Most people know Dr. S. Allen Counter for the events he has overseen and the individuals he has brought to campus: world leaders, nobel laureates, and Grammy winning singers. He honored a yearly Humanitarian of the Year, put on a science conference for minority grade schools students, and started the portraiture project to commission portraits of diverse individuals to better reflect Harvard’s history. He was known around campus as the larger than life man who would be on a panel in Sanders Theatre between a trip to the Nobel Institute and the Grammys. It was not unusual for Dr. Counter to ask a student if she had time between her studies to join him on a nuclear submarine to present a capsule for the Arctic circle or to identify acapella students to pick up Shakira at the airport. He was a professor of neurotoxicology, an explorer of the Andes and Amazon, as well as Consul General of Sweden.
As Harvard Foundation interns, we knew an entirely different side of Dr. Counter—or as we called him, DC. We knew him as a fierce advocate, a dedicated mentor, and an unwavering source of support.
Dr. Counter was never afraid to take a controversial stand on behalf of his students. When a student wrote graffiti on a Muslim student’s door, telling her to “Go back to her country,” he met with that student individually to make sure that she knew that she was welcome and was supported. After the incident, he worked with the Islamic Society to plan an event on campus to make sure her entire community felt supported.
When black students had the police called on them by their classmates, he was not only the first professor to publicly support the students, but he also met with individual students and set up meetings for us with administrators.
We saw him in his office late at night working on research, bringing in a speaker for the Irish Cultural Society, or working to gain recognition for an unknown African American whose contributions history had ignored. The more time you spent around Dr. Counter the more you realized that the majority of his time was spent advocating in unseen ways behind closed doors.
After an event, or sometimes during, he would often be joking with David L. Evans, his longtime friend and Senior Admissions Officer at Harvard. They would swap jokes—often the same ones—about who had been there longer, who was older, and who was going bald. This was a man who truly enjoyed working with and on behalf of students.
Dr. Counter carried himself with a palpable presence. When he described you, he would do so in such grand terms that you almost could not recognize yourself. He had the ability to make you truly believe in your own abilities. As a freshman at Harvard, he told me early on, “Never let anyone tell you that you don’t belong or you aren’t good enough. I will tell you right now that you are, so that you do not need to hear it from others.” I embraced his advice and worked to make Harvard my own, later attending Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School.
One of my co-workers at the Harvard Foundation, Miguel Garcia ’17, recently returned to complete his studies at Harvard and saw Dr. Counter. He said of the encounter, “I was nervous to be back at school and terrified of failing again. Though I had never discussed any personal information with him, he patted me on the back and simply stated, ‘My friend, you’ve been gone too long and we’ve missed you dearly. You’ll do just fine.’”
In that moment, with this seemingly ordinary greeting, I felt both disarmed and immensely welcome. This was something only Dr. Counter, with his unmatched class and gravitas, could accomplish. I realize now that his audacity of character and unapologetic presence at a place like Harvard gave us permission to be half as confident as he was. He belonged perfectly and therefore maybe we did too. This gift he handed to thousands of students and colleagues for over four decades.
Dr. Counter’s legacy is much more than the organization he founded and lead for over 35 years, more than events he has put on, and more than the myriad of ways he has shaped Harvard into a more diverse and inclusive place for students of all backgrounds. His true legacy is the students whose lives he has impacted. It is the U.S. Treasurer who always makes time to mentor and encourage the next generation, the doctor who is better able to connect with her Hindu patient, and the investor who sees the value in the Latino startup. We are grateful for all you have given us, and the people you have made us. Thank you, Dr. Counter.
Dr. Nworah B. Ayogu ’10 is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School, a former student chair of the Harvard Foundation, a former Black Men’s Forum Board Member, and First Marshal of the Class of 2010.