Remarks given at Signet event in honor of Peter J. Gomes
April 20, 2012
by Nancy Sinsabaugh '76
How could any of us memorialize the person who was supposed to conduct our own funeral?
Eloquent when he said “Good Morning”, he used his persuasive powers to raise money for many good causes, most notable Memorial Church and our own Society. But, then again, who could say no to the closest thing to God on Earth?
Peter and I became friends at The Signet dining table during my undergraduate years. He considered my Harvard College class, the Class of 1976, to be HIS class, since we were the first class that as University Minister he both greeted us as freshman and said good-by to us as seniors. And I am also grateful that my son’s class, the Class of 2005, was one of the last classes that Reverend Gomes so honored in the coming and the going.
When I returned to Harvard as an administrator in the mid-80’s, Peter invited me to join The Signet Associates, the first Signet undergraduate woman member to be so honored. When I became Treasurer, succeeding rather than replacing James Storey, ’53, I joined a raucous Executive Committee that included John Marquand, Archie Epps, and Richard Marius. These men loved our Society, its undergraduates and associates, its alumni, and its building on 46 Dunster so lovingly restored by Peter’s own hand.
Where would we be without Reverend Gomes? What will become of us that he no longer presides at our table?
We forged a friendship, he and I, over Signet meals, at Sparks House teas, and during his June garden party. The first year I didn’t receive an invitation to that event, I asked Peter what it meant, and he looked at me over his round glasses and said, “Nancy, YOU don’t need an invitation to attend any party of mine.” Before, during Signet meals and walks in the Yard, we gossiped, critiqued Commencement addresses, and clucked our way through the administrations of several Harvard presidents, always hoping that the next one would improve upon his or her predecessor.
After his first stroke, he was never far from my thoughts and prayers. I looked forward to seeing him again, awaited his return as I heard optimistic reports from those closer to him than I. During his illness, I reflected that he understood better than most Harvard faculty members what it was like for outsiders to come to Harvard. My own upbringing in a small Ohio farm town didn’t prepare me for this high-powered university.
My class was in the vanguard of equal access for women at Harvard, but many of us in those early days felt ourselves unwelcome in Harvard’s male traditions.
Peter, too, had always been something of an outsider, regardless of his posts and status. Maybe that is why he was so kind and generous with his time for those of us who felt we didn’t fit in. He rejoiced in his own uniqueness, and forged his own different path which many of us have followed.
In December of 2009, at 46 Dunster we unveiled a portrait of Maurice Pechet, Signet Associate and generous donor. Admiring Maurice’s likeness, Peter and I were standing in the northeast corner of the Library when I asked him whether there was an official portrait of him somewhere at Harvard.
He sighed, “Yes, in Memorial Church, but I don’t like it at all.”
I asked, “Well, if you could choose the artist, whom would you choose to paint your portrait?”
“Steve Coit,” came the answer, immediately, without hesitation. Clearly, he had previously pondered this question.
And so, Thomas Kelly, the current Signet Associates President, and I hatched a plan. We are indeed fortunate that Steve generously agreed to the idea, and The Society will be forever indebted to him for this great work of art. Peter was thrilled that we had chosen Steve to paint a portrait to hang in The Signet Library. Happily, before Peter’s first stroke, he was able to spend some time posing for the artist.
Our plan was to dedicate this 2012 Annual Dinner weekend to the retiring Pusey Minister in Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, celebrating with him his Harvard career and his devotion to our Society. And so we continue, Peter’s spirit among us, his benevolent visage forever watching over his beloved Signet Library.
We Signet Associates were worried about Peter in 1991 and 1992 after his public admission of his sexual orientation. Privately, he pondered whether to resign. He was visibly subdued; some of us thought he was depressed. So we took special care to watch over him, encourage him in his daily work, laugh all the harder at his jokes, and assure him how much we loved him here at 46 Dunster.
As we always will.