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Harvard on the Half-Shell

Peter Gomes wrote his sermons and lectures in a small study on the second floor of his official residence, Sparks House. It was filled floor to ceiling with books on Harvard history and a range of Biblical topics. Above his desk, in front of him as he worked, were eight framed photos of the Lowell House Senior Common Room, from among the many he kept and cherished. These annual photos were taken on the steps of the Lowell courtyard over the course of forty years.  In the earliest, from about 1972, Classicist Zeph Stewart is Master, standing front and center, and Peter is a young man with a moustache and a bow tie a few rows back. Then there are photos from the era of Master Bill Bossert, a scientist. In the photos of recent years, Peter himself is standing front and center, with me and co-master Dorothy Austin.

Among the many places in the University where Peter Gomes will be missed is Lowell House, where he was a member of the Senior Common Room for four decades. His relationship with Lowell House is a striking instance of just how important House affiliation can be in developing a sense of this complex place we call "Harvard." At a time when the Senior Common Room is becoming somewhat vestigial in many of Harvard's thirteen Houses, faculty might well take note of Peter's claim that it was the Lowell House SCR that enabled him to become who he was at Harvard.

At the Lowell House 75th anniversary in the spring of 2006, Peter spoke to a large celebratory gathering in the House library.  He said, "Coming into this House afforded me a view of Harvard which otherwise would have been denied me and therefore would have deprived me of perhaps the most happy and constructive relationship I have had with the University, including my job as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals."

Here he discovered what President Lowell, the architect of the House system, called "a microcosm of the whole university."  With his usual command of the bon mot, Peter called it "Harvard on the half shell," where the mysteries of the University are split open and served up together. He said, "Being introduced to Harvard on the half shell was an extraordinary experience. The SCR is an extravagant collection of souls from hither and yon. As a young man trying to make his way in the University and not capable of going everywhere, it was wonderful to have people from nearly everywhere come to Lowell House. And they did --on Fridays for lunch, at high table dinners, and at marvelous gatherings in the masters' residence. In the Lowell Senior Common Room, I met on a regular basis people from the Medical School, the Law School, and other faculties of the University. I could not imagine any other place at Harvard where such a crowd as this would gather."

It was also in Lowell House that Peter was introduced to the reality of Harvard College and where he began to understand the importance of the House system.  It goes without saying that the Harvard houses are primarily the residence of students, whose tribal loyalties are stirred each spring on Housing Day as a new class of students are initiated, with T-shirts and hoopla, into the House where lottery luck has placed them. Before long, however, they realize that a House is not just a dormitory and that students are not its only members. There are resident tutors from across the university, working toward doctoral degrees in English and Chinese, anthropology and computer science, medicine and law. They are inspired not only by their interaction with undergraduates, but also by the opportunity to move beyond their departments into a rich and diverse intellectual community. So, too, for members of the faculty.  In the House, the faculty is configured in a different way, through relationships cultivated quite outside the culture of departments. At its best, the House is an intergenerational community, unique in American higher education.  President Lowell called it "a social experiment with a moral purpose."

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When Dorothy and I were invited to take the helm of Lowell House as Masters, Peter was the first to congratulate us, leaving a huge bouquet of stargazer lilies on the porch of our house on Trowbridge Street.  We, too, became part of that unique social experiment. We became friends with the older members of the SCR, like Dr. Maurice Pechet who, by now, is in his nineties and still comes to weekly lunches and teas. We experienced the fellowship of people from the Kennedy, Education and Design schools as well as members of diverse departments within the University, and, of course,  Peter Gomes.

Looking at those photos across the years, we have watched our collective selves grow older, year by year, surrounded by a multitude of younger faces.  On May 11, Lowell House came together to remember Peter and to plant a tree in the courtyard in his honor. We cherish his final words to us at the 75th: "It is a privilege to be part of this House, to be part of something that is alive and vibrant, and to envision the glory that is ahead of us. It is wonderful for us to be here. Floriat Domus Lowellia.

Diana L. Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and co-House Master of Lowell House.

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