Remembering Peter Gomes

When the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes passed away on February 28, Harvard was overwhelmed by its loss. Peter, we knew, would be all but irreplaceable, and certain parts of his complex persona may be gone from the University forever. We may never again hear such a resounding, dignified voice from a Harvard professor. Once when I was with him in a restaurant, the waitress, having taken no note of him as we were seated, recognized his radio voice and greeted him by name as soon as he started to order dinner. The generous fellowship of his tea table, welcoming all, every week, through an open door only steps from Harvard Yard—where else will such a group again gather, with or without the Chinese gong to signal the adjournment hour?

Though we may be unable to restore these things, there are aspects of Peter’s humanity we have a moral burden to preserve and to renew. As the grieving wanes, we should honor his memory by breathing new life into the values for which he stood.

In the loving tributes that followed his death this spring, Peter was described as a “paradox,” an “original,” and a “living contradiction.” Certainly, these descriptions have a point—most of us do not know many black gay New England Republicans, sprung from Canary Island roots but living among Victoriana and Harvardiana and gifts from the British royal family. And yet we should remember Peter for what he would want us to make of his complexity, what it means for our own lives and for the future of the University.

We too can create ourselves. We need not be what we were born as. We too can transcend categories. Our immutable characteristics do not define our identities, and our skin and bones need not encumber our souls. Peter’s mother proudly used the term “Freesies” for the freed slaves from whom she was descended. We too have the freedom to make of ourselves new and original creatures—new individuals, not representatives of our factions and kin groups.

Education is hard but liberating work. What frees us today, from the snares of expectations that society has set for us or that we have set for ourselves, is the power of learning. Peter credited Bates College, founded as he said by “free will Baptists,” with encouraging his pious independence. He would not endorse the advice one Harvard dean used to give to freshmen: “Don’t let Harvard change you.” No, changing us is exactly what education is supposed to do.

Peter’s lesson at an opening-of-term service some fifteen years ago, remembered perfectly by one of those there to hear it the day after move-in, was the Hebrews’ moaning to Moses about the suffering he was causing. “And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Just as the Hebrews eventually thanked Moses, Peter preached to the freshmen, so too would they ultimately appreciate the privations Harvard would soon impose. Then addressing the parents, he added, “And so, get in your cars, and go.” They could return to pick up their offspring, he went on, four years later when Harvard had done its job.

Words matter. Twitter and texting were not part of Peter’s life. At those Sparks House teas, he and his guests did not ignore each other to attend to their smart phones. His appearance with Stephen Colbert was brilliant, but he was not a “new media” figure. Only words mattered, spoken or written, but always in full, grammatical sentences, beautiful to read and even more beautiful to hear. For all his love of object collecting, Peter knew that only his words would survive him. And so we who loved him, let us pledge in his honor: Excellent language matters. Respect words. No more sloppy grammar, wooden prose, bureaucratic obfuscation, graceless consultant-ese, or illogical rhetoric.

Communities, including the University, have moral purpose. My first serious conversation with Peter was at a dinner at my house in 1976, occasioned by Harvard’s invitation to my colleague Bill Bossert to become Master of Lowell House. At that event, the wisdom of Lowell’s plan started to pass in retrograde from the 33-year-old Plymothian to the somewhat more senior Master-elect. We picked up the conversation in 1994, when Peter and I served together on a committee on the structure of Harvard College. Our report quoted Lowell’s words for the House system: “a social device for a moral purpose.” Peter relished the irony that it had fallen to him, whom Mr. Lowell would surely not have chosen to represent Harvard’s moral purpose, to give it voice.

Harvard’s moral opportunities and failings were always within Peter’s view of university affairs. He had faith in human self-improvement, but believed with equal confidence in the power of our institutions to shape us. He hoped for “moral vision” in Harvard’s leadership out of love for the University and for her students, and out of hope, as he would say, that “our best years are ahead of us.” In his memory, let us make them so.

Harry R. Lewis is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard College. He served as Dean of the College from 1995-2003.

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