Harry Boardman, humanist, mentor, educator, gregarious host and curmudgeon in the best sense of the word, died Wednesday, April 15, 2009, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. He was 88.
For Mr. Boardman, a chance assignment to Jacques Barzun’s freshman Literature Humanities class at Columbia College of Columbia University launched a life-long devotion to exploring the human condition that he shared with colleagues through seminars, writing and mentorship.
Near the end of his life he spent several years writing The Wound of Being, an as yet unpublished exploration of dramatic tragedy and the Hellenic conception of man as it relates to the modern world.
Harry Atchison Hall was born October 14, 1920 in Denver, Colorado. His father, Harry A. Hall, died of tuberculosis several months after his birth. His mother, Elizabeth Mudd, soon married Kennedy Boardman, a stockbroker, and her son dropped his middle name and took his stepfather’s last name. Mr. Boardman didn’t learn of the tumult of his early years until he was drafted into the United States Army in 1942 and was compelled to produce a birth certificate—only to discover that it bore the name not of his beloved “Pap,” but of a father whom he never knew.
Mr. Boardman and his family left Denver when he was 11 and in subsequent years moved several times between Los Angeles and New York. He attended Riverdale Country Day School in the Bronx for junior high and graduated at the top of his high school class from Black-Foxe Military Institute in Los Angeles, having shared classes with the children of some of Hollywood’s earliest stars.
Determined to become “the great American novelist,” he forfeited a place at Williams College and persuaded skeptical parents to support him for a year as he followed his aspiration. Though no novel, great, American, or otherwise, emerged from his yearlong sabbatical, the delay in his matriculation proved nonetheless fortunate.
A Transforming Experience
In the introduction to The Wound of Being, Mr. Boardman recalled his hasty arrival at Columbia: “At the end of that year of escape, the price for a bargain made had come due. I was to go to college: a sentence, I insisted then, that was neither necessary nor desired.”
Despite entering unwillingly, Mr. Boardman found himself a student of Mr. Barzun—an event he said was “the great transforming experience of my life.”
Introduced by Mr. Barzun to Homer and Thucydides, the Greek tragedies, Rabelais, Cervantes and Fielding, Mr. Boardman wrote, “if Dante was blessed to have had Virgil as a guide, at least as much blessed have been those students of Mr. Barzun by whom their freshman year was lifted.” It was an experience that offered benefits that were “important then and become since even more compelling; nor yet exhausted after a full life-time.”
The onset of World War II interrupted his studies at Columbia. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Mr. Boardman served in Europe until late 1946. Saved from the front lines by a prematurely concluded training program—and by a facility with a typewriter—he worked as an Army typist, composing letters of condolence and commendation for troops not so lucky as he.
During his time in occupied Germany, he met Annemarie Dorn (neé Tannert), who became the first romance of his life and mother of his eldest son, Dieter Rauch. Torn from Annemarie by the disapproval of Uncle Sam and ultimately his return to the United States, Mr. Boardman returned to New York and concluded his studies at Columbia in 1949.
He referred to his five years after college as “the desperate years,” marked by odd jobs as a waiter, typist and clerk. During this time, he met and married Joy Lange, for whose family he had worked as a waiter at their Macdougal Street restaurant—Minette’s of Washington Square—and whose sister, Hope, was beginning to make a name as a Hollywood star in movies such as Bus Stop and Peyton Place.
A Return to Columbia
He began his career in education as the east coast director for the American Foundation for Political Education, where he worked for seven years, before returning to Columbia as assistant provost, working closely with Mr. Barzun, who was then the university’s provost. While at Columbia, he pioneered a new form of corporate giving, securing several large donations of furniture from major companies that were moving into glittering new headquarters.
During his time at Columbia, he met Jean Hollister, who also worked in Mr. Barzun’s office and who would become, in 1971, his second wife.
Around the World
He left Columbia in 1963 to become director of meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations. His work at the Council, which at the time was at once both an old-boys club and a foreign policy think tank , took him around the globe as he met with presidents, kings and prime ministers and cajoled them into agreeing to speak with the Council’s elite membership on the foreign policy issues of the day. Among those he hosted at the Council were King Hussein of Jordan, Prime Minister Indira Ghandi of India, British premier Harold Wilson and Chancellor Ludwig Erhard of Germany.
Mr. Boardman took a particular interest in, and traveled throughout, Africa, a continent only then emerging from the grip of colonialism and animated by an optimism that subsequent years would try to crush. He had deep admiration for Tanzania’s founding president, Julius Nyerere, whom he had met with at the president’s office in Dar es Salaam, and became good friends with Helen Suzman, who for nearly two decades was the lone voice condemning apartheid in the chambers of South Africa’s parliament.
To California and Vermont
Mr. Boardman left the Council in 1969 and spent a year working at the Overseas Development Council in Washington, DC, before becoming secretary general of the Council on Biology in Human Affairs at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Working with Jacob Bronowski, he sought to reconcile the implications of advances in the biological sciences with the vicissitudes of the human condition.
In 1979, with two young sons and nearing retirement age, Mr. and Mrs. Boardman purchased the Whetstone Inn in Marlboro, Vt., and became innkeepers, a pursuit that allowed a bounty of time at home with their children, frequent visits from devoted guests and the leisure that allowed Mr. Boardman to write.
He was a proud member of The Century Association in New York and an aficionado of the “Silversmith” cocktails and after-dinner macaroons served at the association’s clubhouse.
Mr. Boardman is survived by his wife, Jean; their two sons, Hamilton and Brook; two of his three daughters from his first marriage, Wendy and Robyn; his eldest son, Dieter Rauch; and four grandchildren.
A memorial gathering for Mr. Boardman was held at the Whetstone Inn in Marlboro on Saturday, June 27, 2009.