Former Amherst College President Calvin H. Plimpton ’39 Dies at 88
Director of Media Relations
AMHERST, Mass.—Dr. Calvin Hastings Plimpton, a 1939 graduate of Amherst College who served as its president in the tumultuous decade from 1960 to 1971, and as president of the American University in Beirut in the war-torn years between 1984 and 1987, has died at age 88. He died at his home in Westwood, Mass., of complications after surgery following a fall. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Ruth (Talbot) Plimpton; children David of Brooklyn, N.Y., Polly of Boston, Mass., Tom of Leverett, Mass. and Edward of Amherst, Mass. and seven grandchildren. There will be a memorial service at Amherst College later in the spring.
Anthony W. Marx, the current Amherst president, said “I have the honor of following in Cal’s footsteps, and had the great pleasure of meeting him and discussing the college and all that he had accomplished here. He was a leader of whom Amherst could not be more proud.”
“If you’re crazy enough to be a college president,” said Plimpton—noted for his ironic wit—to American College of Physicians Observer in 1985, “the 1960s was the time to be it. I was personally responsible for the bombing of children in Birmingham, for napalm, Agent Orange, Vietnam, Cambodia, and finally, I was responsible for the Kent State murders. That’s a lot of sins to have on you.”
In the course of a long, distinguished career, Plimpton piloted three institutions of higher learning through turbulent times and played a pivotal role in directing many others. He was trained, as a physician, and the first inkling of what he sometimes referred to as his “itchy feet” occurred when he took a leave from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons to be chairman of the department of medicine at the American University of Beirut from 1957 to 1959. He believed that a “doctor tries to educate people to live,” and so it was a logical step to become the 13th president of Amherst College, a position he held from 1960 to 1971.
In his opening address to the college in September 1960, he charged the students, faculty and guests to “Ask not what Amherst College can do for you, ask what you can do for Amherst College.” Four months later, he was startled to hear President Kennedy use the same turn of phrase in his inaugural address to the nation. When Kennedy came to Amherst for the ground breaking of the Robert Frost Library on October 22, 1963, he asked Kennedy where he had gotten the phrase. Kennedy replied “I don’t know, Cal. Where did you get it?”
While at Amherst College, there had been talk among the neighboring four college presidents of jointly founding a fifth, more experimental college. The plans languished until Plimpton convinced Harold Johnson to donate the initial funding of $6 million and Hampshire College was born.
In 1971, Plimpton returned to New York, where he was president of Downstate Medical School until 1978 and a professor of medicine there until 1983. He then spent a year at the National Library of Medicine, working in international affairs.
Plimpton was a member of the board of trustees of the American University of Beirut for 23 years, becoming chairman in 1965. After the then president of the University, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated outside his campus office in 1984, Plimpton agreed to take over as president. His three years in the position were marked by escalating insecurity and the kidnapping of professors and other Americans. In an attempt to bring stability to the situation, he journeyed to Amman, Jordan to meet with Yasser Arafat. The meeting occurred on Arafat’s turf, and in the middle of the meeting, Plimpton, ever on the lookout to interject a bit of humor, turned to Arafat and inquired in broken Arabic if there were any thoughts of kidnapping him – to which Arafat replied, with a sly grin, “No, college presidents don’t command any ransom.” In retelling the story, Plimpton noted that clearly Arafat had done his homework.
In addition to the American University of Beirut, Plimpton was a trustee of the World Peace Foundation (1961-1977), director of the Commonwealth Fund (1962-1984), a trustee of the University of Massachusetts (1962-1969), a trustee of Phillips Exeter Academy (1965-1975), an overseer of Harvard University (1969-1975), a trustee of Long Island University (1972-1980) and a trustee of New York Law School (1976-1984).
Plimpton was born in Boston and grew up in Walpole, just outside the city. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Amherst College (class of 1939) and Harvard Medical School, (class of 1943.) He served in Central Europe with the 5th Auxiliary Surgical Group during World War II. He returned to Harvard and received a masters of science degree in biochemistry in 1947. He also received a doctorate of medical science from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1952.
During his presidency at Amherst, the college introduced a new curriculum, raised $21 million in a capital campaign and built major campus buildings, including the Arms Music Center and Merrill Science Center. A memorable architectural legacy of the Plimpton years is the Robert Frost Library, named for the poet and dedicated in October 1963 by President John F. Kennedy in one of his last public appearances. In his remarks at the event, Plimpton told the large crowd they were present at “the birth of memory,” a prediction made poignant when Kennedy was killed four weeks later. Plimpton also called on Amherst to embrace its tradition in “the liberating arts.” “If we wanted to claim one distinction, and only one, for Amherst College and its liberal arts—the one in which we can take the greatest pride—it would be the disproportionately large number of Amherst men who have entered into a life of service—either to individuals or the public.” These words also describe the career of Calvin H. Plimpton, educator and physician.