Orchestrating a Family Affair: Stephenson Juggles a Big Ball

When Thomas W. "Steve" Stephenson '37 recalls Harvard's 300th anniversary celebration, he thinks of rain.

"My most vivid memory of the 300th is watching Franklin Delano Roosevelt ['04], who was President, sitting in a top hat and morning coat. He was protected by a tent as the rain poured down," Stephenson says. "The rest of us, though, we just sat and got soaked."

The man who ordered chairs for Tercentenary Theater, selected the caterers, and headed planning for the 350th floating birthday party is worried about one last detail: rain. Memories of a soggy morning 50 years ago have haunted Stephenson the last five years as chief organizer of this week's anniversary celebration.

The birthday bash--which includes symposia on 106 topics as diverse as Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major and the chemistry and physics of biological processes, three outdoor convocations and a closing ceremony in Soldiers Field Stadium that is expected to draw 27,000 people--will be the largest and costliest in Harvard history.

Despite all Stephenson's energetic planning, and the public's "unexpectedly strong interest" in all the events, inclement weather could more than dampen spirits.


"We could move the Wednesday night birthday party on the Charles to Friday if we had to, but the Tom Rush concert in Tercentenary Theater and the stadium events on Saturday night cannot be changed; so many involved have other commitments," Stephenson says. "Everyone would simply have to get wet."

"Short of a hurricane, everything would have to go right ahead," Stephenson says, adding quickly, "But if there were a hurricane nearby I'd know--I've been watching pretty close."

Since 1981 Stephenson himself has been a hurricane of activity. From high atop his seventh floor Holyoke Center office, Stephenson has juggled every detail of the three-day extravaganza.

But the patriarch of the 350th modestly defers credit for planning the celebration to others. "David Aloian ['49] is really the conceiver, the father of this. He initiated the idea, he cleared the planning committee, and his staff has carried a major burden," Stephenson says about the former Harvard Alumni Association head. "My job has been quite simple really; it's just been to make sure that all the plans mesh."

Stephenson's colleagues say orchestrating an event as large as Harvard's $1 million birthday celebration is anything but simple, and call Stephenson the man most responsible for resolving its daily difficulties and occasional crises.

"If you want details, Steve Stephenson is the man to see. He tackles the nitty-gritty details of the job," says Francis H. Burr '35, former senior fellow of the Corporation and one of the celebration's chief organizers.

Stephenson, who has been involved with all aspects of the 350th's planning, says he is most proud of the symposia. Attending every symposia would be the equivalent of a college education, he boasts, paraphrasing a friend.

During his own college days, he headed the Harvard Debating Council and competed with an orator from England's Cambridge University as part of Harvard's 300th anniversary. Stephenson says he auditioned to give the featured undergraduate address at the celebration, but lost to a "track star," whose speech he couldn't recall.

A Government concentrator, he stayed on at Harvard after graduation, earning a master's degree in American History while covering sports for the old Boston Herald. Stephenson then spent 38 years with the Du Pont Company in Delaware, where he became head of the firm's public affairs arm.

During his years in Wilmington, Del., Stephenson recalls, he remained active in the alumni associations of Harvard and the elite Philips Exeter Academy. Says his wife, Libby: "Good heavens, it seems to me we houseguested every Harvard person who came to Wilmington."

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