A Tribute To George Langdon

On June 16, 2012, Jonathan Fanton memorialized the life and career of George Langdon. See his tribute to the former Colgate University President below.

Jonathan F. Fanton Remarks — Tribute to George Langdon, Jr.
June 16, 2012

I knew George Langdon for 45 years. He was my best friend, my mentor, a source of values and vision. We met at Yale when he was Deputy Provost and I Chief of Staff to President Kingman Brewster, a man we both admired deeply. I can recall convivial evenings by the fireplace at 459 Prospect Street, touch football with Campbell and George down the road at my house, lively conversations with Patty and then Agnes. In those days George and I played squash or tennis every week in New Haven and here in Little Compton. I was a regular visitor from the late 60’s on, meeting many of you and coming to know George’s father and mother. Our cocktail hours on the porch on Round Pond Road are memorable still.

This is surely the place George loved most in life, the constant in good and challenging times, the community where he had fun and was at his best, made his most enduring friendships. You will remember George loved to fish, from the rocks off Round Pond Road but more often from his beloved Boston Whaler. George taught me how to cast for Blues and also the best way to find them. He would time our departure from the harbor just behind Barnaby Keeny. After a decent interval we would follow him at a safe distance and when he found the fish we were there. And we did catch fish, lots of them.

George loved this part of the world. He wrote an important book on the history of New Plymouth Colony. It starts with a quote from Nathaniel Morton, Secretary and Magistrate of the Colony, who had written the first history of the Colony: “The consideration of the weight of Duty that lieth upon us to Commemorize to future Generations the memorable passages of God’s Providence to us and our Predecessors in the beginning of this Plantation hath wrought in me a restlessness of spirit…”

George shared that “restlessness of spirit” which he channeled into building and strengthening institutions. As Special Assistant to the President of Vassar, he was Vassar’s lead agent in exploring a merger with Yale. While the merger did not happen, Yale did acquire George, who became the best prepared Deputy Provost in Yale’s history. He was the go-to person for both the faculty and the administration, the man who could get things done. He took on the hard issues, spoke truth to power, but faithfully supported the President and Provost.

We know George as a man of tradition, a student of early American history, an exemplar of old fashioned values like fairness, integrity, loyalty, and love of family. But he was also a modernizer, a builder, a man unafraid of the future.

When he came to Colgate as its 12th President, he found a noble regional college but he left a university with national standing – with stronger faculty, better students and more self confidence. He made Colgate a more interesting place intellectually, and generations of junior faculty are in his debt for the special sabbatical program he created. A new library, a beautiful common dining facility, a science library, a field house, better and more varied housing options are lasting marks of George the builder.

And he was a leader in founding the Colonial — now Patriot – football league which promotes a healthy balance of athletics and academics.

After a successful 10 year run at Colgate, he became President of the American Museum of Natural History. There he set in motion the renovation of the Hall of Dinosaurs, the Museum’s premier attraction, the construction of a new Natural History library, and the creation of the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, where research yields new insights about our place in nature.

George left every institution stronger than he found it. New buildings, innovative programs, financial integrity are common themes. But George also strengthened the bonds of community. He cared, he was loyal and inclusive, he had an ironic humor that made working with him fun.

And yet for all his accomplishments in the administration of Vassar and Yale and as President of Colgate, the American Museum and the United Nations Association, George was at heart a teacher.

He was a natural teacher and we have all benefited from his nurturing colleagueship. He always asked good questions, challenging but in a nice way. His respect for every individual encouraged people to do their best work, his capacity to listen – and hear – contributed to collective good judgment on complex issues. His decency elicited trust from people who did not always trust each other, making him a natural mediator. And finally, his flexibility on the margins preserved core principles, helping us adapt to a changing world while drawing strength from our faiths and traditions.

George was blessed with a wonderful partner in Agnes who expanded his world view, deepened his sensitivity to different cultures and extended his good works.
Her loving devotion during his long illness gave him extra years of good life and eased the slow but steady decline.

Over his lifetime George drew strength and joy from his family, distinguished parents, good wives, wonderful children in sons George and Campbell and stepdaughter Mary Charlotte, a devoted sister Mary Ann. No doubt they contributed to George’s successful career, peace of mind and a life well lived.

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