WESTWOOD — When South Sudan got its independence last year, Lawrence Hyde was delighted. Not because of the politics. Because of his checklist.
Hyde is 88, and his lifelong quest has been to visit every independent country in the world, as defined by the United Nations. There were 192 of them before South Sudan joined (193 if you count the Vatican, which is Hyde’s preference), and he had finished the run in 2010 when he checked East Timor off his list.
Now, Hyde has a new country to conquer. “That’s part of the game,” he said. “The new ones get in, and you have to get up off your arse and get there.”
Never mind that his legs are weak, the country is unstable, and no one he knows is eager to make the trip with him.
“Oh, I can still do it and will,” vowed Hyde, a dapper man with a booming voice who lives in an assisted living facility in Westwood. “When the bullets stop flying.”
It is hard to imagine a more indefatigable traveler than Larry Hyde. He is so committed to the transformative experience of travel that he just made a $3 million gift to his alma mater, Boston College High School, to ensure that students have world travel experience, too. The Jesuit Catholic boys’ school has long been committed to fostering “internationalism” among students through exchange and service programs.
Hyde’s gift will expand on that by establishing the Lawrence H. Hyde ’42 Center for International Studies, providing financial aid for students who could not otherwise afford to travel, and expanding the number of countries students can visit.
“Larry’s gift will transform the school,” said Bill Kemeza, BC High president. “It will allow students to experience the world in the way that Larry experienced it.”
And how is that? “You say no to nothing, you explore every experience,” said his nephew Mark Friedman, a California screenwriter who has accompanied Hyde to India, Egypt, and Nepal.
To Hyde, a former auto industry executive, there is an important distinction between being a tourist and being a traveler. Tourists go to obvious places, read commercial travel books, follow the pack. Travelers seek obscure destinations, do copious research, and follow their whims. And if you’re Hyde, you connect in advance with Jesuits who more often than not will give him a place to stay along the way.
“There are people who go to Paris every three years,” Friedman said. “Then there are people who want to go every place once.”
Even better, more than once. Hyde has been to Egypt more than 100 times, for work, pleasure, and because he is a trustee of the American University of Cairo.
He has seen fierce komodo dragons — the world’s biggest lizards — on the tiny Indonesian island of Komodo. He rode a bactrian camel — “a two-humper” — in Mongolia. He went to the president’s palace in Dili, East Timor, knocked on the door, and boldly introduced himself.
“The president wanted me to stay at his house,” said Hyde, who declined the offer. “The Jesuits had a room for me.”
He does not shy away from hot spots. He was in Rwanda two years after the genocide, when “you could still see the bodies,” he said. He visited Brazil in the early 1960s, during an army revolt. Although he had already been to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he returned in 2004 to visit Goma, where a volcano had exploded.
He spent months in the Antarctic on a cruise ship, his favorite trip of all time. (“Those darned penguins are fascinating.”) A close second was his visit to Papua, New Guinea. He relished how different it was from his daily life. “Not many of my friends invite me in to their huts to show me the polished skulls of their enemies,” he said.
Hyde’s love affair with travel started when he was a boy in Cambridge. His father, the sales manager for a Watertown rubber company, corresponded with customers around the world and brought the envelopes home to Hyde, who collected the stamp.
“That was a good first step,” he said. “When you see a stamp from Azerbaijan, you have to go to the library and look it up. Then you start collecting maps.”
“One of my earliest memories of him was his collection of National Geographic magazines,” recalled his sister, Ann Friedman, who lives in Virginia. “He left our home to go to college when I was about 4 years old, and I have an image of him taking me into the bedroom where he kept all his National Geographic magazines and his maps on shelves, and saying to me, ‘Don’t ever touch those.’ ”
His fascination with geography was fueled by the Jesuit teachers at BC High School. Many had served in distant corners of the world, and shared their stories with students. “Jesuits are good talkers,” Hyde said, “and outstanding teachers.”
He went to Harvard, then joined the Navy, where he got his first taste of real travel on an aircraft carrier in the North Pacific Ocean, and through the Panama Canal.
He left active duty in 1946, though the Navy paid for his first year at Harvard Business School, grooming him to become an admiral. Hyde, however, had other ideas, including marrying a Radcliffe classmate, Lois Crehan, with whom he had three children.
“None of whom have become world travelers,” he was compelled to note.
He went to work for Ford Motor Company in Detroit and later for Jeep Corp. where he became president and was responsible for the development of the Humvee military truck.
His job fed his passion for travel. In 1960, he was dispatched to Europe by Ford’s president, Robert McNamara, later secretary of defense. McNamara was a champion of the new Ford Falcon sedan and tasked Hyde with going overseas to find inexpensive components for the car.
“They expected it would take six weeks. I was gone for a year,” he said, laughing.
After visiting Ford factories and suppliers in Europe, the idea of sweeping the world began to evolve. His move to Jeep broadened his travel since Jeep products were sold in developing countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia. While on business trips, he would chip away at his list by visiting nearby countries.
“As president, you can always say, “How are [sales] in Djibouti? Not going well? I’ll go out there to see.”
He moved to Cape Cod after he retired in 1986, and proceeded to tackle Central Asia, the South Seas, and other destinations. His wife often accompanied him, but after her death in 1989 he went by himself. He almost always visited Jesuits, and never lacked for conversation partners.
“He has an encyclopedic memory of where he has been and what he has done,” his sister said.
There is one thing he will not be persuaded to talk about, which is how he made it into certain hostile, conflict-ridden, or dictatorial regimes whose names he requests not be mentioned. He allows that he has had assistance from a German man in California whose occupation falls vaguely between tour guide and fixer, and whose business “is partially in the shade, not in the sunshine.”
As for South Sudan, Hyde tracks the news carefully; when there is a break in the violence, he’ll be off, he said, much to the consternation of his children.
“I would not tell him, ‘Don’t go to South Sudan,’ ” Hyde’s sister said. “He is one of those people who feel that one must not sit around and let life take its toll.”