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A Letter at Commencement

By Donald H. Pfister

To students of the College,

Writing letters has been one of the joys I have had as Interim Dean and it has been gratifying that many of you have appreciated them.  Indeed, I have been surprised by the positive reception the letters have received and have asked myself how it can be that a mode of communication as seemingly old-fashioned as an email became an event that you anticipated.  I know that you find the letters funny and quirky. I know that my family would agree on the quirky part.

I hope you have taken seriously some of the advice about caring for yourself and your friends.

I am impressed that you have enjoyed some of the natural history lessons on topics derived from observations in the Yard.  Indeed, right now you can find inky-cap mushrooms (a species of the genus Coprinus) there.  They are on the ground around trees and buried stumps.  The flesh of this mushroom dissolves leaving a black, gooey mass that can be used as ink.  Remember this when you want to leave a note and have lost your pen.  Also as you walk through the Yard these days you will see, on the ground and floating in the air, the disc-shaped, winged fruits of the elms—millions and millions of them.

In my regular letters the following section would be where I mention some of the activities you have undertaken—performances, scholarship, inspired events.  In this letter I will mention three of the mentors, now no longer with us, who were important to me in the 40 years I have been at Harvard.

I admired Mason Hammond ’25, professor of classics and master of Kirkland House from 1945 to 1955.  Professor Hammond was an imposing character.  He was the original Monument Man. He wrote a guide to the Latin inscriptions found around Harvard. He led the Kirkland graduates to chapel on Commencement morning until he was well into his 80s.  Once at Kirkland House, when I was fussing over how the chairs were set-up or some other trivial thing, Mason’s wife, Florence, said to me, “Oh, you are just like Mason, he has the soul of a janitor.”  I took it as a compliment.

Geneva Sayre spent her teaching life at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York.  She studied mosses, the literature devoted to their description, and the history of the 18th and 19th century expeditions on which these plants were collected. She came to Harvard in retirement to use the collections and library at the Farlow Library and Herbarium. She arrived a few years before I showed-up as an assistant professor and curator at the Herbarium. She taught me to be patient and to write carefully, and she, a former department chair, instructed me in the politics of academics.  Although we were at opposite ends of our careers we became friends and worked together to make the collections at the Farlow better and more accessible.

Reed C. Rollins was director of Harvard’s Gray Herbarium and Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany. He was the chair of the search committee that brought me here.  He studied plants in the mustard family but also did research, in the World War II years, on Guayule (a member of the sunflower family), an alternative source of natural rubber.  He was from Wyoming; indeed he grew-up on a ranch with many siblings, and came to Harvard first as a Junior Fellow.  After a stint at Stanford he came back to Harvard.  He was Director of the Gray Herbarium for all of his years on the faculty.  After his retirement he did field work in the West and in Mexico in order to augment a major treatise on the mustard family in North America. He was the person I could turn to for advice on topics from taxonomy, nomenclature, and systematic biology to buying a house.  He was a wonderfully supportive colleague and friend.

I am still reading Jon Meacham’s “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”  I started this because it was there. If a reviewer gives a book the thumbs-up my wife and I are likely to pick it when we are at a bookshop.  The result: two rooms taken over by bookshelves and stacks of books in almost every room.  Friends give us books, our children take books—we are the center of a swarm of books that go visiting and come home again.  So, what I read is often determined by what is home at the time.  Mysteries and histories are favorites.  Mysteries because of the ingenuity it takes to write a really good one. Histories have a way of relating to my curatorial job.  Reading about Jackson I am reminded that I have studied the specimens collected on the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) and that it was in his administration that the expedition began to take form.

This is the last of my little missives as interim dean.  Thank you for a great year. Please remember to stop by and see me at my office in the Harvard Herbaria.

With fond memories,

Donald Pfister

Donald H. Pfister is Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany and Curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany. He has served as Interim Dean of Harvard College for the 2013-2014 school year.

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