Gilbert: Edward Connery Lathem

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(HOST) When long-time Dartmouth administrator and distinguished editor Edward Connery Lathem died last month at the age of 82, America lost one of the last of a bygone era.  Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director and commentator Peter Gilbert has this remembrance.

(GILBERT) The academic procession at this Sunday’s Dartmouth Commencement will be the first in forty years in which Lord Dartmouth’s Cup, a massive standing vessel of sterling silver, will not be carefully carried in the arms of – ready for a great title? – the College Usher, Bezaleel Woodward Fellow and Counselor to the President, Dean of Libraries and Librarian of the College, Emeritus, Edward Connery Lathem.  He died of a heart attack last month, at his desk in Dartmouth’s Special Collections library.  The cup, long an heirloom of succeeding Earls of Dartmouth, was presented to the College in 1969 by the ninth Earl.  Dressed in the red and blue academic robes of Oxford, Ed stewarded and carried that shining symbol of tradition and excellence.

In many ways Edward Lathem was also a man of an earlier era. Edwardian in manner, he was a prodigious correspondent, a scrupulously careful wordsmith, world-class editor, and capacious scholar. Ed was responsible for more than a hundred publications, large and small.  He cared enormously not only about the words, but also about the publication’s design and layout.  He was proper, sometimes formal – he wore a suit and always a white tie – but he was enormously caring, attentive, and warm. In his private, soft-spoken way, he raised friendship to an art form.  

Several years ago, I spent five days walking all over London with Ed.  We never walked a main street when a backstreet would do.  He knew every nook and cranny, every clever hypotenuse that would get us from here to there more directly.  When we picked up a hat at his hatter’s and a jacket at his tailor’s, I felt as if I’d been visiting Diagon Alley in a Harry Potter novel.  When I expressed my surprise at finding the tailor sitting on his counter hand-sewing a coat’s lining, Ed explained that it’s traditional for English tailors to work that way.
Ed was blessed with long and deep friendships.  Ted Geisel, better know as Dr. Seuss, considered Ed his closest friend.  Justice Harry Blackmun and other eminent individuals became close friends with Ed during stints as visiting fellows at Dartmouth. When he and Blackmun said goodbye at Logan Airport, Blackmun began to walk into the terminal. Then he turned around, came back, touched Ed on the shoulder and said, "You know, I don’t know if you want me for a friend.  But I want you for a friend."  Then he turned and headed for his plane.

Ed was particularly close to Robert Frost.  Frost was best man at Ed’s wedding.  Frost used to tell him affectionately that their friendship went back to 1906, 20 years before Ed was born – when Frost sought relief from debilitating hay fever in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, Ed’s hometown.  According to Frost’s long-time secretary, Frost once remarked, "Ed, you’re the only friend I’ve had who has never been a trial to me."

That was Ed Lathem’s uncanny ability to connect with people, to honor them with his sincere attention, affection, and courteous hospitality.

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