The Irreplaceable Peter

Peter Gomes and Harvey Cox at HDS Commencement 2009
Peter Gomes and Harvey Cox share a laugh at Commencement. June 4, 2009. Justin Knight

I first met Peter Gomes when I was a rookie faculty member. He was assigned to me as an advisee upon his arrival as a first-year student at HDS in 1965.

Maybe someone thought we would be a suitable match since we were both Baptists—a tribe not well represented at HDS at the time. From the start Peter charmed me, and we savored a friendship that lasted until his death. I was so newly arrived when Peter first appeared in my office that I knew precious little about the courses and seminars from which he could choose.  No matter. Peter already knew exactly what he wanted, as he did for the rest of his life. He took charge of himself with, I am sure he would add, considerable help from God.

After Peter's graduation and his return to Harvard from Tuskegee, he told me the students there used to follow him around the campus like an ambulating Socrates Redivivus.

At first he wondered why. Then a student confessed that they had never heard a black man "talk the way I talked." I am sure they meant his elegant New England accent (later enriched by intonations from his stays at the University of Cambridge), but I think that was only partially true. Actually, few people—including me—ever tired of hearing Peter talk. Intelligent, witty, insightful, and profoundly empathic, he could almost instantly "connect" in an uncanny way. He was one of the few people I know who made you feel regretful when the conversation ended.

There are thousands of anecdotes about Peter Gomes. Many have begun circulating since his death. My favorite one illustrates just how comfortable Peter was in his own skin. One day, he told me, when he was in the Memorial Church office and the secretary was out to lunch, he impulsively answered the phone.

"Is this Memorial Church?" a women's voice inquired.
"Yes, madam, it certainly is," Peter answered.
"What time is the service this Sunday?" the caller asked.
"At eleven o'clock as always," he replied.
"And will that stout little colored man be preaching?" asked the caller.
"Yes, madam," Peter said, "I SHALL be preaching."

Few people could tell a story like this about themselves, but Peter could because he was so enormously happy to be who he was, and to be doing what he did. And what he did he did with gusto, scrupulosity, and style. His courses were always heavily subscribed.

The prose he crafted crackled, and his books became bestsellers. The Good Book is still one of best and most readable introductions to the Bible I know about. His contributions to faculty meetings and committees, especially tense ones, were pertinent and judicious. His gentle spirit often quieted nascent storms before they broke.

Peter was everywhere at Harvard. His seemingly simultaneous presence all over campus caused some to wonder if he had perfected the art of bilocation. He was a superb host. His dinner bell and the famous meals served in his candlelit dining room were both high-table tasteful and gently raucous. Every inch of wall space in his home was chock-a-block with books, posters, photos, and Harvardiana. Visiting Sparks House,if not exactly a lesson in modern home décor, always produced a vivid experience of what "lived in" can mean at its best.

Since I was the Hollis Professor, Peter insisted I should fulfill my ancient responsibility to lead the faculty ranks in the annual Commencement procession. I was reluctant at first, but eventually I did so. Soon, however, I became aware that no one ever noticed me, since I was marching just behind Peter, who was placed there to give the benediction. Everyone among the throngs of students and guests was waving at him, and he was waving back. For me, it was like sailing a small bark in the wake of the HMS Queen Mary.

When, one day, I told Peter I was considering activating a neglected Hollis Professor's privilege of grazing a cow in Harvard Yard, he swelled with enthusiasm and his eyes sparkled. Here was yet another in the trove of Harvard traditions he loved to nourish! But when I suggested that my bringing a bovine into the Yard might arouse our vigilant security personnel to eject both her and me, Peter drew himself up to his full height. "They wouldn't dare," he sniffed. We did graze the cow, Harvard security smiled, and Peter presided over that rollicking and memorable day with supreme poise.

Now, Peter Gomes, an irreplaceable presence at the institution he loved and served, is gone, at least from here. But when I heard about his out-of-season death, it reminded me of something he said to me a few years ago.

"Did you hear," he asked me on our way to Signet House for lunch, "that the pope has just announced that Hell is not a 'place,' but a condition?" He seemed a bit chagrined. I told him that, yes, I had heard that report from the Vatican. "Well," Peter continued, "I DO NOT agree. Because then maybe Heaven is not a place either. But I know that it is, and furthermore [and here he became quite emphatic], I AM GOING there!"

Farewell, old friend. I am sure that wherever "there" is, you are there.

Harvey Cox is the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at HDS. This article appears in the Spring 2011 edition of Harvard Divinity Today.