Remarks given at Signet event in honor of Peter J. Gomes
April 20, 2012
by Jim Storey '53
One early autumn afternoon in the late 1970’s the telephone rang in my office. It was James Barr Ames, revered head of trusts and estates at Ropes & Gray, inviting me to tea at the Union Club the next day. No reason given. Honored by an invitation from such a distinguished gentleman, and mystified about why Mr. Ames might want to see a securities lawyer, I quickly accepted.
Over our tea cups at a table looking out on the Common, Mr. Ames asked me to be Graduate Treasurer of the Signet. Although I thought I was singularly ill equipped to be anybody’s treasurer, I could hardly say, “No,” and I was comforted to learn that Dan Steiner, ’54, a good friend at college, was the Graduate President.
Dan was then General Counsel to Harvard University with an office in Massachusetts Hall just outside President Bok’s office. During the next couple of years, I met with Dan roughly every quarter: we discussed the Signet’s financial troubles, hopes and ideas for somehow replenishing its meager endowment, schemes to raise funds by renting out our banquet hall, proposals to attract more undergraduate members, or to improve the lunches, or to make the teas more popular…and we happily reminisced about our undergraduate days at the Signet and in Eliot House.
Isabelle and I began attending the Annual Dinners and getting to know the then current Signet establishment. We really enjoyed the experience.
My daughter Eliza, class of 1983, joined as an undergraduate member, further drawing us into the fold. Then one day Dan announced he was stepping down as President and the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, had consented to take up the reins.
I had heard of the Reverend Gomes, but didn’t know him. So I awaited the invitation to meet him. The summons came: I was to appear in his office in Memorial Church late one afternoon the next week. As I sat nervously waiting in the corridor in the Church basement, I rehearsed the list that I had prepared of urgent matters, perhaps ten of them, to place before the new President. Maybe five or ten minutes went
by. Slowly I realized that coming from behind the closed door were voices, chuckles, occasional bursts of laughter, an undercurrent of what only can be described as “cackling.”
Suddenly the door burst open, the Reverend Gomes welcomed me effusively, apologizing for keeping me waiting, offering me some iced tea, and introducing me to the newly appointed Graduate Secretary, John Marquand, Master of Dudley House, who welcomed me equally effusively.
They established me in a comfortable chair, asked me to call them “Peter” and “John,” and resumed their animated conversation.
Once in a while one of them sought my opinion on a particular point of their discussion, and occasionally I tried to steer the conversation to one of the matters on my list, but most of the hour-long interview was devoted to University gossip. Peter then announced that a Jan Randolph would be in touch with me and he thanked me for my time. The meeting was over.
It was a very crestfallen Signet Graduate Treasurer who rode the Red Line home to Boston that evening. None of my “urgent” matters had been resolved, or even adequately addressed. Very discouraged, I considered quitting, but decided to wait awhile to see whether things improved. I expected a long-term period of problem-ignoring, decision-avoiding, continuing small talk with no ideas introduced or actions taken to improve the Signet’s plight.
Then everything changed!
When I arrived at the office the next morning, I found on my desk an envelope with Dudley House as the return address. Surprised, and skeptical, I opened it to find a four-page, single spaced, typed and impeccably proof-read set of minutes of our meeting the previous evening. I couldn’t believe it! And, furthermore, every one of my urgent matters was discussed, each with an action plan suggested. What a surprise! What a relief!
A new era had dawned for me and for the Signet. Peter soon established a schedule of bi-weekly breakfasts at Sparks House for the three of us, catered by the incomparable Gerry Pierce. These breakfast meetings lasted from 8:00 to 10:00 and continued for about two years.
And Peter lost no time in establishing the rules: The President, Secretary and Treasurer constituted the Signet’s ultimate authority. We were the highest governing body. “What we say, goes!”
Our morning meetings were a pleasure to take part in - Peter was informal, mischievious, witty, often hilarious. He taught us to not take ourselves too seriously. Although deeply loyal to Harvard, he never felt bound by tradition — to him change was a tonic. Our discussions were wide-ranging, often iconoclastic, always imaginative, always polite, and their goal was always to improve the Signet.
We (for “we” read Peter leading, we two following) concocted grandiose plans for a total renovation of 46 Dunster Street, transforming a threadbare paint-peeling old frame structure into Peter’s version of a lush Victorian parlor. To foot the bill we embarked upon a million-dollar capital campaign and organized Signet alumni and alumnae into a vast phalanx of enthusiastic fund-raisers. Morale in the undergraduate body and interest in the minds, hearts, and pocketbooks of graduates steadily grew. We encourage elaborate celebrations at the Annual Dinners, and promoted “holiday” dinners and impromptu gatherings to recognize local dignitaries and traveling artists. We revitalized the annual fund program. We argued passionately about who should be the medalist, when and where parties should be held, who should approach which rich graduate for a contribution.
We wrote celebratory speeches and congratulatory poetry. We argued about menus, wine, and seating. Most of all we indulged ourselves in Peter’s inspired leadership and delightful company. Those were heady times, the glory days of the Signet: the gala Annual Dinner in Memorial Hall when Mason Hammond and El Forbes were the olive-wreathed medalists and Bart Giamatti the Speaker; elaborate annual
or holiday dinners or campaign events held in the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery, the Morgan Library, the Courtyard of the Fogg, Loeb House, and Upstairs at the Pudding.
Peter was still the organization’s de facto leader long after he stepped down as President. Every current question still evokes the response, “What would Peter do?” Peter’s spirit will never leave the Signet.