Saturday, August 3, 2013

Kevin Landry and Harvard Athletics

Kevin Landry, a good and honorable man, passed away this week after a battle with lung cancer. He was 69 years old. He was a member of the class of 1966 at Harvard, and made a great deal of money in private equity; he was long head of the firm TA Associates. He was extremely generous to Harvard, contributing to benefit both teaching and athletics. He and his family donated the endowment that supports the head coach of women's ice hockey. His friends and associates have created a fund at Harvard to support cancer research. He was the alumni leader of the last Harvard campaign.

Thank you, Kevin. Harvard, and all of us who serve Harvard, owe you a lot.

I did not know Landry well, but his death as I was preparing to teach my freshman seminar on Amateur Athletics made me think of how many of the great citizens and leaders who have graduated from Harvard in the period, say, from 1950-1975 had strong athletic experiences here. Landry seems to have been more of a hockey fan at Harvard than a player, though his Middlesex School tribute remembers his football and basketball experience there. I always wonder, when I hear a tribute like this to the integrity of a sometime athlete, whether there is any connection:

And while he generally opposes raising taxes, he says he can’t defend his industry’s advantageous tax treatment, which allows people like him to pay much lower tax rates on their earnings. 
“He’s highly, highly principled. To a fault sometimes,’’ said Andy McLane, one of Landry’s longtime partners. “It sets a great example here about doing the right thing, taking the high road. He doesn’t tolerate people who hide things. He wants people to tell the truth.”
 How often do you hear that kind of talk from the captains of the financial industry these days? (This was a year ago, when he retired and everyone knew he was dying.)

But he is not the only one. Here are a few other good and honorable men from the same 25 year time period.

Peter Brooke, Harvard '52 and football. A titan of venture capital. As sweet a man as you would ever want to meet, and a person of ramrod rectitude. A tremendous moral support to me while I was dean and Peter headed the Overseers' Visiting Committee to the College.

Joe O'Donnell, Harvard '67 and baseball. As if his devotion to Harvard were not enough (he is a Fellow, and the baseball field is named in his honor), he has been a major force supporting research on cystic fibrosis, which took his son at age 12.

Tom Stephenson, Harvard '64 and football. Partner at Sequoia Capital, which has been a key player in venture funding for the information revolution. Served as US ambassador to Portugal. Endowed the Harvard head football coach position, serves as Overseer.

Don Chiofaro, Harvard '68 and football. A hugely influential Boston area real estate developer and a committed civic leader in Boston, heading up our 45th reunion efforts.

Jerry Jordan, Harvard '61 and football. A scholarship kid at Harvard who has made big commitments to financial aid at Harvard, as well as to athletics ("Jordan Field").

Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard '67 and ice hockey. Harvard's Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. What more needs to be said? The most respected figure in his field.

Scott Harshbarger, Harvard '64 and football. Very popular Attorney General in MA, also headed Common Cause, ran for governor and could do it again. In private practice now but taught at HLS.

Paul Guzzi, Harvard '64 and football. President of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, and a regular advisor to Harvard in various ways.

Dick Cashin, Harvard '75 and crew (two time Olympian). Another generous and upright alum who credits his athletic experience with some of his success. In a wonderful tribute to recently deceased coach Harry Parker, Cashin says, "My mother said, 'Your father gave you your brains, I gave you your drive and Harry Parker put it all together.'"

There are many others I could add to this list, and there are many other forms of thanks I could offer for the loyalty and support these people have shown Harvard. Several of them are of Irish or Italian ancestry and came from blue-collar families; their athletic prowess was an early way they were able to show their capacity to succeed.

But that is not my point about them. I wanted to make the list just long enough to say something about a couple of these people while providing them a layer of of anonymity.

In Excellence Without a Soul, I tell this story:

The bearded, bespectacled young dean of students in one of the Houses stopped me after a meeting of the Administrative Board. “Is it true,” he asked, “that they are trying to cut the number of ath- letes?” It was true; the Crimson had reported, correctly, that the presi- dents of Ivy League colleges were planning to reduce the ceiling on the number of football admittees in the freshman class to at most thirty, maybe twenty-five, from the current thirty-five. I was surprised he was interested; I didn’t recall having seen him at any games. “That would be terrible,” he continued. “They add so much to the House. They are the only people here who know how to lose.” 
This really happened, and it is one of the smartest things anybody (including me) said while I was dean.

Two of the gentlemen in the list above have won my everlasting respect by handling disappointment well. In each case, an institution they loved, and to which they had devoted a great deal of everything they had to offer, made decisions to which they were deeply opposed. Many of the successful and wealthy people I know would have responded by picking up their marbles and going home. Each one of these people  has plenty of other charitable and civic interests and could have said: "If X wants to go there, I don't need them--they can find somebody else to ignore." In both cases, these guys instead took some time to catch their breath and think hard about what really mattered to them, and rejoined the team more determined than ever to be constructive and to help the institution succeed.

In a world in which immediate gratification and self-interest are such driving values, the experience of playing and losing team sports when young teaches the toughness and resilience on which the pursuit of excellence depends.

The Bowen-Shulman book, The Game of Life, claimed that the data on today's college athletes showed that such sentimentality about the lessons of athletic competition is unwarranted for today's students. This surely has not been a good year for college athletics in its quasi-professional form, what with the Penn State scandal and all. A large number of anonymous grumblers over the past year have unfairly tried to turn the Gov 1310 mess from a scandal about a course into a scandal about the students who were sucked into the course.

I am far more optimistic about the value of competitive athletics the way they are conducted at Harvard. I know many of these people share that optimism. And if anybody at Harvard thinks it would be wise to scale back our athletic program or to moderate our ambitions, I hope they have the sense to call the likes of these people and ask them what they think.

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