Bill Doebele’s wise words

Bill Doebele talk to the 40th Reunion of the Loeb Fellowship

Piper Auditorium, Harvard Graduate School of Design

8th October 2010

This is the script used by Bill to guide his talk. His actual delivery may differ in some minor respects.


Thank you all for making this the most memorable weekend of my life.

Also my thanks to Jim and Sally for making this one of the richest and best organized reunions ever.

I promise that I will be as brief as it is possible for a former professor to be.

I will begin with a note of appreciation, then mention one concern that I have about the future of the Fellowship.

I must begin by sincerely thanking each of you here who have astonished me by contributing to the William A. Doebele Fellowship. I salute both your generosity and your good judgment.

When I was a callow youth in the high school of a small town in the hills of central Pennsylvania, I dreamed the romantic dreams of the young. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I said to myself, if I could do something in my life that would improve the world in a way that would endure beyond my own brief existence on this troubled planet. A modest but lasting memorial to my having been here.

Today it is hard for me to express the degree of my gratification in finding that the consummation of that youthful dream is being achieved, not by my own efforts, but through the incredible generosity of your gift.

Not only in the money itself but in its objectives. There could have been no more felicitous tribute than your establishing in my name a fellowship “support in perpetuity for GSD students to apply their education and training towards community design needs” both here and abroad.

When you gave this [hold up framed description of the gift] to me yesterday I did not imagine what an eloquently written document this is. Its praise is both lavish and humbling. Modesty and time preclude my reading it to you now. It will be a treasured possession for me as long I live, and then go into the permanent archives of the Graduate School of Design.

Laurie Beckelman and Mike Horst, you have done an incredible selfless job that mere words cannot repay.

I would like also to thank all the members of the Doebele Capital Campaign Committee:

Phil Freelon

Jean King

Ken Kruckemeyer

Todd Lee

Cara McCarty

Charles McKinney

Ed McNamara

Jerry Pucillo

Leif Selkregg

Peter Stein

Jim Stockard

Fei Tsen

Sally Young, and

Honorary Chairs, Ron Druker and Tony Pangaro

You have jogged in me a thousand wonderful memories.

How can I thank you enough?

My cup runneth over.

As I gaze out upon this historic gathering, and upon all your eager uplifted faces, I feel that I can say with full confidence that the Loeb Fellowship Admissions Committee has never made a mistake!

John Loeb, himself, would have been proud to be here this morning. It was his personal concern about cities and the environment that created this unique Fellowship. And John backed his concern three times with cold cash: first in 1969, with an important second gift in 1973, and finally with a superb gift in 1997, when he made to Harvard the largest donation ever made by a living person.

In a relaxed moment with him I once asked John why he had done so much for Harvard generally and the Loeb Fellowship in particular.

His answer was simple, and, I think, quite moving:

“Bill,” he said, “shrouds have no pockets. This country has been very good to me, and I have long thought that I should give something back while still living. It would be foolish for me just to send a check to the US Treasury, where it would be immediately swallowed into an indiscriminate mass. As I thought about it,” he said, “I realized that a disproportionate percentage of the leaders of America over the decades have come from this university, not only in a political sense, but in the fields of the arts, culture and learning. To give to Harvard, in a very real sense,” he said, “would be a direct contribution to the strength and vitality of the United States itself, repaying in part the debt that I owe this country.”

(He thus anticipated similar sentiments to those of President Faust in her talk yesterday.)

John and Mrs. Loeb had for a long time been close friends of John Lindsay, Mayor of New York in the turbulent years of 1966-1973. John recalled that in many conversations with Lindsay, the mayor had remarked that in spite of strong political support he had great difficulties in filling his staff with persons with the skills and vision that he and the city needed. He complained that his traffic advisors would always recommend that improving traffic would solve New York City‟s problems. His education advisers said that better schools were the answer. His land-use advisors would state that improved zoning would save the city, and so on. The vision of everyone was constrained by the intellectual horizons of their professional training years earlier.

“Where” said Lindsay, ”can I find mid-career professionals who have understood the limitations of their earlier educations and then re-educated themselves to deal with urban and environmental problems in broader and more effective ways?”

Ever the entrepreneur, when John Loeb discussed these conversations with me, an idea sprang into my mind: Why not address Lindsay‟s challenges at the Graduate School of Design, for which, incidentally, I was then trying to raise money? And so I sketched the concept of the Loeb Fellowships. John Loeb immediately took to it, allocating to the program 75% of the one million dollars he had already pledged to the GSD capital drive. The following fall of 1970, I launched the program before John could change his mind. Thus was the Fellowship born.

A number of years later, grateful Fellows in New York suggested that they sponsor a dinner in that city in John’s honor. When I proposed this, John, like many husbands, said, “I will have to check with Mrs. Loeb.” A day later, he called me back and said, “Mrs. Loeb has decided, “There is no need for you to arrange a dinner, you come to lunch with us.” “

And so began the custom of annual lunches at the Loeb’s home on Park Avenue on the first Friday of every December. Thirteen classes of Fellows were fortunate enough to dine in that remarkable apartment, filled with art evaluated at John„s death at almost one hundred million dollars.

At these lunches, John gave each Fellow three minutes in which to present her or himself. I was always amazed, gratified and relieved at how each Fellow managed to present the importance of her or his work with enthusiasm, flare, and sometimes even of touch of glamour. The only exception being a Fellow who expounded in some detail on the sewerage treatment system of her city, which John, with a smile, said might not be the most appropriate presentation as lunch was being served.

As a result of these lunches, John and Mrs. Loeb often remarked to me that of the many millions that they had given to dozens of worthy causes, the Fellowship was their all-time favorite because it was possible for them to know and support to leadership potential of so many smart and attractive young people. Whenever they claimed that this was their favorite of all their charities, I always thought to myself: “They have proved again that they have excellent judgment.“

This Fellowship now has its own endowment, separate from the Graduate School of Design or any other part of Harvard. It is a tub on its own bottom. It will have an independent flow of income forever, or at least as long as Harvard itself endures.

Although one hesitates to question the President of Harvard, I think that she (and the Dean, also) were much too conservative, when they mentioned the possible 80th Anniversary of the Fellowship.

In fact, I now ask you to engage in what Einstein used to call a “thought experiment.” Please try to project yourselves into the minds of Fellows at the 240th Anniversary Reunion as they look back in the archives at the quaint doings that took place at this 40th Anniversary Reunion. Would they view us as we now think of quaint doings of those in colonial times?

Would they chuckle at our ridiculous ways of dressing, at our slavery to a cloud-like internet with its vaporous platforms, and our primitive manners of dancing and entertainment?

Although 40 years may seem a long time, and a number of speakers here have pandered to your vanity, please realize that you are the only the founding generation of the Loeb Fellowship Program, not its culmination. (Sorry to disillusion you.) However, being founders carries some special obligations that I will come to in a moment.

The Fellowship‟s endowment assures that, with a little bit of luck and decent management, that there will be a 240th Anniversary, and a 340th and even many more!

There are a number of fellowships across the country that profess to be about leadership. However, the Loeb Fellowship Program is unique. In general other fellowships tend to be rewards for those with recognized achievements and a lengthy CV. “A time to back-off and re-charge intellectual batteries“ as it is often said.

The Loeb Fellowship, as Jim Stockard and I have attempted to define it, is not like that. Instead, it is dedicated to assisting persons who have a great potential for leadership . It is about what each will do and not what they have done when they arrive here.

You must realize that this is a very risky proposition for the Admissions Committee. It must always take a chance to choose people for what they will be in 10-15 years, as compared to the established record that they are now. Not an easy thing. As Yogi Berra has truly said: “It‟s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Over time there is a kind of tidal pull for Admissions Committees to go for the tried-and-true. After all, why take chances on the future when you can select Fellows so well established that no one can question your decisions?

The wonderful administration of Jim Stockard and Sally Young, unfortunately, will eventually pass from the scene. Many new Curators will come and go in the next several hundred years. But you, the alumni/ae, will endure. That is why this morning I am placing a special burden on you collectively and individually: I urge you to be diligent [repeat, diligent] to maintain the uniqueness of this Fellowship.

I ask you to resist the notion that a Loeb Fellowship is simply a “Sabbatical” or “a time to re-charge batteries.”

I ask you resist “age creep” in the selection process.

I ask you to resist “recycling the elite,” those who have already had similar educational opportunities.

I ask you to resist the notion that the Fellowship is a reward for past achievement rather than a launching pad for new and broader destinations.

As alumni/ae you alone have the continuity to protect the uniqueness of this enterprise against the tidal pulls toward conformity with conventional fellowships. Please use your continuity and influence to insist that the Admissions Committee continues to take chances.

A wise philosopher, Pogo, has said, “We live in a time of insurmountable opportunities.”

A recent poll of Fellows done by Ed McNamara (in which many of you here may have participated), showed the greatest benefit that most Fellows felt that they got from the program was not new technical skills, but a year in which they grew in confidence.

It truly is a time to achieve a new sense of life and its insurmountable opportunities.

At its best the Loeb Fellowship is a time of personal transformation, It is the famous S-curve that by June propels each Fellow to new level of mind — and of spirit.

Thank you for your patience in listening.

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