Remembering Hank Payne

Hank Payne was really, viscerally modest. He had said in the past that he wanted no eulogies at all at his funeral, when it came. For those of us gathered in Atlanta last week, this was clearly an impossible request. The compromise was that there was only one eulogy, and, listening to it, a large crowd – more than 300 people of all sorts, from schoolchildren to Atlanta civic leaders – stood at Hank’s graveside and wept along with his family.

The reason for this large crowd, and all the tears, was that Hank Payne was a great and good man.

The list of Hank’s virtues is a long one, and not hard to fill out. He was a devoted husband – he and his wife, Deborah, met when they were kids in Worcester, Mass. – and an intensely proud father. He was endlessly energetic and creative, fizzing over with ideas. He had an easy sense of humor and a deep, humane perspective on the struggles of the world. He took learning about everything that was happening – in education, in politics, in the arts, in everyday life – as a basic civic responsibility. Talking with him was a good way to learn, and often made you feel like maybe you needed to waste less time. Hank was startlingly intelligent, seamlessly quick on the uptake and he had wonderful, considered judgment about people. An easy way for us to understand his basic intellectual wattage is to remember that when he graduated from Yale he received a master’s degree along with his bachelor’s degree: and he was valedictorian of his class.

I could go on – I haven’t mentioned his work ethic, for instance – but I will stop, because what was most important in Hank, what I admired most in him, what I valued most in our friendship and what I will remember most, is that he was a noticeably kind man. I don’t know how else to put it. It was a simple thing. He constantly thought about other people, and he wanted their lives to be better, in small and large ways. In his working life, Hank quite literally spent all his time trying to make things around him better. He never, simply never, pursued personal agendas. His priorities were the priorities and needs of his friends, his students, the institutions he presided over and the communities he lived in. As a result, he made a difference in people’s lives, every day.

Hank spent his life as a public figure. As Hank would readily and often admit, one of the ironies of this life was that he was at heart a quiet, library-loving history nerd. Just to read and learn and know were for him intense pleasures. Wherever he went he kept doing history, in and amidst his other complex work. When he went to Atlanta to preside over Woodward Academy, the country’s largest private school system, he immediately began doing Atlanta history as a way to do what he loved and learn about his new world at the same time. In our last conversation, a week before he died, Hank could hardly contain his glee at his latest idea: an Atlanta history Wiki, which would be constructed out of small history projects created by Woodward students. He was doing the groundwork himself.

Hank asked me to do a hard job – Dean of the College – and he taught me how to do it. He tolerated my endless errors and took simple pleasure in our successes, always assigning me the credit for his own ideas. He answered my e-mail within the hour – often within minutes. In the midst of his own troubles he would think only about mine.

Once, when I asked his advice about a really difficult problem, a typical dean’s problem involving the chaotic, infinitely complex swirl of daily life, Hank smiled his winsome, quiet smile and offered me wisdom he attributed to his grandmother. He was a Jewish kid from Worcester, and he delivered this wisdom in an imitation of a grandmotherly Yiddish accent: “Just because there is a problem doesn’t mean there is a solution.”

In my heartsore reflection on the end of Hank’s life, I have been meditating on this wisdom. It is funny, in its own way, but is also a hard truth we encounter every day, whether we admit it or no. Knowing it, as Hank did, might be a relief; but it might also be a burden.

Just because there is a problem doesn’t mean there is a solution.

Peter Murphy, Professor and Chair of the English Department, served as Dean of the College from 1995-2000.