Sidney Verba, and a Classy Class Reporter

Harvard’s mensch, and a record-setting recorder of Crimson lives

Portrait photograph of Sidney Verba
Sidney VerbaPhotograph by Justin Ide/HPAC

A Mensch. In the Memorial Minute on the life of the late Sidney Verba, a prominent government scholar, presented to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in March, it was observed that as a youth, “He was unaware of Harvard until his public high school guidance counselor suggested he apply and he looked up ‘Harvard University’” in the nearby branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. That first brush with Harvard apparently took—nor was that Verba’s last important encounter with libraries. The minute observed:

“Sid not only studied politics; he was a natural politician, and one of Harvard’s most influential academic administrators. He was not merely the adult in the room….What Sid could do was use humor, respect, and careful attention to turn the rest of his colleagues into adults. It did not matter if someone was brusque, argumentative, paranoid, offensive, thoughtless, passive-aggressive, or combative. No matter what happened, nobody could provoke Sid to take offense. Acting out in Sid’s presence just did not accomplish anything. He would always defuse the situation, usually with a self-deprecating story or joke from his famous huge collection….

“After M Magazine officially named him one of the nation’s ‘Tweediest Professors,’ the Harvard Crimson reported, ‘The Pforzheimer University Professor said he didn’t think he “really earned the title” because he never “really worked at being tweedy.” But he was quick to add that he could think of no other Harvard professor who was more deserving of the honor.’

“It is no wonder that the University asked Sid to take on some of the most difficult challenges dividing members of the university community: assessing the role of ROTC on campus, producing a unified Harvard calendar, addressing long-ignored issues of sexual harassment, and consolidating Harvard’s 99 libraries. Sid led efforts to define and address all these fraught issues…. Sid made us more productive. He made us better people.

“President Derek Bok explained that he dreaded asking Sid in 1984 to take on the role of director of the University Library because Sid had already done so much for Harvard. Characteristically, however, Sid responded that Harvard was responsible for almost everything good that had happened to him [Sid] in his life, so he would never turn down a request to serve. Sid went on to hold the position for over two decades, digitizing the Library’s collection to provide wider access and bringing the largest private library in the world into the modern community of libraries worldwide.…

“Sid was a mensch, a distinguished scholar with a unique sense of humor, a kind heart, and an unsurpassed sense of what was important.”


Deborah Smullyan

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/HPA

Classy Reporter. Deborah Smullyan ’72 retired from the Harvard Alumni Association’s class report office—the source of those iconic, crimson-covered personal histories assembled for each College class every five years—on April 9, concluding a long Harvard career. In her 18 years of service there, she edited 53 reports, totaling 34,512 published pages (including the record-setting Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1971 50th Anniversary Report just delivered: 1, 472 pages). Smullyan has also written this magazine’s obituaries for almost 27 years: on average, 75 to 80 gem-like accounts of diverse lives per bimonthly issue, totaling perhaps 10,000 words. (Happily for us, she continues crafting the obituaries as a volunteer.) At the online retirement celebration masterfully emceed by Diane MacDonald, HAA’s senior associate director for the class report office, unofficial laureate Renny Little ’55, long his class’s secretary, hailed Smullyan in a resonant ode, “Fair Deborah”:

Fair Deborah, you are leaving the [HAA office] Penthouse quite bare
As life there just won’t be the same.
Red Books and Obits you have handled with care.
We applaud the long years of your reign.
Your counsel was wise, your patience quite long,
as all grads and your friends will attest.
We will miss your good cheer as you retire this year,
and we wish you sincerely our best.

It seems simply impossible to imagine any one person ever editing and writing more words about so many Harvardians. Should anyone want to make a wager against that claim, Primus has a foil-proof counter: no one has ever done that work so caringly, conscientiously, lovingly, and well.

Published in the print edition of the July-August 2021 issue (Volume 123, Number 6), under the headline “Mr. Harvard.”

Read more articles by Primus VI

You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

The Power of Patience

Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention

The Queen of Versailles

A documentary film turns a lens on the “1 percenters.”

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets