One of the most delightful aspects of my “job” with the FDR Suite Foundation has been the interaction I’ve had with our students over the last four years. They are an incredible group of young adults at that wonderful point in life where nothing seems impossible and all roads remain open – their energy and enthusiasm are palpable, and provide a tonic for older, wearier bones. Our students are also incredibly, incredibly diverse, in a way that many of you who still remember the tie-and-jacket-clad all male Harvard of old might find almost unfathomable. Even I, who lived in Adams during the fast and free – and now almost legendary – 1980s am impressed. Looking out over the dining hall, the sea of faces is almost kaleidoscopic: Asian, African, Caucasian, Indo-European, European, Native American, of every kind and creed imaginable. There is no one of anything. And the interesting point is, our students take this state of affairs entirely for granted, as if Harvard had always been that way. Of course, if asked, they’ll certainly acknowledge that history must have been far different. But I don’t think they comprehend how different, and sometimes that bothers me; for to measure the worth of such intangibles, don’t you need some personal understanding of the opposite? Can you truly appreciate heat without knowing cold? Sweet without sour? Light without dark? Life without death?
No, I don’t believe so. Not fully. Nor do I think you are fully able to appreciate the expansive man Franklin Delano Roosevelt became as President unless you understand the much more narrow ‘Frank’ Roosevelt at Harvard, along with his highly restricted and closed off college world.
So… long story short, when I give tours of the Suite, I’m always looking for poignant illustrations of how rarefied life in Westmorly Court was, and how different the Harvard College of 1904 is from today’s Harvard University – The Gold Coast with its maid service, private clubs, breakfast in bed, bootblacks and doormen; the $50 Harvard tuition; the $500 Westmorly rent (the equivalent of some 35K); the gaslit rooms with flickering hearths; the neighing four-in-hand at each street corner; the 10 days it took to reach Europe by steamer, or the 6 days to the West Coast by steam engine (if you were lucky)…. Remarkable changes all, but still only charming facts and figures to the young.
And then one day a few weeks back, I came across this, or more precisely, I came across this once again, for I personally hung the full size version of this picture in the Suite last fall. (Click on the image to expand the photo.)
Now, I’ve looked at this picture a hundred times at least, in a fruitless search to find FDR and Lathrop in the sea of faces. (FDR, almost assuredly, is there somewhere. The man never missed a photo-op in his life.) But what struck me as I passed the other day was how uniform those faces were. Surely, there must be someone of color somewhere? Seemingly not… But then, wait, up there on the very last row, far to the left…
Sure enough. One proud black face, and next to him… a missing place. And then I noticed something else I had never seen before. A man standing – the only man standing – in the top row, behind the seated figures.
While we can’t be sure, does this seem a likely coincidence to you, that the only face of color in a sea of white is the only one with no one sitting next to him, and that the sole standing man has somehow missed the one remaining seat a few spots down to his right?
I must admit that this discovery – perceived though it may be – has removed some of the pleasure this picture once held for me. Rather than playfully searching for Frank and Lapes as before, my gaze now inevitably wanders to that sole black face, sitting all alone, and I think to myself: what a courageous and remarkable person you must have been to attend a College where people chose not to sit next to you merely because of the color of your skin!
Still, as with most things, there’s a silver lining, I suppose. That perfect example I sought of how much life at Harvard has changed? It’s now just a mouse click away.