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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Lies My Father Told Me

Setting the Record Straight On Age-Olde Harvard Myths

By Judith Kogan

APPLICANT, YOUNGEST--The admissions office reports that every so often they receive letters from eight-year-old toddlers asking "permission" to come to Harvard. Children write these letters and ask their parents to send them off to the proper address. Last year during Commencement season, a woman accompanying her husband to his tenth class reunion at Harvard became so enamored of the place that she decided the school would be ideal for her child. Marching into the admissions office, she asked for an application for her child.

In the course of a brief conversation with the excited woman, William R. Fitzsimmons, director of admissions, asked whether the applicant was male or female. She looked a bit baffled. "I don't know yet," the pregnant woman finally muttered.

BUILDINGS, VERITABLE VERITAS--Not a single Harvard building now stands in its original 17th century state. Stoughton College, Harvard's last 17th century building, was subject to colonial wartime neglect, and in 1781 it was scrapped. The present Stoughton Hall was built in 1805.

COEDUCATION--The first steps toward coeducation at Harvard were taken out of necessity, not out of social or political principle. From 1882 until the 1940s, sexual segregation was so stringently adhered to that professors often repeated lectures twice a day--once in the morning for the men at Harvard, and once in the afternoon for the women at Radcliffe. But when World War II broke out in the 1940s, such a large portion of the faculty went on active duty that the dearth of lecturers forced the two colleges to share these prized commodities. This temporary measure was made permanent in 1946.

CONCORD CAMPUS, HARVARD'S--People may think that Harvard College has always been in Cambridge, but for a single year in the period of colonial unrest and revolt the college moved beyond the city's borders. During the siege of Boston in 1775, more than 1500 revolutionary soldiers were quartered in College buildings, and for the 1775-76 academic year, the College was situated in Concord.

FOOD, DINING HALL WITH THE WORST AND BEST--Those who contend that the food served in Winthrop--or Lowell--or Leverett is worse than food in any other Harvard House are slightly off track. One central Harvard dining hall kitchen feeds into all three of these Houses, in addition to Kirkland and Eliot. All that differs in behind-the-counter food from one of these Houses to the next is the heat of the meat and the cool of the gruel.

Mather and Dunster also share kitchens, as do the three Quad Houses. Quincy and Adams each have their own kitchens. Anthony's Pier 4 has the best food, however.

FRESHMAN UNION--This bastion has not always served students cafeteria-style. Early in the century, the Harvard men were catered to by waitresses. In the late 1940's when the fraternizing between students and waitresses got out of hand, the University revised the catering system and established the current cafteria set-up. Now glass counters, metal trays, and all manner of edibles come between students and servers.

HOAR, LEONARD--This president of Harvard from 1672-1675 is often said to be the only former president of Harvard without a House named after him. This is a misconception. Although Hoar House never found its way onto the Harvard map, neither did Conant or Pusey Houses, which would have honored two much more illustrious college presidents.

HOLY HORATIO--The nineteenth century Harvard author who sold more copies of his works than Thoreau, Emerson, Parkman, Lowell, and Henry James combined was not a Transcendentalist. He was a Unitarian named "Holy" Horatio Alger Jr., so called because of his announced intention to follow his father's footsteps in the ministry. His 119 "rags-to-riches" novels--all with nearly the same plot--sold around 250,000,000 copies. No Harvard author to date has sold that many books.

INFLUENCE, ALUMNI--Alumni fathers have always had a hand in getting their sons and daughters into their alma mater, but history has shown in several cases that it has not been quite as easy to keep them there.

Records show that the Class of 1823 was composed of a great number of hoodlums who spent their time exploding bombs in the Yard, lighting fives, releasing rats in lecture halls, and entertaining women in their rooms. Shortly before commencement, the college split into two factions--the aristocrats and the rebels--which staged a full-scale rebellion that was followed by the expulsion of 43 students out of a class of 70.

One of the expelled students was the son of John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State in President Monroe's cabinet. No amount of pressure from Washington could force the College to award the delinquent a diploma.

LONGEST THESIS--The opening lines from Henry A. Kissinger's 1950 summa cum laude senior thesis--entitled "The Meaning of History (Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant)"--read as follows: "An Introduction to an undergraduate honor thesis may seem presumptuous, but I believe that its inordinate length and unorthodox method require an explanation...the length is due to the fact that I did not realize the implications of the subject when I started to work on the thesis. As it grew, I made several efforts to cut it down..."

Although Kissinger's panel of thesis readers apparently found his magnum opus acceptable, the 383 page record-breaking volume--even without the excised portions--provoked the government department to put a ceiling on the number of pages an undergraduate thesis could run.

Commonly believed to be the longest thesis submitted by a Harvard undergraduate, Kissinger's tome has in fact been outsized several times since 1950.

The most voluminous of these exceptions appears to be a Social Studies thesis submitted in 1974 by Susan Eve Haar. Although composed of many short sections, her honors thesis--called "Moving From Cheer to Joy, From Joy to All: Ten Radcliffe Women Twenty-Five Years Later"--runs a total of 450 pages.

PAHK THE CAAH IN HAHVAHD YAHD--This little ditty mimicking the nuances of the Boston accent is based upon a mistaken notion that few non-Harvard people realize. Any vehicle parked in the Yard for an extended period of time--as a great many Harvard students can attest--will be towed away.

PHI BETA KAPPA--The oldest of exclusive organizations at Harvard has not always been the inactive body of top-notch students that it now is. Imported to Harvard from William and Mary in 1781, Phi Beta Kappa was originally an awesome secret society with rituals like those of the ancient Mayans. Along with shocking spiritual rites, the society acquired a touch of the commercial during the early 1920s. A complete display of post cards, novelties and souvenirs were sold at the cigar counter in the clubhouse, and during the baseball season, scores were posted daily in the luxurious club rooms.

ROOSEVELT, FRANKLIN DELANO--The 32nd U.S. President and class of '04 graduate is inscribed in the World War Memorial Plaque hanging in Memorial Church under the phrase "Those who Gave Their Lives." Although FDR didn't die in the line of battle, the University asked that his name be placed with those who had. The war, they rationalized, had precipitated Roosevelt's death.

SCIENCE CENTER--The architectural atrocity is not modeled after a spider, or a lunar module, or any manner of unidentifiable creatures from outer space. It is actually an enlarged facsimile of a Polaroid Land Camera, honoring the man who donated a fortune to build the science center. A rare breed of benefactor, Land asked that the monstrosity not bear his name, so that no one could identify him as the donor.

SWIM TEST--The widow of Harry Elkins Widener donated her husband's huge fortune and impressive book collection to the University on two conditions: the first, that not a single brick be removed from the Widener Memorial Library, and the second, that every freshman be required to pass a swim test in the IAB pool. Mrs. Widener felt that her son, who died tragically in the sinking of the Titanic, would have lived had he known how to swim.

But as most seniors who neglected to fulfill this second requirement their freshman week at Harvard will soon discover, the University will not withhold a diploma from any senior who has failed to successfully dog-paddle his way across the pool.

(Every original Widener Library brick remains intact. To honor Mrs. Widener's first request, the annex to Lamont Library was connected to Widener through a window, so as not to upset a brick.)

THEN, NOW, FOREVER--Only one family in America has had ten successive generations graduate from the same college, and it is not the Mathers, or the Winthrops, or the Adams. The family name is Saltonstall, and its college is Harvard.

WIDENER LIBRARY--The 50 miles of shelves and two and a half million books which comprise this building render it not the third largest library in the world, but the fourth. Outstacking it on a world scale are the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., The New York Public Library, and the often overlooked Bibliotheque Nationale Francaise in Paris. Widener is the third largest in the country.

YOU CAN ALWAYS TELLA HARVARD MAN, BUT YOU CAN'T TELL HIM MUCH--Draw your own conclusions.

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