In the spring of 1952, allegations of police brutality swept the Harvard campus, following the arrest of 28 undergraduates who were charged with disturbing the peace. The students were detained after they hosted a rally in Harvard Square, mocking the upcoming presidential election and declaring Pogo the Possum, the main character in a popular comic strip, their favored candidate.
The author of the Pogo strip was set to speak at Harvard that evening, and the crowd swelled to over 1,600, causing something of a police panic. Though all charges against the students were eventually dismissed, the incident came to be known as the “Pogo Riots.”
Despite the acquittal, many undergraduates still felt that the officers had been unduly harsh, and the incident fostered lingering resentment toward the city’s police.
So years later, one of the Harvard students on campus that day—former Adams House resident Francis H. Duehay ’55—decided to ensure that his fellow classmates got the last laugh.
Duehay had remained in Cambridge after graduation, but had taken on a new role—serving on the Cambridge City Council, where he would remain for almost 30 years, with several short stints in the mayoral seat.
As Warren M. Little ’55 fondly recalls, Duehay used his power as the mayor of Cambridge to absolve the students of any charges of wrongdoing at the Class of 1955’s 25th reunion in 1980.
The Class, according to Little, was cheered by the news, and applauded the late move towards reconciliation.
While perhaps not Duehay’s most significant achievement, this absolution was one of many bridges between Duehay’s life as a Harvard student and his later career as a prominent Cambridge politician.
“Frank is one of these level-headed individuals who can see both sides to a problem and then present solutions,” Little says. “He thinks things through, but he acts so that everybody wins.”
This level-headed personality, along with what many call his “gentlemanly” demeanor, helped Duehay throughout his 36-year career in public service.
“I think that he was the yin and yang of [Harvard and Cambridge],” says Cambridge’s current mayor, Michael A. Sullivan.
THE PAWN AND THE CASTLE
Duehay was born in Somerville, but moved to Cambridge when he was eight years old.
“The schools were much better in Cambridge, and I was behind, and I had to work very hard to catch up to where the Cambridge schools were,” Duehay says.
But despite the difficulty, Duehay caught up, graduating near the top of his class and going on to Harvard.
As with his move to Cambridge, Duehay struggled with academics at first, but soon learned the ropes. Duehay also kept himself busy with tutoring programs at the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA)—a community service organization with which he is still very active, pushing the Class of 1955 to donate over $1 million to PBHA at the Class’s 50th reunion.
And Duehay also assumed the presidency of the chess club as an undergraduate.
“In retrospect I don’t think I was very good, but I thought I was at the time,” Duehay says, while still insisting that his experience with strategy games did prove valuable.
“The way I look at issues and problems and organize what I’m going to do, in terms of decision-making, is quite methodical, and was influenced by chess playing,” Duehay says.
Still, Duehay says that he was one of the “less venturesome” students, and it was not until his senior year that he chose to pursue a more substantial leadership role, seeking out a spot on the Harvard Alumni Association’s permanent Class Committee for his House.
He says it was his first real campaign and his transition into electoral politics.
“For some unaccountable reason I decided that I would like to be the permanent representative for my Class Committee for Adams House,” Duehay says. “I had not been terribly involved in House activities in Adams House. Nevertheless, I decided I would run for office, and I got a list of the seniors, decided who I didn’t know very well, and went around and knocked on their doors and met most of them.”
Duehay says that he was not well known to many of his classmates, including those who ended up on the committee with him.
“Our paths, as undergraduates, were not that parallel,” says Little, the Class Secretary for the Class of 1955, who will also be Duehay’s roommate in Winthrop during the reunion. “Other than knowing he was on the chess team, I didn’t know that much.”
Stanley N. Katz ’55, now a professor at Princeton, also says that he knew little about Duehay until he began working with him in recent years to organize the fund-raising drive for PBHA. Yet after Harvard, Duehay would begin to make a name for himself as a public figure.
TAKING THE KING
Following graduation, Duehay pursued his passion for education, which would eventually lead him into a political career.
He earned his Masters of Arts in Teaching and in 1968 he received a doctorate in education. In addition, he served as a teacher in the Belmont school district, and eventually became an assistant dean at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
In 1963, he was elected to the Cambridge School Committee. But his political life did not really begin heating up until the early 1970s, when he decided to run for the City Council under the wing of the liberal Cambridge Civic Association (CCA).
Duehay says that he wanted to run for one of the nine spots on the City Council in 1971 because he was frustrated with the appointment of Cambridge’s school superintendent, and wanted to oust him from office. On the School Committee, he did not have the power to overturn the appointment, but he felt that if the CCA got a majority on the council, they could eventually replace the superintendent.
Still, the vote ended up being very close, and Duehay won the ninth and final spot by under 50 votes. The election was later contested by a recount and a court decision.
But Duehay’s victory was upheld, and the CCA-controlled council elected the city’s first female mayor, who dismissed the divisive superintendent.
“This was an upheaval of unbelievable proportions at that time,” Duehay says.
After his victory, Duehay and the City Council focused on cleaning up city management and opening “an era of much greater professionalism in city government.”
Throughout this more progressive era, Duehay began to establish himself on the City Council, and also came to realize that he could accomplish more with seniority on his side. He served as mayor from 1980 to 1981, in 1985, and from 1998 to 1999.
Some of the accomplishments he points to are the development of affordable housing, the move from blue-collar to high-tech industry in Cambridge, and the appointment of guidance counselors in the Cambridge Public Schools.
“Frank is someone that will do his homework...and is compassionate about what he did,” says Sullivan.
At one point, Duehay even considered running for a congressional seat in 1986.
“And then Joe Kennedy decided to run, and I thought ‘This is stupid,’” Duehay says.
Following his last mayoral stint in 1999, Duehay decided to retire, so that he could focus on volunteer and fund-raising work.
He continues to volunteer in foundations and tutoring programs in the Cambridge area, and serves on several different committees. He was also at the center of recent drive to raise over $7 million for PBHA.
His altruism has earned him much praise.
“His life was about making Cambridge a better place, and I really admired that,” Katz says. “I’d always hear about Old Frank, and Old Frank was still doing good work....Frank in my view has always been Mr. Harvard Responsible.”
—Staff writer Evan R. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.