The Day the Sky Fell

When the Blizzard of ’78 caused a statewide lockdown, Harvard followed suit—grudgingly

When a blizzard dropped more than a foot of snow on Cambridge one night this past February, students hoped the College would follow the lead of other Boston-area universities and temporarily close its doors.

Despite their pleas, classes continued as planned at Harvard, which prides itself on a tradition of staying open, no matter what weather might hit.

“Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world,” said former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III during a similar snow storm in 1977 when the University continued its operations as usual.

But even this Harvard tradition had to bend on Feb. 6, 1978, when the infamous Blizzard of ’78 struck Massachusetts, shutting down the state for nearly a week. The morning after the storm began, The Crimson reported wind gusts of up to 92 miles per hour and snow accumulation of eight to 16 inches. Thousands of residents were evacuated from the coastal towns of Hull, Revere and Winthrop, which faced serious flooding.

Despite the major hit to the state’s transportation infrastructure, The Crimson reported, “Harvard will be open, of course.”

But The Crimson had spoken too soon. When then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis declared a state of emergency and snowfall reached over a foot in Harvard Yard, administrators were forced to do what they had not done since the great unnamed hurricane of September 1938—they shut down the University.

Dukakis ordered all schools and non-essential businesses throughout the state to close for two days and banned all traffic except emergency and snow removal vehicles. He called the state’s 8,500 National Guard service members to duty to remove snow from the roads and help stranded motorists.

Derek C. Bok, then-University president, decided to halt all of Harvard’s operations except “essential services” of the University police, Food Services and Health Services, in compliance with the governor’s emergency order.

Some students were surprised that Harvard would close, even when the state emergency compelled a shutdown.

“I had previously thought Harvard was invulnerable even to nuclear attack,” said Richard L. Powell ’79.

But most were grateful for the day off.

“Thank God for acts of God,” proclaimed Nicholas H. Vanderbilt ’80. “But I’m not looking forward to digging my car out.”

Shutting Down

Trucks carrying heating oil could not reach Harvard through the snowy roads. As a result, hot water was shut off in all the Houses in order to conserve fuel on Tuesday, the day after the storm began.

University Health Services stayed open with a minimum of its staff and only accepted emergency cases.

“I only got to work because the University police came and picked me and the dean of the Faculty up,” says then-Dean of the College John B. Fox Jr. ’59.