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Those of us who were fortunate to have experienced campus life in its full vivaciousness took for granted some of the everyday privileges and delights that students are now denied — especially the face-to-face interactions that help to make the Harvard community.
I came to this conclusion in a recent conversation with a fellow alum as I was reminiscing about Harvard’s unique campus experience. What prompted this trip down memory lane was remembering John Pomeroy on the second anniversary of his death. John, the security guard at Dunster House, was one of those rare special people who can make a college experience. Two years since his death, he continues to have a massive impact on the lives of many Harvard students and alums. I’m sure “Doc,” as he was endearingly called by those closest to him, would have a few lessons for current students too.
I first met John in 2005 as a sophomore in Dunster House, back when it was jokingly referred to as “Dumpster.” Locked out of my room, I went to the super’s office to confess my crime. As I entered, John’s warmth suffused the space, which, because of his presence, would become a soothing retreat for those who needed a respite from busy schedules. He greeted me with his trademark smile and mistook my strong London accent as Australian, adding that I sounded like the Geico lizard. “You should tell the girls that’s your voice,” he joked. We gelled immediately, and the encounter would be the beginning of a close friendship that would last 14 years.
John was like a mentor to many undergrads. He gave me, an international student, invaluable insight into American culture. In the way only a local could, he introduced me to the rich cultural sites in and around Boston, spurring me to regularly take a break from the Harvard Square bubble.
During my college summers, I joined John on his side hustle, roofing. Suffice to say, the heat and humidity made for challenging conditions. But good hard labor can do wonders for the mind and body. As the sun beat down on us, we’d enjoy an ice cold Coke (Diet for John), reminiscent of the scene in “The Shawshank Redemption” where, after tarmacking a roof, Andy Dufresne and his friends take a well-earned respite.
After I graduated from the College, I moved to New York for graduate school at Columbia University. I kept in touch with John, and when I visited him in person, we’d go to Jeveli’s, the historic Italian restaurant in East Boston where John had once worked. He showed me the newly renovated Dunster; if ever there’s a space in which I’d have to endure a lockdown, I wouldn’t mind it there!
Despite the physical distance between us, John was always there for me, especially when I butted heads with professors at Columbia. I was not willing to compromise my values for the sake of career advancement, which did not go down well with those who had differing political persuasions and outlooks on life. Stressing the importance of personal responsibility, John taught me to persevere despite the odds and take ownership of such difficult situations (he was not one for complaining!). He was the best “trainer” one could hope to have in one’s corner as I ultimately defended my dissertation successfully in May 2018 — the end of a journey we had shared together. Sadly, John died five months later.
John’s presence is still felt among the countless people who were lucky to encounter him on Harvard’s campus and beyond. We would do well to heed his wisdom in these difficult times. We must first accept our current predicament and only then can we choose how to respond in order to make the best of it. We must take one day at a time and focus on the here and now, starting with the basics (eat and sleep!).
While campus may be limited, students can seek out opportunities around them. Cambridge, for example, has many quaint squares beyond Harvard’s. Both it and Boston can be experienced on a shoestring budget, and there may be part-time job opportunities to be found too. Students still on campus should take advantage of what these great cities have to offer, even now — perhaps especially now.
I’m imagining a sight that always made John smile returning in the near future: the sun shining brightly on campus courtyards buzzing with excitement as students socialize and engage in their intellectual pursuits, with a renewed optimism in the air around Harvard, Cambridge, and the world beyond. As current students find ways to adjust and make the most of the present situation, they must remain optimistic about that future. For, as John would say, “This too shall pass.”
Nasser Hussain ’08 is a graduate of Harvard College.
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