Yes, the rains came, on and off, throughout the party. Numerous high-tech displays, like the rows of LEDs colorfully illuminating Widener Library’s steps and Sever Hall’s arched doorways, stamped this as an irrefutably 2011 event, but the sky insisted that some elements have not changed a whit since 1636. Then as now, students in the Yard—who’d increased from a handful to a few thousand—adapted to the weather. On a dais near the Widener steps, a group of student singers, sheltered beneath umbrellas, harmonized enthusiastically. One vocalist even improvised some percussive accents by opening and closing his umbrella to snap the raindrops off in time with the music. Don’t fight nature: sing with it.
The celebration, carefully planned, imaginatively designed, and generously funded, had enough resilience to overcome the adverse weather, and so those who stayed to eat, drink, dance, and party—as thousands did—took home fun memories of a night that turned out to be more memorable than if the weather had been perfect.
Undergraduates were at the center of the occasion, and perhaps it was the crowd’s youth and gusto that enabled it to shrug off massive puddles and inches-thick mud in the Yard to relish the wonder of the unique occasion. When the giant, H-shaped, red-velvet birthday cake was finally available for eating shortly after 9 p.m., a mosh pit instantly developed on all four sides of the cake pavilion as hundreds pressed forward, eager for a bite of history. The wait was long and the crowd dense—but warm and congenial, even cooperative. One undergrad blurted out a confession amid the crush: “I’ve never worked so hard for a piece of cake in my life.” He was grinning from ear to ear.
The festivities began with special dinners in the dining halls, featuring dishes drawn from four centuries of Harvard College repasts, like the glorious “Grand Sallat,” an Elizabethan salad served in the 1600s including greens with almonds, capers, dates, figs, and hard-cooked eggs. Undergraduates and students from the graduate schools then made their collective ways to the Yard in themed parades, which President Faust and other dignitaries reviewed as they passed the Widener steps. The Houses competed hard for preeminence: Kirklanders, for example, paraded beneath a large moving arch made of red, black, and white balloons (echoing the colors of the 375th logo), thumping white thundersticks together as they walked. Pforzheimer House’s float bore its mascot—a polar bear—festooned with lights; on the way to the Yard, one Pfoho student remarked, “We probably look like a cult—we’re all wearing ponchos and following a bear.” It was hard, though, to upstage the Leverett contingent, which played off that House’s bunny mascot with green, battery-powered bunny ears that flashed and twinkled in the darkness atop scores of Leverett heads. The undergraduates’ undampened enthusiasm led Pforzheimer co-master Erika Christakis ’86, processing alongside them, to say, “I think that Harvard students feel very self-conscious about expressing how proud they are; it’s something they have to keep to themselves a lot, so a day like this really lets them express that.” “That point bears repeating,” added her husband, co-master Nicholas Christakis. “This is one day when you can drop the ‘H-bomb’ liberally and have no consequences!”
A cavalcade of alumni, fresh from a lavish reception in the Charles Hotel, converged with the students in the Yard, joined by hundreds of central administration staff (leaving a boisterous cocktail hour in the Holyoke Center arcade) and a contingent of College and Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) staff who had been washing down sausages and pretzels with brews under an Oktoberfest Biergarten tent in the Old Yard. Receptions at all the graduate schools—notably including the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and the Graduate School of Design (GSD), both celebrating their own 75th birthdays—fed and then sent their own contingents into the fray.
The HKS group might have been in especially high spirits, having just been entertained by political comedian Jimmy Tingle, M.P.A. ’10, who moderated a hilarious version of the National Public Radio show, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! in which a panel of four professors and administrators supplied answers to HKS-based trivia questions—one reply truthful, the others improvised hokum. (Tingle was a student speaker at Commencement in 2010.) The correct answer was often the most outrageous: Which professor was once set up on a date with Annette Funicello? Ramsey professor of political economy Richard Zeckhauser. One lucky attendee won a personal voicemail greeting recorded by public service professor David Gergen. The Design School also kept its constituents amused, running a contest for 25 hats designed by students from the school’s various major fields. Winner Andy Wisniewski took home an iPad2 as his prize. “I’m a landscape major, so I wanted to create a hat that reflects the natural and built world,” he said. “So I used part of one of my recycled models from class along with some long grass, and boom—here’s my hat.”
As the throngs mingled in the rainy Yard, the turnout, which might even have surpassed expectations, produced an extraordinary multitude—Fellini-esque hordes wandering in glow-stick necklaces or headbands, restlessly queuing for, and sampling, the chocolate fountains, quaffing “1636” ale from Harpoon Brewery, scooping up Richardson’s ice cream. (All the celebratory comestibles came from sources linked with Harvard alumni.) Others drank freshly pressed apple cider, made from heirloom Roxbury Russet apples from the Central Massachusetts orchards of Eric Chivian ’64, M.D. ’68, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Medical School, with Chivian himself working the cider press and giving the audience mini-lectures on apple genetics. Nearby sat a “living statue”—a bronzed mime looking like a perfect replica of the John Harvard statue only a few dozen yards away, complete with shiny toe and attended by two living “trees” gotten up in bark. On this night, echoing Seamus Heaney’s 1986 Villanelle for an Anniversary, John Harvard did indeed walk the Yard.
Dozens of student groups performed on four stages scattered around Tercentenary Theatre, some of them magnified on several video projection screens. (A singer from the Radcliffe Pitches a cappella group remarked, “Unfortunately, we didn’t sing ‘Stormy Weather.’ ”) One popular act was a percussion set by The Harvard Undergraduate Drummers (T.H.U.D.) on inverted plastic pickle barrels. Intrepid dancers performed beautifully on the wet stages, including some belly dancers from the Harvard Middle Eastern Dance Company clad only in gold-sequined bras and shorts, black tights—and rain jackets as needed.
With timing so perfect as to be almost comical, the skies opened up at 7:55 p.m., five minutes before the formal program was set to begin; a pelting, cold downpour drove hundreds (despite 4,500 plastic rain ponchos on hand) toward the shelter of the food-tent overhangs and various surrounding buildings. Then University marshal Jacqueline O’Neill appeared on the big screens, reporting flashes of lightning and advising partygoers, as a precaution, to take temporary shelter. Yet the drenching rain lasted only five minutes, and before long, a clutch of graduate-school deans, along with new provost Alan Garber, convened for an initial cutting of the big birthday cake. Garber made the first cut and then passed the knife along for a series of decanal cuts, none of them budgetary. (“That’s what deans like,” FAS dean Michael Smith remarked afterward. “A provost who takes charge.”)
Later yet, there was a second cake-cutting, following a Bach excerpt by cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, D. Mus. ’91; a planned encore segued into his rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” the crowd joining in as Ma took a rare turn as both vocalist and accompanist. “Are there candles?” he asked, rhetorically—but the planned special effect of projecting large candle images onto Widener pillars did not come off, leading Ma to wonder aloud (probably correctly) if rain had extinguished them.
No matter. When the sound system kicked in with the Beatles’ “Birthday” (“You say it’s yer birthday….”), the celebratory mood reignited, and a thousand or more souls who still had some party left in them got back to playing. Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” launched the crowd into movement on the specially installed floors. Soon thereafter a well-rehearsed flash mob got down with James Brown’s classic “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The music and dancing continued until the wee hours, and at times, the rain falling on the tents and the pavement sounded like applause.