Posted by: James Atticus Bowden | June 5, 2009

Professor Ernest May

Professor Ernest May died.  Ernest May was the Charles Warren Professor of American History.  He was my teacher at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.  I took his course, “The Uses of History” which he team taught with the late Richard Neustadt.  It was one of the best courses I had in my life.  He was one of the finest professors – teachers – I’ve ever known.  He was the epitome of both gentleman and scholar.

If you haven’t read his book, “The Uses of History,” do so soon.   It will open your eyes about decision making.  And historical metaphors as policy analysis and arguments.

In the Summer of 1980 I took an Independent Research and Writing course as part of my summer school load – under Ernie May.  Essentially, I was a research assistant for the Kennedy School Presidential Transition Report in the off chance that a Republican would unseat Jimmy Carter.   I spent long hours of sweet summer  underground at Lamont and Widener libraries looking at the Defense Department transitions –  1952 to 1976.   I’d write up my findings and share them with Professor May and his lady adjutant.  

After I’d spent hours and hours for some little insight, he would pick up the phone and call the living principals to get their take.  Secretaries of Defense, Chiefs of Staff, Presidential Assistants – and chat out the idea.  I was amazed that he had that kind of network.

In class and academic seminars where I saw him hold forth in the academic competition of spoken ideas, he was the fulsome scholar.  He presented the well-thought idea delivered with the well-turned phrase with understated dignity. 

In person, he was warm, kind and an absolute gentleman. 

He lived what great professors should be.

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  1. […] the public/private qualities of May’s greatness in sync, with some of his former students praising his name as a gentleman and a […]


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