John Harvard

Circling the Square

On the eve of the 1951 Harvard-Dartmouth football game, several men sporting green blazers and self-conscious looks stole through the Yard. At the right moment, they raced up to John Harvard's statute, splashed the Old Puritan's buckled shoes and delicate ankles with white paint, and fled. Minutes later, a crew of workmen from the Department of Buildings and Grounds emerged from the basement of Harvard Hall with the necessary paint-removing facilities, and hastily took off John's white shoes.

Since 1884, when

from numerous cases of wounded pride--was a broken elbow. In 1949, the right elbow developed a wide crack, and began seeping down to the base of the figure. However, brazers promptly drained the pedestal and mended the wound.

John received his biggest publicity splash in 1933, the day after Harvard upset Yale by a 19 to 6 margin. Two days before the game, some gentlemen from the Lampoon abducted the Eli mascot, Handsome Dan II, from his New Haven kennel. The Sunday following the game, newspapers all over the nation ran frontpage photos of Dan licking John's feet--or, at any rate, his pedestal. The pictures did not reveal the raw hamburger that was smeared at the base of the statute.


Despite his present-day pose of calm equanimity, John was once the focal point of a hot controversy. When, on Commencement Day in 1883, General Samuel J. Bridges donated a fund for the erection of a statue to John Harvard's memory, the inevitable question was raised: How does one make a statue of the chap when one doesn't know what he looks like?

Bridge said an idealized version of John Harvard was perfectly acceptable. At any rate, he wanted a statue. The Rev. George E. Ellis, dedication speaker, argued, "There is necessarily much that is unsatisfactory in a wholly idealized representation by art of an historical person of whose form, features, and lineaments there are no certifications. But the few facts which I have given as certified...are certainly helpful to the artist."

President Charles William Eliot, however, thought it would be a "counterfeit presentment...of very doubtful desirablness." In October, 1883, he admitted, "The young Harvard has every claim to a statue, but...what could be better, or more effective, than a Muse of History, of classic model, holding in her hand a tablet inscribed with the name of John Harvard."

But Eliot lost this battle and Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the "Minute Man" at Concord and "Lincoln" at Washington's Lincoln Memorial, took the commission. When, on the afternoon of the dedication, October 15, 1884, a Boston physician complained, "Mr. French, you've given John Harvard the legs of a consumptive," French was convinced he had done well. "Glad you noticed that," he replied. "He died of consumption when he was 31."

John was placed on the delta near Memorial Hall, and there he remained for 40 years. On April 15, 1924, University authorities removed him from the noisy, bustling location and set him in a more secluded spot, the west side of University Hall, overlooking the Yard.