When Congressman Barney Frank ’61-’62 landed in racially-charged South Carolina for a weekend visit with his college roommate—his first visit to the South—he immediately approached the “colored” water fountain and deliberately bent his head down to take a drink.
“It really showed a lot about his personality,” said Hastings Wyman Jr. ’61, the roommate whom Frank was visiting. “It showed his courage, the same courage that he has brought to his job for all these years. And it showed his impatience for ideas he believed were wrong, a trait that is still clear in his politics.”
One of the most notable fights of Frank’s career—a career which will end when he retires in 2013—has been for gay rights. In 1987 Frank became the first U.S. Congressman to voluntarily announce that he is gay.
In the more than 50 years since that day in the airport, Frank has made a name for himself as not only one of the most effective members of Congress, but also one of the fiercest and most formidable.
A LIBERAL ON CAMPUS
Frank, who was raised in a working-class household in New Jersey, came to Harvard already a fierce political debater with ardent opinions and an expansive knowledge of politics.
“When I first met him, I was struck by his encyclopedic knowledge of American government,” said Charles R. Halpern ’61, who was Frank’s freshman year roommate. “More than just facts, he understood how it worked.”
Halpern and Frank maintained a strong friendship in college and roomed together until Frank took a semester off in the fall of his junior year.
Frank quickly immersed himself in the political scene at the College. In that circle, Frank “was perceived as someone who was very interested and knowledgeable about politics,” according to R. Corbin Houchins ’61, who lived in Frank’s entryway in Matthews in their freshman year.
Frank would often engage in debates with students who held more conservative beliefs, including his roommate, Wyman.
“He and I used to argue all the time,” Wyman said. “But it was not out of anger, it was out of an interest in the topics.”
James W. Segel ’67, who later went on to serve as an adviser to Frank, first met the congressman when Frank was serving as a government tutor in Winthrop House, and Segel decided he was someone worth knowing.
“He would sit with a big cigar and talk about politics,” Segel said. “The good thing was he took people seriously. He didn’t treat them as anything but serious, and he’d argue [with them].... It was what college should be about, actually.”
Frank returned to the South in 1964 to participate in Freedom Summer, a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi, where the black vote had historically been repressed. That summer, at least six people, including two white Jewish volunteers from the North, were killed in Mississippi.
“The first time I met him, he had just returned from Mississippi [Freedom] Summer,” Segel said. “I respected that he had the physical and moral courage to go down there.”