daniel patrick moynihan
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Remembering Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The death of Daniel Patrick Moynihan [on March 26, 2003] has prompted many questions of me from people who are aware that I have known him since his undergraduate days at Tufts University when I was his dean. In tribute to him as a most unusual person, I would like to give some of the highlights of my more than 55 years of knowing him.

He came to Tufts after one year at the City University of New York, assigned by the Navy to the Tufts contingent of members of the Navy V12 program. This program offered them a bachelor's degree in naval science and a commission as an ensign in the Navy or as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Military training was combined with academic studies. Students had no choice but to major in naval science but had relative freedom in the choice of the rest of their studies. Classes ran the year round. Following the end of World War II, students completing the requirements for a degree in naval science could return for an additional year to earn a bachelor's degree in a conventional subject. Pat made the decision to return and earn a degree in history.

After he had earned a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I lost touch with him for a short spell until the Tufts alumni magazine reported that he had been appointed an assistant secretary of labor. The picture of him in that publication was that of him as a quite slim member of the Class of 1948 in its undergraduate yearbook. I have checked on this memory by finding that yearbook in my collection of such yearbooks spanning my years as a Tufts dean. The only information next to his picture lists his major as history and his address as 558 W. 42nd St., New York, N.Y., an area known as Hell's Kitchen. Legend has it that his father was a bartender.

A few years went by until I received a letter ("hunt and peck") from him composed on his farm in upstate New York when he was between service to two U.S. presidents. He wrote to ask me if I remembered the occasion back in June 1948, when he and a friend were eyeing the official list of candidates about to receive the conventional bachelor's degree posted on the bulletin board outside the Tufts administration building. He wrote that they were making supercilious remarks about which side of their academic caps their tassels should hang on commencement day. After all, they had been awarded a bachelor of naval science degree a year earlier, permitting them to have their tassels on the left. Pat wrote that I came up behind them, and overhearing them, spoke up crisply, "For characters like you, the tassel should point straight up." I replied that I had no recollection of the incident, but it certainly sounded like me.

More years went by. Pat's ambassadorship to the United Nations found me serving as president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. One day, walking down Fifth Avenue back to my office at Rockefeller Center after lunch, I stopped at a red light and noticed a woman eyeing me somewhat hesitantly. She looked up and smiled a couple of times before blurting out, "Oh. I thought you were Mr. Moynihan." I replied, "Do you mean Daniel Patrick Moynihan?" When she replied in the affirmative, I said, "I know Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and he won't be pleased."

On arriving back at my office, I immediately dictated a letter to Pat at the UN, reporting on the incident. I wrote that I was respectably dressed, was not wearing an Irish hat, and was, by my standards, acceptably dressed. This was in December. On his last day as ambassador to the UN at the end of February on his official UN stationery, he wrote a one-sentence reply: "Dear Nils: You could have been taken for somebody worse. Sincerely yours, Pat."

This account is of the personal, warm side of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His illustrious career needs no testimony from me. I am proud to have known him and to have been a very small part of his life. Republicans and Democrats, agreeing or not agreeing with him, recognize the unusual human being he was.

Nils Yngve Wessell served as the dean of liberal arts at Tufts from 1939 to 1953. On January 1, 1953, he became acting president, and in October of that year, he became president. He resigned in 1966, citing his belief that the office should change every 10 to 15 years.