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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Richard M. Hunt loved telling stories — especially stories about Harvard.
Hunt spent nearly 50 years serving in various formal roles at the University, including teacher, administrator, and University Marshal. But he also saw himself as a “keeper of Harvard’s traditions,” according to Margot N. Gill, administrative dean for international affairs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and interim University Marshal.
Following his retirement from his University roles, Hunt co-wrote a book called “Harvard A to Z,” a collection of essays charting the University’s history.
“He was just a great storyteller, a really animated storyteller, and he loved telling Harvard stories,” Gill said.
Hunt, a former faculty member and associate dean, died peacefully at home on April 10 at the age of 93.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Hunt graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. in 1944 and Yale University in 1949.
During World War II, he served in India with the American Field Service. After receiving an M.A. from Columbia University in 1951, Hunt worked for Free Europe Press until 1955 and earned his Ph.D. in History from Harvard in 1960.
Hunt then joined the Harvard faculty, teaching as a senior lecturer in Social Studies for 42 years. During the 1960s and ’70s, he served as assistant and later associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
GSAS bestowed its highest honor, the Centennial Medal, upon Hunt in 2004, recognizing his “contributions to society as they have emerged from one’s graduate education at Harvard.”
From 1982 to 2002, Hunt served as the master of protocol in his role as University Marshal. He welcomed international visitors and heads of state to campus, while also presiding over Commencement and other special ceremonies and awarding honorary degrees to notable global figures.
Terry Aladjem, a Social Studies lecturer and former executive director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, said Hunt graced Harvard’s campus and its visitors with his presence and insights.
“He was marvelous with people from different backgrounds,” Aladjem said. “He was a great choice as Marshal because he had a kind of graciousness about him that you just recognize immediately.”
Gill made a similar assessment, adding that those qualities extended beyond Hunt’s role as Marshal.
“He was gracious and dignified as a host, but he was also a serious scholar,” Gill said. “He was someone who cared deeply about his academic work.”
Academically, Hunt was passionate about German history during the “dark years” and about the maintenance of German-American relations in the decades since then, according to History professor Charles S. Maier. Beyond Harvard, Hunt applied this expertise to his work for the American Council on Germany, a nonprofit aiming to strengthen American-German relations. He served as president of the organization for 40 years.
Hunt was also devoted to philanthropy and supported many nonprofit organizations. He was a founding board member and vice chair of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.
He was a founding trustee of the Roy A. Hunt Foundation, which he named after his father, the former president of the aluminum giant Alcoa. In 2015, he and his wife, Priscilla, established a fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation and made the largest donation the foundation has ever received from a living donor.
In his free time, Hunt cultivated a number of personal interests and passions, including magic, travel, and tennis, according to his son, William E. Hunt. A member of the Yale tennis team during his college years, Hunt continued to play the sport until his late 80s.
Many remember Hunt for his deep engagement with others and lifelong curiosity, William Hunt said.
“Growing up, I remember he always had a picnic on a Sunday afternoon for his undergraduate class and they would all show up at our house,” he said. “The students would all show up, and they’d drive or they’d come over by bike or walk, and it was always something that was really important to him to have that.”
“We’ve gotten so many letters from different people that we didn’t know he kept contact with over time who were in the Class of ’78 or a graduate fellow from 1994. Those types of things just occurred. He really made a lifelong commitment to students,” he added.
Aladjem said Hunt had a deep interest in understanding others’ perspectives.
“We would often talk politics, but what was so interesting is I always felt that he was teaching me by asking me questions about my point of view,” Aladjem said. “He would never simply say, ‘you’re right’ or ‘you’re wrong,’ but inquire as to your understanding, and I really liked that about him.”
“Not that I didn’t know his position, but he was more interested in learning,” Aladjem added. “He had a kind of curiosity that made him a great teacher and clearly showed his commitment to the mission of the University.”
William Hunt said those qualities persisted even after his father’s academic career concluded.
“He was very much a Renaissance person and interested in so many different things,” William Hunt said. “His intellectual curiosity never wavered. Really up until his final hours, he was learning, he was reading, and he was interested in talking to people on the phone. He was always wanting to learn.”
Hunt is survived by his wife, Priscilla; their three children, Helen, Susan, and William; and eight grandchildren.
—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.
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