A Deep and Heartfelt Loss
| God of the Open Air
There are the things I prize
And hold of dearest worth:
Light of the sapphire skies,
Peace of the silent hills,
Shelter of forest, comfort of the grass,
Music of birds, murmur of little rills,
Shadow of clouds that swiftly pass,
And, after showers,
The smell of flowers
And of the good brown earth,-
And best of all, along the way, friendship and mirth.
So let me keep
These treasures of the humble heart
In true possession, owning them by love;
And when at last I can no longer move
Among them freely, but must part
From the green fields and from the waters clear,
Let me not creep
Into some darkened room and hide
From all that makes the world so bright and dear;
But throw the windows wide
To welcome in the light;
And while I clasp a well-beloved hand,
Let me once more have sight
Of the deep sky and the far-smiling land,-
Then gently fall on sleep,
And breathe my body back to Nature's care,
My spirit out to thee, God of the open air.
-Henry Van Dyke, 1904
The Maine Humanities Council has just lost one of our greatest advocates and friends. Harriet Putnam Henry's death on September 11, 2004, was met with sadness by many Mainers who understood the significance of her contributions to the civic life of our state. For me, Harriet's death was a deep personal loss.
I first met Harriet in 1987. It was at a conference on AIDS sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council that tried to place a still little-understood and dreaded disease in historical and ethical context. Harriet was serving on the District Court bench and was a member of a national committee exploring the legal implications of AIDS. Little did I suspect then that this impressive, path-breaking woman, Maine's first female judge, was to become my mentor, great supporter, and dear friend. A few years later, Harriet joined the board of the Council.
My friendship with Harriet deepened in the mid-1990's as we fought the political attacks that jeopardized the very survival of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Each year for many years, Harriet and I tromped together through the halls of Congress to petition our legislators-I hurrying to catch up with her determined stride. Yet we always managed to find time to visit the latest exhibit on the Vikings or Van Gogh at the National Gallery. And we found time to talk about Harriet's favorite subject, the current books she was reading.
When she became co-chair, she supported our leap into new ways of being a humanities council: widening our sphere of activity into the social service sector and developing programs that would help increase our effectiveness, visibility, and financial stability. After many visits to our crowded offices on Cumberland Avenue, Harriet urged us to apply for a NEH challenge grant that would enable us to purchase a building and establish a program endowment. When we received that grant, which meant launching our first capital campaign, Harriet served diligently on the development committee-all the while assuring me that she was a terrible fundraiser and detested that activity. It seemed perfectly fitting to name our Center for the Book for Harriet.
The dedication of the Harriet P. Henry Center for the Book on April 28, 2003, was a joyous event for all of us, and of course, especially for Harriet. Since then, as her cancer worsened, she taught me the meaning of courage, grace, determination, and sheer chutzpah.
In the packed church at her memorial service, Harriet's daughter Martha Henry read a poem that perfectly expresses Harriet's ability to look at her impending death while she continued to love life: "God of the Open Air."
Dorothy Schwartz is Executive Director of the Maine Humanities Council.