Thomas B. Fox ’95, son of John B. Fox Jr. ’59, recalled how his freshman roommates in Greenough Hall would often turn to his father “for advice, not about the school, but about their lives.”
“When my freshman roommates learned that my father was an administrator at the school, I can only imagine their first reaction was, ‘Oh, okay, well, this person Tom must know a lot about the University or be influenced by the University,’” Fox said.
But when they met his father in person, they realized quickly that “the advice and counsel that they would get from him had nothing to do with the University and only had to do with themselves,” Fox said.
Laura G. Fisher, associate dean for faculty development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences under Fox, remembered how she felt when she first saw him: a towering man standing at 6 feet, 8 inches.
“On first impression, you can’t not notice his height. And he certainly towered over me,” she said. “I suppose he could appear intimidating, but he wasn’t.”
According to many, John Fox strived to make Harvard a more inclusive environment that could respond to every student’s needs. He died three months ago on Nov. 27 at the age of 86.
He began his career at the University as director of the Office of Career Services in 1967, then called the Office of Graduate and Career Services. He then served stints as assistant dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1971 to 1976; Harvard College dean until 1985; administrative dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to 1993; and secretary of the Faculty Council, retiring in 2007.
Fox spearheaded the “Fox Plan,” which moved all freshmen to the Yard and oversaw major renovations to the three houses in the Radcliffe Quadrangle in the 1970s.
The Fox Plan formed the basis of the current undergraduate House system, which Fox hoped would solve a multitude of problems of the old system: unequal facilities and “inequities” in “class composition” among different houses, differential housing and advising arrangements for freshmen, declining popularity of houses in the Quad, and a lottery system that many thought was not “sufficiently ‘open’ and comprehensible.”
“Most of these problems are the result of built-in inequities (or differences) in the system; that is, they spring from the fact that our current system renders it impossible for any incoming class of students to experience the House system in closely comparable terms,” Fox wrote in his details of the plan, published in The Crimson.
One of Fox’s overarching philosophies as dean of the College was to open “Harvard’s gates to a broader world,” according to Marlyn E. McGrath ’70, who first served Fox as senior tutor of North House — a position known today as Pforzheimer House resident dean. McGrath later worked under Fox as assistant dean of Harvard College.
“I think he knew that when students came to Harvard, one of the important things that the College should do was challenge them to think about what they really wanted to do and who they really were,” McGrath said.
Fox also sought to bring in students from diverse backgrounds, according to Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who worked as Fox’s assistant during his tenure as dean of the College.
“He, in particular, went out early in his deanship to make sure that underrepresented minorities and women were well supported in the College,” Dingman said.
Fisher, whom Fox brought on as the first woman on the College’s Administrative Board, said Fox opened many doors for women and minorities.
“He was very supportive of women, and he hired a lot of women. I was actually the first woman senior tutor in a Harvard house,” said Fisher, who resided in Eliot House at the time.
Julia G. “Judy” Fox, John Fox’s wife of 55 years and who worked as the director of the Transfer and Visiting Student Programs at Harvard, said her first impression of him was of a very well-read and artistic man.
“He was very cultured. I remember he introduced me — I was pretty young — he introduced me to a variety of classical music that I was not familiar with. I always liked classical music, but he would give me — this was the era of LPs — so he would give me records,” she said. “And even now, if I hear something on the radio that we used to listen to years ago, I get great pleasure from that.”
John Fox would often go to his family home in Andover, Maine, away from his work as dean, according to Dingman.
“He would quickly get rid of his office jacket and tie and put out a flannel shirt and hop on a tractor,” Dingman said. “My wife and I visited John and his family there, and it was great to see the affection he had for the land.”
Fox was also interested in tracing back his familial roots and digging through records, Dingman said, which spurred his love for archival research.
“He never set out to do something without exploring in the archives a lot more about the topic,” Dingman said.
Julia Fox said John Fox had a love for art and handling physical objects, among his other pastimes and intellectual hobbies.
“He was the son and grandson of artists. His mother was a sculptor; her father was a landscape painter. Both his mother and his grandfather won awards for their work,” she said. “We have a lot of their stuff in the house: wonderful, wonderful paintings and sculptures.”
This artistic touch passed onto John Fox, she said, who had a workshop in his basement and “loved to tinker with his hands, fixing things, building things.”
Fox also enjoyed skiing and trekking through the surrounding forests, McGrath said.
“In fact, he tried to teach me to ski, which was not a great success, but he loved the northern woods,” McGrath said. “He loved traveling, but I think what he really loved was he liked the rural areas that were forested.”
Fox and his wife frequently hosted dinners at their house for staff members at the College, which Fisher said demonstrated his caring nature toward his colleagues.
“I recall one dinner where he stopped everyone and he said, ‘Do you see what’s happening here?’ And there were six of us. We were sitting next to each other, and we were all left-handed. It was just part of the fabric that is emblematic of his attention to individuals,” Fisher said.
Dingman described Fox as “a friend as well as a boss.”
“He showed a lot of interest in his staff, so when we had our first child in 1979, John was always asking questions about her well-being and how we were doing as new parents,” he said. “Sometimes bosses are too tied up in their day-to-day responsibilities to add that personal touch, but it was a more than welcome gesture.”
According to McGrath, Fox was pragmatic and modest, and other administrators and staff looked up to him as a hard worker and a “unifying presence.”
“I think he would like to be remembered for his personal qualities and his character and his integrity, which was really quite inspirational. He had a great sense of humor. Very dry, but very, very real, smart sense,” McGrath said.
Throughout his career, Dingman said Fox upheld the core values of the University while adapting the College to an ever-transforming student body.
“I think he would want to be remembered as a defender of the best qualities of Harvard,” Dingman said. “So I would say that he cared a lot about veritas, but he cared also about individuals and proceeded with caution.
—Staff writer Andrew Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.