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Jim Kenyon: Andy Harvard Gone Too Soon

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 1/21/2019 3:37:32 PM
Modified: 1/21/2019 3:37:35 PM

When I saw Andy Harvard for the last time in late September, he was moving a bit more slowly and appeared less steady on his feet. Still, if I weren’t familiar with his story, I wouldn’t have known.

That’s the way it can be with Alzheimer’s disease. Particularly when it strikes early.

Harvard, 69, died on Wednesday at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Jack Byrne Center for Palliative and Hospice Care, a decade after he was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. An estimated 200,000 Americans — 5 percent of all Alzheimer’s cases — suffer from the brain disease that afflicts people under 65.

In Harvard’s case, the disease gradually took its toll on his ability to communicate and to care for himself. But there’s one thing it couldn’t take. “He never lost his dignity,” Norwich attorney Geoffrey Vitt said.

I met Harvard and his wife, Kathy, in 2015, after hearing from Vitt about their plight. In preparing for the interview, I learned that Harvard, a 1971 Dartmouth graduate, was a household name in mountaineering circles. He had participated in more than a dozen expeditions to the world’s highest peaks. Four times he took on Everest. He wrote about his adventures in National Geographic.

I came across a YouTube video that showed a bearded Harvard dangling from an icy rock cliff in a TV commercial for Bayer aspirin some 30 years ago.

“I choose Bayer. Shouldn’t you?”

In the early 2000s, supporters of the century-old Dartmouth Outing Club persuaded Harvard to leave his job in corporate law to return to his alma mater. The outing club had long been part of Dartmouth’s uniqueness — an Ivy League college that afforded students access to hiking, canoeing and other outdoor pursuits in its backyard.

But the outing club somehow had lost its way. The college was looking to hire its third director of outdoor programs in four years. With their three young children in tow, Andy and Kathy moved to Hanover.

In a matter of a few years, Harvard had the program back on track. He shepherded the rebuilding of Harris Cabin, the outing club’s 49-bed lodge on Moose Mountain, that had fallen into disrepair. He raised money from alums to pay for the project. He gave students a hands-on role in the construction. They cut logs for the walls and hauled rocks to rebuild the fireplace chimney.

By the summer of 2008, however, Dartmouth administrators wanted him out. They cited poor job performance, claiming he was missing meetings and not returning his bosses’ emails.

A few weeks shy of his 59th birthday, Harvard was told to clean out his office. Nine months later, following a battery of neuropsychological tests at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Harvard was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

For the next five years, Vitt tried to get the college to acknowledge that Harvard’s problems at work were no fault of his own. He suffered from an undiagnosed illness, which frequently is the case with Alzheimer’s. Vitt argued that Dartmouth should treat Harvard like it would an employee with a life-threatening illness. Harvard sought $296,000 in disability, medical and retirement benefits.

But the college didn’t see it that way. For a while, it offered a severance package of $96,000 — equivalent to one year of his salary — but later took even that off the table.

Since Harvard hadn’t been diagnosed until after his firing, the college knew that it was under no legal obligation to help him. “The bottom line is that Dartmouth didn’t want to set a precedent,” said Jed Williamson, a longtime mountaineering friend of Harvard and former president of Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vt.

In 2016, Rick Mills, Dartmouth’s chief financial officer, told me the college had offered to provide “significant support,” but the Harvard family declined.

It seemed to me that Dartmouth, with its $5 billion endowment, simply had made a business decision not to help one of its own in his time of need.

Meanwhile, as her husband’s health declined, Kathy Harvard became something of an activist to increase public awareness about Alzheimer’s. It’s led to a documentary film, The Final Climb, that tells Harvard’s story of mountaineering while exploring the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s on families and society.

“It’s going to be an incredibly powerful tool in the effort to find a cure and treatment for the disease,” said Pete Webster, who is among a small group of Harvard’s classmates at Dartmouth now raising money to support the independent film, which is due to be released in a year or so. (Webster, a former Norwich town manager, now lives in Plymouth, Mass.)

In 2017, Kathy Harvard got involved with organizing the inaugural “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” in White River Junction. In two years, the event, sponsored by the Vermont chapter of the national Alzheimer’s Association, has raised $150,000 toward finding a cure.

Last September, two dozen friends and family members joined Andy and Kathy on the walk, which is where I last saw him. “Andy was so happy to be part of it,” Kathy told me on Friday. “He knew a solution wouldn’t be found in time to help him, but he wanted to be part of the growing movement to stop this disease.

“He set a course to make something positive out of this.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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