The Gatekeeper's Life

A look at the man who will make or break the Harvard dreams of 27,000 high school seniors.

When Harvard’s future dean of admissions and financial aid was applying to the College in 1962, the first two teachers he asked for letters of recommendation refused.

“They wouldn’t write for Harvard because they thought it was a bunch of Communists, a bunch of atheists, a bunch of rich snobs, and if you went there you’d flunk out and you’d lose your soul,” said William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, who has served as dean for the last 22 years. “At that point it made Harvard seem intriguing and made me more determined to apply.”

Fitzsimmons, who is a graduate of Archbishop Williams, a Catholic high school, grew up in the blue-collar Boston suburb of Weymouth, where much of the community still saw Harvard as a place that was hostile to anyone who wasn’t wealthy.

“It was seen as alien, really not for us,” he said.

But when he visited, Fitzsimmons said he was struck by the “quality and the diversity of the student body.” He found that the stereotypes about rich undergraduates were largely untrue.

Today, a note from Fitzsimmons will reach 27,000 high school seniors notifying them of Harvard’s admissions decision. The letter he received over 45 years ago set the former hockey goalie on a journey from Weymouth to Tibet and placed him on top of the country’s admissions world in between.

27,000 LIFE STORIES

Fitzsimmons spends a substantial amount of time sitting behind his desk stacked high with neat piles of application materials, but his job often takes him to places around the world for conferences and recruiting trips.

His freshman and sophomore year roommate Michael B. Dolan ’67 said that when they first met, Fitzsimmons had not traveled much at all.

“The Statue of Liberty was as far south and as far west as he had been at that time,” Dolan said. “Bill’s family was very much a stay-at-home family. He really hadn’t had that chance yet. But he certainly made up for it.”

These days, Fitzsimmons’ job takes him to places as far away as China—he bought many of the paintings that hang on his office walls in Beijing—and Tibet.

Director of Financial Aid Sally C. Donahue, who accompanied Fitzsimmons to Tibet, said that she was amazed by Fitzsimmons’ ability to relate to people.

“Wherever you go, people love him,” she said.

Donahue said that Fitzsimmons is open to new experiences, even if they included trying yak’s tongue and yak’s milk.

“Fitz would be over there just eating the food and talking to people,” she said. “Without the ability to speak the same language as someone else, he was still a remarkable communicator.”

The past couple of weeks were hectic for Fitzsimmons and the rest of the admissions and financial aid office, as they made final admissions decisions for the class of 2012.

“He’s very exacting about the way that this closing part is run, but he conducts it with great good humor so that most of the time it’s fun,” Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath ’70 said. “Most of the time you feel very good and satisfied with the progress we make each hour.”

This last leg of the process which consisted of meetings that lasted late into the night, were physically as well as mentally demanding, Donahue said.

But Fitzsimmons said he finds the whole experience exhilarating.

“You learn all about 27,000 life stories. You learn about their secondary schools, their cities, their countries, what they love to do, the amazing things people have overcome in their lives,” he said. “Anybody who is lucky enough to do this job is truly blessed because you really get to a chance to see the future. And the future looks good through the people we see.”

ROAD TO HARVARD

One of Fitzsimmons’ first glimpses of Harvard was in a set of encyclopedias that his parents bought.

“I was one of those people who would go through page by page and book by book,” he said. When he came across the entry for Harvard, he decided that the idea of attending America’s oldest university, which was only 15 miles away from home, was very attractive.

But he said Harvard was unlike any place he had been before.

“I felt, stepping onto the campus, like I was 3,000 miles away,” Fitzsimmons said. “For one thing, everyone else had an accent.”

Fitzsimmons, who had been recruited by other schools, including Brown and Boston University, as an ice hockey goalie, said he ultimately chose Harvard because of its academic reputation and renowned faculty and student body. He also said he thought it would be a good fit even if he decided to make hockey a secondary part of his life.

Robert W. O’Brien, who was Fitzsimmons’ high school history teacher, said that his former student always excelled academically as well as athletically.

“He was recruited, but he was a great student besides,” he said. “It wasn’t that they were scraping the bottom to get a goalie.”

Fitzsimmons, who said he finished his thesis before the beginning of his senior year, was also a high achiever in college.

“When he was an undergrad, he was absolutely brilliant,” McGrath said. “Everyone knows that, but his basic approach to all of that is to act in an unpretentious, humble way.”

Fitzsimmons did, however, play hockey for Harvard. He still holds the record for highest number of saves in the Beanpot, the annual local ice hockey tournament.

But Dolan said hockey was a fairly small part of his life.

“Despite the fact that he was the hockey goalie, he wasn’t known as a hockey player,” he said. “He was very much in the University community.”

Fitzsimmons, who lived in Kirkland House, was involved with the College’s Catholic Student Association and the Phillip Brooks House Mental Hospital Committee.

RETURNING TO HIS ALMA MATER

According to O’Brien, Fitzsimmons entered the College with his heart set on becoming dentist. Instead, he studied a combination of anthropology, sociology, and social psychology. Later he received a masters and Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Education.

“Now he’s in admissions, which is sociology in action,” O’Brien said. “He’s still dealing with people but he had discovered a way to do it that was more suitable to him.”

Joseph J. O’Donnell ’67, a former member of the Board of Overseers at the College, said he thought Fitzsimmons would end up in business as an entrepreneur.

“He was always full of creative ideas,” O’Donnell said. “He always looked at the world in a way that wasn’t mainstream America. He was uniquely competent and very sure of himself.”

Many of his peers said that the actions taken by Fitzsimmons during his tenure as dean have been highly innovative. They cite the abolition of early admission and the implementation of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative—which eliminates parents’ financial contribution for low-income families and reduces it for higher income families—as examples of his creative thinking.

“Fitz has such a vision,” Donahue said. “He is very fair-minded, he reads voraciously, he is genuinely interested in all kinds of different cultures and walks of life. His ability to lead the admissions process in a way that we really admit the most talented students worldwide is unparalleled.”

Fitzsimmons returned to work in the admissions office at the College in 1972 after teaching in the sociology department at Holy Cross for one year. He served as the director of admissions for 10 years beginning in 1974. He assumed the role of dean in 1986, after serving a two-year stint as the director of the Harvard College Fund.

O’Donnell called Fitzsimmons the best admissions officer in the country.

“We go on a golf trip and he’s got 100 folders with him. It’s his life,” O’Donnell said. “And he knows every one of them. He knows every kid.”