In a telephone call just before the start of spring break, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 tapped the two professors of pediatric medicine to fill the shoes of outgoing Adams House Co-Masters Robert J. Kiely '60 and Jana M. Kiely, who are stepping down after 24 years as heads of the House.
"I was thrilled and felt [like I was] on top of the world," said Judith Palfrey '67, who learned of the appointment in her office at Children's Hospital in Boston. Palfrey is Brazelton professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and lived in North House--now Pforzheimer--as an undergraduate.
Her husband, Sean Palfrey '67, is clinical professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine and lived in Eliot House during his days at the College.
According to Judith Palfrey, she and her husband--who met in a physics class as College undergraduates--had long hoped for the chance to serve as masters and were among the pool of candidates considered last year for masters openings in Lowell and Leverett Houses.
She said their two sons, John G. Palfrey '94 and Quentin A. Palfrey '96, originally encouraged them to throw their hats into the ring. But their discussions with other currently serving masters, Palfrey said, convinced them that this would be an ideal job.
"We've been told that this will be the best time of our lives," she said.
The Palfreys will join Cabot House Masters, Academic Dean at the School of Public Health James H. Ware and Co-Master and Instructor in Psychology Janice Ware, as the only House masters unaffiliated with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
The pair acknowledges that working "across the river" has meant that few undergraduates are familiar with the Palfrey name. Yet the Palfrey family has played an influential role throughout Harvard's history, beginning in 1815 when John G. Palfrey, one of Sean Palfrey's forefathers, graduated from the College.
Part of the second graduating class from the Divinity School, he would go on to become dean of the faculty for the Divinity School in 1830. His bust is among those displayed in Annenberg Hall.
In addition, the house he constructed for his family--now in the shadow of Cyclotron Laboratory near Oxford Street--is owned by Harvard and still carries the name Palfrey House.
But according to Sean Palfrey--who is also a great-grandson of former U.S. president and member of the Class of 1880 Theodore Roosevelt--the "eclectic" group of interests that he and his wife will bring to the House is anything but stuffy.
A long-time sports lover and athlete, Sean Palfrey has coached soccer, baseball, squash and tennis for various area teams. Moreover, he said he did not expect city living to cramp his love of playing bocci, Italian lawn bowling.
"The Adams House lawn [in front of the masters' residence] looks like an excellent place for bocci," he quipped.
In addition, Sean Palfrey is a serious amateur photographer--even displaying some of his work on a personal Web site, at www.palfrey.com.
For her part, Judith Palfrey is a self-described "avid shellfisher" with a passion for drama.
Although she has frequently served as master carpenter for Harvard dramatic productions, she said her last performing role was as the hind end of a horse. Adams House's pool theater, she said, would be an ideal place to hone her acting skills.
"I intend absolutely to have a part [in House productions]," she said.
According to Cabot House Co-Master Janice Ware, one of Judith Palfrey's colleagues at Children's Hospital, the pair will make excellent House administrators. Given Adams House's reputation for supporting the arts, she said the match is especially strong.
"I think that they'll make marvelous masters," Ware said. "They bring a great combination to the House...and it's such a great venue for them."
And on the academic side, both Palfreys have received numerous awards for their work in pediatrics and their involvement in community affairs. Sean Palfrey said he has served as a mentor to the Human Faces program, a division of Project H.E.A.L.T.H., a campus group that organizes student participation in community health programs.
He said that as masters the two will work to enhance such activities in the House.
"People can expect us to be looking for ways to use the House for these community activities," he said.
But the Palfreys said they expect to spend their first year in the House getting accustomed to the particulars of Adams House and doing a lot of listening to students and tutors.
Still, Judith Palfrey said she is honored to follow in the footsteps of Kiely, who throughout his 24-year tenure has been an especially well-liked master who worked to strengthen the Adams House community during randomization.
"The notion of unity and diversity in the House is something we'd like to continue," she said.
Kiely said that although he was not involved in the selection process, he feels the Palfreys' were a good choice. After nearly 25 years in the House, he said he has a great deal of advice for the new masters.
"I'll try to be helpful, but also to stay out of the way," Kiely said.