Nathan M. Pusey ’28, an Iowa farm boy who grew up to become president of America’s oldest and greatest university, died of heart disease at a New York City hospital yesterday. He was 94.
Pusey suceeded University President James B. Conant ’14 in 1953 and served until his retirement in 1971.
“He was a man of wisdom, faith, and quiet strength, and his purposeful passion for education left a strong imprint on the university he loved,” University President Lawrence H. Summers said yesterday.
Pusey’s lasting love for Harvard, where he first entered as a scholarship student from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1924, survived one of the most trying moments in the University’s history, the student takeover of University Hall in 1969.
In an interview with The Crimson last year, Pusey said that despite what he called the “time of troubles,” he looked back positively on his Harvard tenure.
“That was the best time to be a president almost in modern history,” he said. “I had a constructive and happy presidency there of quite a few years.”
Pusey came to Harvard from Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1924 and graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts in English and Comparative Literature in 1928. A resident of Stoughton Hall, Pusey played on the freshman basketball team and made headlines as the first and only Harvard-Yale “brain test” champion during his senior year.
He continued his passionate study of the classics, receiving a master of arts degree in Ancient History in 1932 and Ph.D. in Greek History in 1937.
After a teaching career at Scripps College and Wesleyan University, Pusey became president of Lawrence College in 1944.
There, he instituted a mandatory religion course and held monthly convocations with religious themes. He also created a “Freshman Studies” program—a mandatory course for first-year students at the college—designed to expose student to a diverse range of educational experiences, from Darwin to Dostoevsky.
His attention to undergraduates and impressive fundraising prowess made Pusey an ideal candidate in the eyes of Harvard’s presidential search committee, and he returned to Harvard in 1953 to assume the top post.
Despite his extensive Harvard history, shortly after he began his tenure, the New York Times Magazine described Pusey as a youthful and unassuming outsider.
“At 46 he is without a line of any kind on his face,” they wrote. “His modified crew cut exaggerates the impression of youthfulness though his hair is running to steel grey.”
Years later, observers noted Pusey still retained his ageless demeanor.
“His physical appearance did not change between when he came and when he left,”said Secretary of the Faculty John B. Fox Jr. ’59, who first encountered Harvard’s 24th President while attending high school with Pusey’s eldest son.
Behind his ageless face was a determined leader.
“Pusey was a real university president,” says Harvard historian John T. Bethell. “He had a certain bearing I don’t think you see much anymore.”
Harvard’s first president born west of the Mississippi River—and the first modern Harvard president with previous experience at the helm of an institution of higher learning—Pusey was a devout Episcopalian with strong moral principles.
Pusey was more likely to work behind the scenes to accomplish his goals than to draw attention to himself, but friends and colleagues describe him as noble and uncompromising.
“He’s one of my heroes,” says Fred L. Glimp ’50, who served as Dean of the College and Dean of Admissions under Pusey. “He was not a showboat in any sense.”
Glimp remembers Pusey as a perpetual classicist. Even in the midst of administrative meetings to review potential “flashpoint” issues during the University Hall takeover, Pusey invoked the wisdom of ancient Greek philosophers.
“He reviewed the issues, and then he said, ‘you know what Thucidides would have said about that,’” Glimp said.
And when he spoke with The Crimson last November, Pusey peppered his conversation with classical analogies, describing the Harvard Corporation as the equivalent of the Roman Senate.
Glimp praised Pusey’s dedication to the job, even in the face of harsh criticism after his decision to involve police in the forced removal of students occupying University Hall. “He was never bitter,” he said. “He took a series of tongue lashings that would drive most men crazy, and it never showed up in conversation.”
“He was low-key, but he was very blunt in what he would say,” Glimp said.
Indeed, Pusey was well-known for his resolute outspokenness, both in defending academic freedom and standing by his decision during the University Hall takeover.
Fox praised Pusey’s willingness to “unflinchingly take a leadership role” and his “constancy of character” amidst the turmoil of the times in the final years of his Harvard tenure.
“For someone who went through so much hurly burly,” Fox explains, “his own sense of values was steady as a rock.”
After passing the presidential reins to Bok in 1971, Pusey moved to New York City, working for a variety of non-profit organizations.
He served as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 1971 to 1975.
After he left the Mellon Foundation, Pusey turned his attention to religious and mental health initiatives.
He remained active in the Episcopal church, serving as a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and the president of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia.
He also worked extensively with Fountain House, a New York chairty that provides counseling, employment and housing for the mentally ill.
But even after he left Harvard, Pusey’s influence lingered.
Bok described Pusey as an “unfailingly kind and supportive” predecessor, citing his willingness to offer advice to his successor.
“Behind the official, he was an enormously kind and decent and unpretentious human being,” he said. “Whether one agreed with him or not, he was a man of great integrity.”
Pusey was in good health when he last returned to Harvard for Commencement exercises in June, where all four living presidents were present.
His health began to decline in recent weeks, University spokesperson Rebecca Rollins said.
Memorial services will be held sometime during the next few days at St. James Church in New York, she said.
Pusey is survived by his wife, Anne Woodward Pusey, two sons, Nathan M. Pusey Jr. and James R. Pusey, and a daughter, Rosemary Hopkins.
“He was a superior human being,” said Pusey’s wife yesterday. “He was totally devoted to Harvard in every way he could have been.”