Former Dean of Freshmen Henry C. Moses died yesterday from complications following a heart transplant. He served as dean from 1977-1991 and was headmaster of Trinity School in New York City.
For a recently appointed school trustee, it was a surprising sight: the Princeton-educated headmaster of one of New York’s most prestigious preparatory schools seated, book in hand, not in a study, but a few feet away from parked cars and a city sidewalk.
Then again, this was Henry C. Moses—the headmaster that colleagues called Hank.
“He’s sitting on the first step in jacket and pants,” recalled Timothy N. Wallach, a trustee at New York’s Trinity School, where Moses took over as headmaster in 1991. “Sitting there, down practically on the ground, reading ‘Paradise Lost.’ That was his moment of tranquility. On a New York street. That’s so like him. Lots of headmasters you wouldn’t necessarily see do that.”
In nearly 15 years as Harvard’s dean of freshmen, and 16 years more at Trinity’s helm, the man whom The Crimson once called “very Ivy League” built a reputation for supporting students and promoting diversity.
Moses, a man who devoted his life to education, died yesterday at 66 from complications due to a heart transplant performed last January, according to his son, Laurence H. M. Holland '09, who is also a Crimson associate managing editor.
TO THE WILDERNESS
Arriving in 1977 at the Freshman Dean’s Office (FDO), where he was charged with overseeing every aspect of first-year life, Moses quickly built a reputation for guiding students and colleagues alike.
“After my father, Hank was the best boss I have ever had,” said Jim Wigdahl, who worked in the FDO for six years.
“I grew up in the family hardware store—Hank told me that’s why he hired me. He thought I had some customer service experience, so I always got a kick out of that,” said Wigdahl, who was 25 years old when Moses gave him his first job at the University.
Moses encouraged similar mentorship throughout the dean’s office.
Former assistant dean Virginia L. Mackay-Smith ’78 said that Moses often provided advice to those in need.
“He was not running the FDO by being in charge of everything,” said Mackay-Smith, who credited Moses with teaching her how to be an advisor. “He ran the FDO the same way he expected us to run our [dormitory] entries, which was to identify talent and resources and help people grow according to their own strengths.”
Robin M. Worth ’81, a former assistant dean, recounted a story of a student who had “thrown some elbows” on the basketball court and found himself before the dean. Moses’ words on that occasion, Worth said, made a lasting impression.
“He really talked about the importance of being able to settle differences through conversation, and it was just something I’ve never forgotten,” Worth said.
In what would become a lasting legacy to the dean’s office, Moses founded in 1979 the popular Freshman Outdoor Program (FOP)—a pre-orientation program that sends incoming freshmen on week-long wilderness trips in an attempt to ease the transition from high school to the College.
FOP is considered a cornerstone of the FDO’s operations to this day, according to current Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who served as a resident dean in Leverett House during much of Moses’ tenure.
“It has created a tremendous introduction to Harvard,” Dingman said. “People who come in feel that they can get to know their peers, and everybody out in the wilderness feels that their role matters. It’s just a nice way to start.”
Moses’ first years in Cambridge brought other innovations. A pre-registration issue of The Crimson published in 1978 praised the fun-loving dean for “organizing activities like pajama parties, a freshman literary magazine, and regular group therapy encounter sessions.”
“Some may call it summer camp,” the article continued. “But almost all agreed last year that Moses had made it a happy experience.”
MORE THAN 9-to-5
Early in his tenure, Moses said in an interview with The Crimson that he had no intention of being a “nine-to-five administrator.”
Wigdahl remembers sitting at the front desk of the FDO each morning as Moses entered, greeting him in his own particular way.
“He was never a big ‘Good morning! How are you?’ kind of guy. He would just kind of grunt in a good-natured way. I always appreciated that because I am not chatty in the morning either,” Wigdahl said.
As the day progressed, Wigdahl said, his boss would pass him typewritten notes, which at times would include clever asides or observations.
“His humor had an oblique way about it,” he said. “He was not a one-liner joke kind of person. He would make little comments and asides that were just hilarious.”
Moses’ sense of humor endeared him to colleagues, who remember his entertaining attitude.
“Every year, the Administrative Board has a dinner at the end of the year, and he was always right in the middle of it, making the annual dinner the most fun it could be,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said. “He had a really fabulous sense of humor.”
And while that sense created an atmosphere ripe for pranks—Worth remembers sneaking into Moses’ office to set all his furniture facing the wrong way—Moses did not shy away from the gravitas that sometimes came with the disciplinary part of his job.
“Even when he had to deal with the negative aspects of someone’s experience in the Yard, he always did it with an open mind,” Mackay-Smith said. “He wasn’t just dealing with today’s incident. He was dealing with today’s incident as part of a four-year career.”
Moses also championed the improvement of diversity in the College.
“We have tried to damp down sexism, racism, classism, veneration of old Harvard for the wrong reasons by laughing at it whenever we’ve seen it,” Moses told The Crimson in 1991.
“I think we have tried to take each freshman on his or her own terms—male or female, white or person of color, heterosexual or gay, rich or poor.”
But in the same article, only months prior to his departure for Trinity, he told The Crimson there was still much work to be done.
“We failed,” Moses said. “In spite of all of it, there are still persons of color who don’t feel like they own the place, women who feel alienated, and people who feel they have to compromise themselves too much to be a part of Harvard.”
Moses was not reluctant to take a role in the intellectual life of the College. A graduate of Princeton, the future dean earned a doctoral degree in English from Cornell in 1968, and would garner teaching experience at Princeton, Cornell, and the University of Virginia before coming to Harvard, where he lectured in English in the midst of his tenure as dean of freshmen. The love of language did not leave him.
“We always could see that he was actually first and foremost a scholar,” said Fitzsimmons, who began working for the Admissions Office in 1972, five years before Moses’ arrival. “He would often step back, and you could see his mind working for analogies with great literature.”
Moses had acknowledged his intention to write further in the coming years.
“I imagine that there was probably a novel within Hank that would have worked its way out,” Wigdahl said. “He had a love for language and communication and a love for what words mean. It was a very E.B. White-esque, concise and clever and funny and rich way of communicating.”
Moses did write one book, though not a work of fiction. “Inside College: New Freedom, New Responsibility,” published in 1990, aims to aid students with the transition from high school to college, tackling such problems as choosing a major, deciding on classes, and balancing extracurricular life with school work.
“He really wanted to understand the student experience and try to make it better in new ways, be creative, and also understand what was going on in the students’ lives,” said Robert N. Shapiro ’72, a close family friend and member of the Board of Overseers, Harvard’s alumni-elected governing board.
Even after his departure from the University in 1991, Moses maintained only a few degrees of separation from campus as headmaster of Trinity, which sends several members of its graduating class each year to the College. Currently, there are 30 undergraduates who went to the high school in the College.
Moses was a visible presence during his time at Trinity, according to Andrew R. Brownstein, the president of the school’s board of trustees.
“Hank was a terrific headmaster,” Brownstein said. “And it’s a very difficult job, dealing with the range of kids from kindergarten to twelfth grade and being able to relate to all of them. He was a figure in the hallway.”
But after 16 years in the top spot, Moses had announced his intention in September to retire from his post at Trinity at the end of June 2009.
“I’ve treasured these years and our friendships and associations here; this has been the best job I’ve ever had,” Moses wrote of his time as headmaster in a September letter to Brownstein. He planned to return to New England, he wrote in the letter, hoping to “teach a little bit, and continue to do some writing.”
In his own letter communicating the news of Moses’ impending retirement, Brownstein lauded the headmaster for a variety of services to the school that included seeing the endowment grow from $6 million in 1991 to $51 million this year.
“I can’t adequately describe to you the stature of this man,” said Trinity Trustee Wallach. “It was a very good school when he got there, and he made it a great school.”
Moses’ act will be a hard one to follow. Reading words he wrote to Moses after his heart attack, Wallach shared some of the difficulty the search committee for Trinity’s headmaster faced.
“I feel like my task is so easy and yet so difficult: simply put, to find another headmaster,” read Wallach. “I need to find another you.”
Moses is survived by his wife, Mary S. Holland ’73; his children Laurence and William Holland, James Moses, Bruce Moses, and Paige Lewin; four grandchildren; his father, Henry C. Moses; his sisters, Catherine Barber and Margery Phillips; and his wife from a previous marriage, Jean Smith Moses.
—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. —Staff writer Jamison A. Hill can be reached at email@example.com.