. When I first arrived there were no resident tutors in art, music, or drama. I changed that right away. I always looked for a good mix of gender, background, and ethnicity, but put academic excellence first. I encouraged all our tutors to think of their positions as primarily academic, disciplinary secondary and only when necessary. I’m proud that so many of our former tutors in all fields—including medicine and law— are now at the top of their professions.

There were unexpected opportunities for leadership. In the ’70’s before there was a BGLSA or any open discussion of gender preferences, a small group of students sat down with me at lunch, described their difficulties at Harvard, and asked whether they could form a student association that could meet at Adams. Since that required the Dean’s approval, they needed a faculty adviser and asked if I would serve. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I was deeply honored that they trusted me. The Dean approved; they held meetings and dances at Adams and set up tables in other Houses inviting people to join. Some Masters welcomed them. Some didn’t. A few said that “This was an Adams House problem because there were no gay students in their Houses.” Ha!

At another time, a group of Adams students were leading a student movement to try to persuade the administration to withdraw investments in apartheid South Africa. These were brilliant, idealistic, crafty kids. I didn’t want them to get into trouble—as had been the case in the late ’60’s. So I gave advice about how to make themselves heard without breaking College rules. They listened carefully and now and then asked me to be their emissary to the Administration with petitions, etc. I gladly did that and hope it helped. They eventually built a “shanty town” in the Yard one night and escaped before the Harvard Police could catch them. I suspected something like this was in their planning, but kept quiet about it.

There are other specific examples, but it probably all comes down to the fact that the definition of House Master that I liked best was “professor in residence.” I have always believed that conversation is a powerful part of education. I really liked talking to students and hearing what they were thinking, reading, studying. I liked hearing about their backgrounds, where they came from and where they wanted to go. I also think getting to know people is the way prejudice of all kinds is overcome. I accepted the fact that some students centered their lives outside the House—in the lab or Crimson or just with their own ways of working and playing. That seemed fine to me. Adams was never a Gung Ho place. Rah! Rah! Adams. Our color was black. We liked it that way. When students came to Senior Common Room lunches, they sat with some of the brightest junior and senior professors at Harvard. I wanted people to get to know one another. One of my favorite jobs was introducing people who I thought would have a lot to share. Projects, plays, concerts, team taught courses came from this, but mainly true friendships. I rarely brought in lecturers, because that’s what students and professors heard or gave all the time. We often had music and poetry, but mainly people—even shy ones from very different fields and backgrounds— learned the pleasure of talking to one another in a civilized respectful way and the importance of LISTENING. I’d like to think that was a way that a Master helped set the tone and character of a place filled with talent.

Editors note: Adamslore is always looking for new memories. You can contribute yours by emailing: adamslore.entries@gmail