Harry C. Payne, president of the College from 1994 to 1999, fell to his death on Jan. 7. Following a short police investigation, the death was ruled a suicide. At the time of his passing, Payne was living in Atlanta, Ga., and serving as president of Woodward Academy, a local preparatory school. He was 60.
Ben Johnson, chairman of the board at the academy and a close friend, said Payne’s death was unexpected and inexplicable. Payne was a loved and respected president and “totally engaged with everyone around him,” he said.
Payne was known as an accomplished scholar, a kind leader and a creative problem solver at the academic institutions where he worked. At Williams, he oversaw the renovation of Griffin Hall and led the fundraising effort that allowed for the $45 million renovation and expansion of the College’s science facilities, the largest construction project in Williams history. He also initiated the project for the ’62 Center for Theater and Dance.
Payne was also closely involved with student life on campus and was known for facilitating students’ civic engagement in the community and the region. He helped convert Goodrich Hall into a student activity space; the great hall in Goodrich bears his name. A true academic and an avid historian, Payne also taught history courses throughout his tenure as president.
Beyond his contributions to the College at large, Payne also touched many members of the College community on a personal level. “It’s important that we remember that we lost a wonderful and compassionate man,” said JoAnn Muir, Payne’s secretary at the College.
In conversations this week, friends described him as kind, gentle, caring, positive and supportive. “I’ll always remember his kindness and the delight he took in other people’s success,” said Mike McPherson, former dean of the faculty.
An educator’s life
Payne grew up in Worcester, Mass. and attended Yale as an undergraduate. The valedictorian of his class, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1969. After receiving his doctorate in history from Yale in 1973, he became a professor of history at Colgate. He then served as provost at Haverford and president at Hamilton before coming to Williams in 1994.
At Williams, Payne made significant contributions to the College and the community. “We benefit here at Williams every day from initiatives carried out or begun during the presidency of this wonderfully decent and caring man who dedicated his professional career to expanding the intellectual lives of students,” President Schapiro wrote in a letter to the Williams community.
“He nearly doubled the endowment, the Science Center was built under his watch and he worked absolutely tirelessly communicating and spending time with alumni,” said Peter Murphy, former dean of the College and professor of English. “But I think he was most proud of his quieter work in building a professional, modern administrative structure at the College. He supervised a very important transitional period in the College’s history, and he did that work with great intelligence and wonderfully good judgment.”
Steve Birrell, vice president for alumni relations and development, described Payne as “extraordinarily bright,” touting his ability to find creative solutions to difficult problems.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Payne was low-key, modest, sometimes shy. Nancy McIntire, assistant to the president for affirmative action and government relations under Payne, said he was a warm and thoughtful boss. “He had a very winning sense of humor.”
Students also spoke highly of their interactions with Payne. Ben Monnie ’98, who as an editor at the Record spoke frequently with the president, remembered how Payne financially supported the creation of the Williams College Debate Union, which brought students, faculty and outside speakers together to square off on important issues of the day. The creation of the union fit well with Payne’s work that encouraged civic involvement at the College and in the community. “He deeply cared about Williams and the students and really enjoyed being a part of the community,” Monnie said.
In his final year at the College, Payne, who had a great love for the arts, led the initiative to construct a center for theater and dance and secured a $20 million gift from Herbert Allen ’62. Some criticized the way in which Payne accepted the gift. Amid controversy that followed, Payne resigned and left the College in October 1999. “He had mixed emotions about his departure because he loved Williams and worked very hard during his tenure,” Muir said. Payne often returned to Williamstown to see old friends and play a round of golf at the Taconic Golf Club.
In 2000, Payne took the post of president at Woodward Academy, a private school of nearly 3000 students, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, in metropolitan Atlanta. He set high standards for the school, brought in strong leaders and drew many families to the school. He was also active in the community, attending synagogue and serving on the boards of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and the Atlanta History Center among others.
Despite the tragic circumstances of Payne’s death, Murphy said, “I will remember quite simply his kind, tremendously positive spirit and his love for other people. He spent every minute of his working life trying to make things better for the people around him, the institutions he led, and the communities he lived in.”
Payne leaves his wife Deborah and their two sons, Jonathan ’97 and Samuel. Services have been held in Atlanta. A memorial gathering will be held at the Faculty House on Feb. 12 at 4 p.m.