Pomona College held a memorial service Saturday to commemorate the life of former President David Alexander, who passed away July 25 at the age of 77. Considered one of this institution’s greatest and most influential presidents, Alexander also inspired broad changes in American higher education.
However, when friends and family of Alexander gathered in Little Bridges to celebrate his life and to put their felings of loss into words, they mostly recalled the man himself.
Alexander’s many achievements as a trustee of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, a trustee of the Office of the American Secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, and, of course, as Pomona College President, remain his enduring legacy.Meanwhile, the laughter, the music, and the intellectual excitement of Alexander now exist only in the memories of those that knew him best.
Before a speaker took the stage on the afternoon of the service, College Organist William Peterson greeted audience members with the music of J.S. Bach and Johannes Brahmes. Between memorial speakers Pederson was accompanied by Tom Flaherty on the cello, Karl and Margaret Cohen on the grand piano, and Don Lawrence and Erin Powers on horns to pay musical tribute to Alexander.
The final organ fugue, in particular, evoked the triumph of Alexander’s life and hinted at the complexity of his character. An immensely difficult four-hand composition that Peterson adapted—the J.S. Bach Fugue in E-flat major—resonated with the words of Alexander’s eulogists.
“The exceptional life of David Alexander,” as Pomona College president David Oxtoby described it in his opening speech, was in countless ways a singular one. Alexander came to Pomona during a “time of turbulence,” the fall of 1969. His inaugural address, “A Perspective on Renewal,” dealt openly with the Vietnam War and the importance of academic freedom. In it, Alexander expressed his belief that “Pomona College will help move society through education,” as well as his conviction that “academic freedom must continue to animate teaching and research in all colleges and universities.”
According to Oxtoby, Alexander’s words and principles “brought purpose, calm and focus” to Pomona. However, as Oxtoby recounted, the solemnity of Alexander’s goals was always accompanied by a persistent “sparkle in his eye.” His strong ideas became infectious because of his “ability to connect with students” and to attract talented new faculty.
“David was a deeply righteous man,” Emeritus Pomona Professor of Government Lee C. McDonald said. A member of the candidate search committee responsible for appointing Alexander, McDonald remembered Alexander for the maturity and sheer intelligence that defined his career.
Noting that Alexander was a self-described Calvanist, “not a label that inspires applause,” McDonald humorously juxtaposed Alexander’s faith with his tolerance. Despite his own steadfast values, Alexander “was not surprised by moral failure,” a quality “helpful to college presidents,” McDonald said.
To demonstrate Alexander’s intellectual vigor in addition to his good sense, McDonald shared an anecdote in which he and the president encountered the “best-selling books” shelf in an airport store.Startled by Alexander’s mastery of every item on the shelf, McDonald mused, “I suppose its possible that he made up some of it, but I will never know anyone who knew so much about anything in that moment.”
Helena Wall, the Warren Finney Day Professor of History at Pomona, compared Alexander to a kid in a candy store or “a smart kid let loose in a public library.”
She described Alexander’s habit of tracing footnotes in obscure texts and leaping at the chance to discover new knowledge. His productive mind was capable of profound insight, but he was more often the rowdy intellectual than the solemn academic.
“He wore his learning lightly,” Wall said.
Through tears Professor Wall explained that Alexander was, “sometimes exasperating, always decent, generous and true.”
“That is the David I will miss most of all,” she said.
Alexander’s daughter Kitty Alexander Shirly portrayed a lesser-known side of her father’s character.She focused her remembrances on Alexander’s music and creativity, the invented songs that had shaped her childhood, and the shows and stories that entertained her son Oliver.
Shirly described “the Lady Gaga dad,” sharing stories of his virtuostic recitals “on the odd garden hose,” “on the coke bottle,” and “on crystal wine glasses.”
She also spoke about her father’s wicked sense of humor through a “filthy book of limericks.” She recalled one that went “A is for Alice who liked to use dynamite as a—,” requesting that the audience complete the rhyme on their own.
For Shirly, it was not enough to remember the greatness that defined Alexander’s professional life. His charm and personality were equally vital.
“Dad was fabulous,” Shirley said.
Another of Alexander’s daughters, Julia M. Marciari-Alexander, was the last to speak at the memorial service.
Marciari-Alexander, who spent her early years being called “little David” because of her efforts to emulate her father, said that the driving passion of her father’s life had been his love of language.
Calling her father “a man of substance and a man of faith,” Marciari-Alexander said that Alexander’s religious principles were based almost solely on his respect for the written word.
Not only did Alexander see the Bible as “a manual for living honorably and a just life,” he also saw the “sheer power of words to be life-changing.”
Yet for all the years he spent in pursuit of knowledge, furthering his understanding of humanity, Julia remembered the ignorance he professed in his last days.
“He didn’t know how to die,” she said. “There was no manual for that.”
Alexander is survived by his wife Catherine Coleman Alexander, his two daughters Kitty and Julia, his son John D. Alexander III, five grandchildren, and his sister Jane Alexander Biedenharn.