In honor of Veterans Day – this Monday November 11 – we decided to take a look at 10 historical figures who passed through Harvard’s gates and also served their country in the armed forces. Here we go!
Poet Edward Estlin Cummings was born on October 14, 1894 right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree magna cum laude in 1915 and received a Master of Arts degree from the university the following year. In 1917, with the First World War ongoing in Europe, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an actual unit for five weeks, during which time he explored Paris with a new friend. On September 21, 1917, five months after starting his belated assignment, Cummings was arrested by the French military on suspicion of espionage and undesirable activities. He was held for three and a half months in a military detention camp with other detainees in a large room. Cummings’ father failed to obtain his son’s release through diplomatic channels, and in December 1917 he wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson. Cummings was released on December 19, 1917, and Brown was released two months later. Cummings later used this prison experience as the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room.
Bradlee was born in 1921 just across the river in Boston. He attended Harvard College, where he was a member of the A.D. Club, a Greek–English major and joined the Naval ROTC. Bradlee graduated in 1942 and two hours after he received his degree, he received his naval commission, joining the Office of Naval Intelligence. He went on to work as a communications officer in the Pacific during World War II, serving primarily on the destroyer USS Philip fighting off the shore of Guam. He fought in the biggest naval battle ever fought, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Later he was the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. During the presidency of Richard Nixon he challenged the federal government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers and oversaw the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s stories documenting the Watergate scandal.
Lemmon attended Harvard College with the class of 1947, where he lived in Eliot House and served as president of the Hasty Pudding Club and vice-president of Dramatic and Delphic Clubs. Forbidden to act in theaters, Lemmon broke Harvard rules to appear in roles using pseudonyms like Timothy Orange. He was also a member of the V-12 Navy College Training Program and Lemmon was commissioned by the United States Navy, serving as an ensign on an aircraft carrier during World War II before returning to Harvard. He went on to star in over 60 films, such as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Odd Couple, Save the Tiger (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor), The China Syndrome, and Glengarry Glen Ross. In 1988 the American Film Institute gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1995 Lemmon was awarded the inaugural Harvard Arts Medal.
While there are a number of Harvard alumni who served both in the armed forces and on the Supreme Court, only William Hubbs Rehnquist held the title of Chief Justice. Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, first as an Associate Justice, starting in 1972 and then as Chief Justice from 1986 until his death in 2005. He attended Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, for one quarter in the fall of 1942, before entering the U.S. Army Air Forces. He served from March 1943 – 1946, mostly in assignments in the United States. Following his time in the military, in 1950, he attended Harvard University, where he received a Master of Arts, this time in government
Another native Bostonian, Redstone attended the Boston Latin School (the oldest public school in America), from which he graduated first in his class. In 1944, he then graduated from Harvard College, where he completed the studies for his baccalaureate in three years. Redstone went on to serve as a 1st lieutenant in the United States Army during World War II. He worked primarily decoding Japanese messages with a team at the Signals Intelligence Service. After his military service he attended Georgetown University Law Center, before transferring to Harvard Law School and receiving his law degree in 1947. Today he is the majority owner and chairman of the board of the National Amusements theater chain. Through National Amusements, Redstone and his family are majority voting shareholders of CBS Corporation and Viacom.
Robert Gould Shaw
Robert Gould Shaw was an American officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Born into a prominent Boston abolitionist family, from 1856 until 1859 he attended Harvard University, joining the Porcellian Club, and the Hasty Pudding Club. He had been a member of the class of 1860, though he withdrew before graduating. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Shaw volunteered to serve with the 7th New York Militia. Shaw was promoted to major in 1863, and two weeks later was made full colonel. He accepted command of the first all-black regiment – the 54th Massachusetts and supporting the promised equal treatment for his troops, he encouraged the men to refuse their pay until it was equal to that of white troops’ wage. He famously led his regiment at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner where they attacked a beachhead near Charleston, South Carolina, and Shaw was killed while leading his men. He is featured as a major role, played by Matthew Broderick, in the film Glory. You can find his memorial at the start of the Freedom Trail across from the MA State House.
Tom Lehrer was born in 1928 and grew up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Lehrer was considered a child prodigy and entered Harvard College at the age of 15. As a mathematics undergraduate, he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends, including “Fight Fiercely, Harvard.” Lehrer earned his Bachelor of Arts, magna cum laude, from Harvard University in 1946. He was drafted into the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957, working at the NSA. Lehrer claims that he invented the Jell-O shot during this time, due to the base’s ban on alcoholic beverages. These experiences later provided inspiration for songs such as “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier” and “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be.” Lehrer paid $15 for some studio time in 1953 to record the album Songs by Tom Lehrer. The initial pressing was 400 copies. Since Radio stations would not play his songs on the air due to their controversial subjects, he sold the album on campus at Harvard for $3 a piece. Several local stores near the Harvard campus also sold it for a minimal markup as a kind of community service. It became a cult success by word of mouth, and Lehrer embarked on a series of concert tours and recorded a second album in 1959.
Neil Rudenstine & Derek Bok
Two Harvard Presidents both served their country in the military. Neil Rudenstine studied the humanities at Princeton University where he participated in Army R.O.T.C. After serving in the U.S. Army as an artillery officer, he attended New College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1964, Rudenstine received a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard. Rudenstine then taught at Harvard from 1964 to 1968 in the Department of English and American Literature and Language. He would serve as President of Harvard from 1991 to 2001. At Harvard he gained a reputation as an effective fundraiser. Derek Bok graduated from Stanford University and then Harvard Law School in 1954. Bok served as a legal officer in the U.S. Army from 1956 until 1958, during which time he earned masters degrees in economics and psychology at George Washington University. It was during his time with the army that he decided he wanted to teach. Bok taught law at Harvard beginning in 1958 and was selected dean of the law school in 1968. He then served as the university’s 25th president from 1971 to 1991, succeeding Nathan M. Pusey. In the mid-1970s Bok negotiated with Radcliffe College president Matina Horner the “non-merger merger” between Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges which was a major step in the final merger of the two institutions.
Prominent surgeon Dr. Joseph Murray is the first on our list to have attended Harvard Medical School. After graduating with his medical degree, Murray began his internship at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, today called Brigham and Women’s Hospital. During that time, he was inducted into the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army where he served in the plastic surgery unit at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. On December 23, 1954, Murray performed the world’s first successful renal transplant between the identical Herrick twins at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, an operation that lasted five and a half hours. In 1990, he was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work in organ transplantation.
John F. Kennedy
Numerous US Presidents attended Harvard and served in the Military including Rutherford B Hayes, George W Bush, and both Franklin & Teddy Roosevelt. But perhaps the most well known (and certainly the most local) is President John F Kennedy. Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, and graduated cum laude from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts in government, before joining the U.S. Naval Reserve the following year. In 1940, Kennedy attempted to enter the army’s Officer Candidate School. He was medically disqualified due to his chronic lower back problems, despite months of training. In 1941, with help from the director of the Office of Naval Intelligence (who, it probably won’t surprise you to learn was the former naval attaché to JFK’s dad Joseph) joined the United States Naval Reserve. He was commissioned an ensign on October 26, 1941, and joined the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C. Kennedy served aboard PT-109 (the site of Kennedy’s most famous wartime heroics) and PT-59. After serving in the House of Representatives and Senate, Kennedy went on to win the 1960 Presidential election.