Opening Remarks given at Signet event in honor of Peter J. Gomes
April 20, 2012
by Rucker Alex '99-'00
Good evening! I'm Rucker Alex, chair of the Signet Alumni Board, and member of the Signet Associates.
We’re truly sorry that Winsome Brown ’95, Obie award winning actress and good friend of Peter Gomes, can’t be here herself to host, due to a family medical emergency. We keep her and her family in our thoughts.
I’m honored to step into Winsome’s luminous limelight and host tonight’s reminiscences and celebration of the life of Peter Gomes.
The next half hour is dedicated to memories of Peter Gomes, in and around the Signet. Even prior to his untimely passing, this weekend was intended to be a celebration of his life, and even after last March we decided to keep it that way. After sharing my own recollections, and hearing Winsome’s remarks, a few members of the Signet community from a span across 40 years will speak. Finally, we’ll unveil a phenomenal portrait of Peter Gomes, which is well shrouded behind me.
A request, which we think Peter would approve of. Heaven forbid we get between you and a good time, including a beverage refill—just please make comings and goings as discreet as possible, so everyone can hear the remarks of those that are speaking.
Peter J Gomes was born in Boston in 1942. After his birth, the next best benefit to the Signet Society was his election, as Signet associate, in early 1970s, around the time that he became the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church. Peter Gomes was a wise and witty mainstay at the Signet lunch table for 4 decades. Served as President of the Associates (the governing board of the Signet) for ten years, from 1981 to 1991. He often came to Friday teas and partook in exchanges which sometimes started with the following:
“Reverend Gomes, it’s nice to see you.”“My good friend! It’s nice to be seen.”
Among his varied and valuable contributions to the Signet include:
- Renovation and modernization in the 1980s of this Signet building (for instance, removing the bar that was in what is now the front hallway, a decision which must’ve required some courage), made possible by the first of two Signet capital campaigns he helped to lead
- Addition of ecclesiastical-looking bookcases, rugs, and other furniture
- Instructions that we read every year at the annual dinner about the proper way to pass the loving cup in order to drink to The Society
- The advice to officers to avoid using the Signet for cooking classes, performance pieces, and magazine publication and instead "do nothing." That (as he said) was the Signet Society's job. As undergrad president Ben Lytal ’01 commented: “The deep magic of the Signet seemed to be that for all that… I had a wise man's blessing.”
Signet associate and Harvard professor Harvey Cox summed up how those of us who knew him in and out of the Signet occasionally felt, treading in Gomes’ wake:
“For me, it was like sailing in a small bark in the wake of the Queen Mary.”
By the time I got to Harvard, in 1995, I was on the slippery slope from Catholicism to Congregationalist to Unitarian (I’ve since descended towards a version of paganism, though—I assure you—through no fault of the Reverend). Freshman year, I was housed in the barracks of Canaday B, spitting distance from the Memorial Church, and soon began to occasionally attend Reverend Gomes’s Sunday sermons. However… it was because of access to him at the Signet lunch table that I worked up the nerve to ask if he would be willing to sponsor a 1-on-1 independent study with me.
I wanted to better understand the sermon as a form of persuasion. How, rhetorically, do effective preachers use words to compel their congregations to change behavior based on visions and beliefs that are essentially unknowable and unseen on this earth? We studied sermons from Jonathan Edwards to Paul Tillich, but my favorite moments were arriving to the office of Reverend Gomes with a creased copy of his own sermon, eager to hear a master storyteller, devout believer, and tireless teacher push back his glasses, lean back in his chair, and share tidbits of how and why he wove such beautifully constructed webs of images, stories, and morality.
Also, these conversations helped to pull back the curtain a bit on how the master raconteur was able to hold rapt the impatient, hungry, flirty turn-of-millennium undergrads at the Signet lunch table.
Since this evening is dedicated to reminiscences of Gomes, I wanted to share with you some relevant words from Reverend Gomes’ own sermon, given while I was an undergrad, in 1998:
Memory is a powerful emotion, giving us participation in worlds we cannot see and allowing us in the present to reclaim something of the past. Memory thus adds a dimension to our existence, and reminds us that we are not alone and that our present moments, however pleasant or sad, are not our only moments. Remembrance, therefore, is of the essence of thanksgiving, for the first act of thanksgiving is always an act of recollection. To be thankful is to remember and be reminded of that by which we have been sustained, renewed, and kept whole.
This night is dedicated to the spirit of thanks-giving—and celebration—for the sustenance, renewal, and wholeness that Reverend Gomes bestowed upon the Signet and its community.
We invited undergraduate Signet officer Hana Bajramovic to read remarks which Winsome Brown sent us today. As Winsome’s remarks make clear, she was well suited to capture a great impression of Reverend Gomes. Case in point-- As Winsome wrote in a fabulous essay on the Signet, arts, and Peter Gomes, which is on the Signet Society website:
"With his waistcoat and watch fob, his regal "Afro-Saxon" (his term) bearing, his resonant voice, and his hearty laugh, he cut a large figure. We always knew when the Reverend Professor was in the house.”
Tonight we will hear additional rememberances from the following members of The Signet community:
- Winsome Brown '95
- Jim Storey ‘53
- Cynthia Rossano, editor of book entitled Durable Values: Selected Writings of Peter J. Gomes
- Daniel Sanks, Signet associate and Peter Gomes's executor
- Anne Fadiman ‘74
- Jonathan Moses ‘88
- Christopher Laconi, Signet Associate
- Nancy Sinsabaugh ’76, Vice President of Signet Associates
- Tom Kelly, President of Signet Associates; and Charlotte Alter '12, Undergraduate President
- Steve Coit ‘71, Signet Associate and Portraitist
Thank you for joining us this evening. In conclusion we will read Peter Gomes's favorite prayer, attributed to Cardinal Newman:
“O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in thy great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.”