Harvard Almost Human

"Your wooden arm you hold outstretched to shake with passers-by."

Scholars up to the tune of 6,000 and more received degrees at this year's Commencement Exercises — and pleased about it we may presume they were — but consider the case of Joseph F. Dolan '45, of Dorchester, Massachusetts, the son of William F. '10, M.D. '13, and brother of John A. '42, LL.B. '48. Dolan reports as follows:

Early in the fall of 1941 I entered Harvard as a freshman. Later in the fall I took a congressional competitive examination for an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. In November I was notified by my congresswoman that I had won the appointment and that I was to report to the academy on June 1, 1942. I formally accepted the appointment and decided to complete my freshman year at Harvard. During the year, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and our country entered World War II. In May I completed my year at Harvard and received an award for "honors in mathematics."

In June 1942 I reported to the Naval Academy and began my three years as a midshipman. On June 6, 1945, I graduated from the academy with a bachelor of science degree and a commission as an ensign in the navy. Prior to reporting for sea duty, I visited my parents in Winchester, Massachusetts, for a week. While there, I received in the mail a package from Harvard in which was a bachelor of arts diploma with my name on it. At first I thought it was a prank, but it wasn't. The diploma was for real.

I decided that I should notify Harvard of this clerical error and find out to whom I should return the diploma. I phoned the College but made no progress. The several people I spoke to simply did not believe me and kept transferring me to other people. I became increasingly annoyed and finally hung up. After I calmed down, I made one last effort and called the dean of the College, A. Chester Hanford. I told him about the diploma I had received and asked to whom I should return it.

In a polite but firm voice, he told me that such a thing could not have happened. I responded by saying that I would personally come to his office and hand the diploma back to him so that he could see what I was talking about. The dean said he would see me at 10 a.m. the following morning. I arrived at his office at the appointed time, and after polite introductions, I opened my briefcase and silently passed him three documents: my Naval Academy diploma, my U.S. Navy commission, and my unearned Harvard degree. After briefly looking them over, he was flabbergasted and embarrassed. He quickly regained his composure and graciously apologized.

I have never regretted rectifying this error, but in this crazy, mixed-up world in which I have lived, I find it refreshing to know that even Harvard is fallible, almost human.

A trove of Thoreauviana in the woods
Courtesy of the Walden Woods Project

Library in the woods: On acreage wrestled from would-be condominium developers at Walden Pond in Lincoln, Massachusetts, sits the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. Opened in 1998, it is a center for research and education about Henry David Thoreau, A.B. 1837, who heard a different drummer nearby. Its library now houses the most comprehensive body of Thoreau material in one place. Curator Jeffrey S. Cramer had plenty to hand as he edited Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, which Yale University Press will publish on August 9, the exact sesquicentennial of the first appearance of Walden.

Dropout: Historian of science Owen Gingerich revealed in an article about him ("The Copernicus Quest," November-December 2003, page 44) and his book The Book Nobody Read, published in March, that because of the timing of a family move, he did not graduate from high school in 1948. "Maybe," he said in jest, "if The Book Nobody Read makes me famous, the Newton, Kansas, high school will award me an honorary degree." Sure enough. On May 22, in perfect prairie weather, the superintendent of schools handed the professor an honorary diploma at the Newton High School graduation exercises. "It made front-page headlines in the local paper," Gingerich reports, "and it was a great nostalgia trip for me. So now I am a member of the class of 2004."

~Primus V



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