Harvard's Grand Old Man


The ovation planned in honor of President-Emeritus Charles W. Eliot on the observance of his ninetieth birthday at Cambridge, March 20 next, is to be a public tribute and celebration, participated in by representative citizens of all walks of life as well as by Harvard men from all sections of our country. In short, it is to be a national affair as well as an academic affair; and that is as it should be, for it is impossible to regard a career like that of Dr. Eliot as other than a notable and successful public career, irrespective of the technically private character of the great academic office which he held at Harvard for forty fruitful years.

Harvard's grand old man is also in a very potent sense America's grand old man, and the fact that his eminence and services have been especially identified with the educational life of America renders him no less great or typically representative of our nation than might have been the case had his chosen lines fallen in the field of politics. For above all he stands as a representative citizen, an all-around as well as a vastly influential and uplifting citizen, full of practical knowledge and of utilitarian wisdom, as well as versed in the love of the scholar. In the truest sense he ever has been a public man, though by profession an educator, much as another venerated Bostonian, the late Dr. E. E. Hale, was a veritable public man, though by profession a divine. For the word "public" has broadened with the years, and it is in no small part due to leaders like Dr. Eliot that men have come to recognize the fact that all true service, for whomever directly performed, is ultimately and genuinely public service.

Such, one conceives, were the ideals of Franklin--an American whom Dr. Eliot resembles in more ways than one--and had either one of these resplendent citizens adopted a personal motto what better one than the famous "Ich dien" of German origin? Today, even at ninety, Dr. Eliot lives to serve, as of yore. Even as of yore, too, he does serve, knowing whereof he speaks, rich in information, constructive in suggestion, tireless in new vision. By right of service proved he belongs to the public whom he leads, even as he is the most priceless living possession of Harvard College.

The secret of Dr. Eliot's quality of leadership, however, lies in his dominant trait and wonderful gift of initiative. It is the positive definitely constructive mind that leads, and not the merely receptive, the merely critical, nor even the vaguely creative, however inspired by genius. It is the mind that sees something to be done not done before, and the way or various available ways to the accomplishing of the new thing. And in Dr. Eliot's hands mere facts, mere statistics, the vast fruits of his own and others' research, do not remain sheer knowledge, but are utilized as soon as practicable, being converted by him from dead data into raw material for the manufacture of new and living experiments. And such has been the power of this remarkable gift, that without apparent effort, without even the burning enthusiasm which marks reformers, but with the steady, serene pressure only of a self-confidence founded on supreme conviction. Dr. Eliot has had his way with men to an extent seldom given to leaders.

It is to be hoped and confidently expected that the coming celebration will be a success in every way. Twenty years ago another ovation, in the shape of an address signed by Harvard alumni (quorum magna pars fuit Theodore Roosevelt) was tendered to President Eliot, containing among other words the following tribute:

By your faith in a young man's use of intellectual and spiritual freedom you have given new dignity to the life of the college student. . . . Through you the American people have begun to see that a university is . . . an expression of all that is best in the nation's thought and character. . . . Foarless, just and wise, of deep and simple faith, serene in affliction, unsuspected . . . of self-interest, you command the admiration of all men and the gratitude and loyalty of the sons of Harvard.

And all this holds true today. Transcript.