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Dan H. Fenn Jr., founding director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, dies at 97

President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office with Ralph Dungan, a Kennedy aide, and Mr. Fenn (right), a staff assistant to the president.
President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office with Ralph Dungan, a Kennedy aide, and Mr. Fenn (right), a staff assistant to the president.Fenn family photo

Before the first shovel struck the soil to build the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Dan H. Fenn Jr. knew what he wanted the institution to accomplish.

“The Kennedy Library will be an integral part of the education system of the entire Boston area,” he told the Globe in 1977, just before the building’s groundbreaking at Columbia Point.

Mr. Fenn, the library’s founding director and a force behind ensuring that an educational component would become a key part of libraries for presidents and politicians across the country, died Friday. He was 97 and had lived in Lexington for many years, participating in town government for decades.

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A former staff assistant to President John F. Kennedy, Mr. Fenn helped launch what is now the Presidential Personnel Office.

In late summer 1963, Kennedy appointed Mr. Fenn to serve on the US Tariff Commission, and in October 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated Mr. Fenn as the commission’s vice chairman.

When Mr. Fenn became involved with the Kennedy Library a few years later, the idea of a presidential library being more than a repository for papers and a museum of a former president’s artifacts was unconventional.

“It seemed to me that if this institution was going to reflect John Kennedy and his interests and the tone of the Kennedy years, then it should be devoted to politics and government and public education in those fields and it should nurture people’s interest in politics and encourage people to play a role,” Mr. Fenn said in a 1986 Globe interview, when he stepped down as director.

That emphasis on education “was Dan’s huge, huge contribution to the Kennedy Library. He literally changed the focus of presidential libraries,” said John Stewart, a former acting director of the library who had been its longtime director of education.

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Teaching others about the how to participate in government and make it work well for the people it served was a focus of Mr. Fenn’s political life, too.

He formerly served on Lexington’s School Committee and Select Board during the decades he devoted to town affairs.

And Mr. Fenn was a Town Meeting member “for nearly 60 years,” said his son Thomas, who lives in Lexington.

“He cared about making government work for everybody, and he felt like the best way to do that was at the local level,” Thomas added. “Even though he had held rather prestigious jobs at the federal level, his heart and soul were at the local level.”

To welcome young citizens into the workings of government, even before they were old enough to vote, Mr. Fenn helped “set up a mock Town Meeting for kids so they could learn in junior high how to participate,” Thomas said.

Few invested as much time in local government as Mr. Fenn did. Along with his decades as a Town Meeting member, and his service on the School Committee and Select Board, “he’s been on pretty much every committee in town,” his son added.

Mr. Fenn was a longtime presence at Town Meeting in Lexington.
Mr. Fenn was a longtime presence at Town Meeting in Lexington.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Mr. Fenn even took part in a Town Meeting held via Zoom in June.

At 97, working with technology that was new to him, “he participated fully,” said Deborah Brown, Lexington’s town moderator.

That engagement was no surprise to anyone who had attended Town Meeting with Mr. Fenn over the years.

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“Anytime Dan rose to speak at the microphone at Town Meeting you could hear a pin drop,” Brown said. “Everyone knew they were going to hear something profound, something different than anyone else had said, something lucid — and usually with some humor thrown in.”

Dan Huntington Fenn Jr. was born in Boston on March 27, 1923, and while growing up he lived in various communities in Greater Boston and beyond as his family moved for his father’s work leading churches, ending in Wayland.

The Rev. Dan H. Fenn was a prominent Unitarian minister whose father had served as dean of Harvard Divinity School. Mr. Fenn’s mother, Anna Yens, was active in church affairs and raised the couple’s three children.

Mr. Fenn, the oldest, graduated from what was then Browne and Nichols School and attended Harvard College with the class of 1944.

He rose to lead The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, before interrupting his studies to serve in the Army Air Forces as a warrant officer during World War II, stationed in Italy.

In a Crimson article he published a year to the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mr. Fenn recalled that on Dec. 7, 1941, “it seemed as though everyone at Harvard came to the Crimson building that night, and anxiously hung over the ticker tape machine to watch the little metal letters hammer out the words that told the story.”

After the war ended, Mr. Fenn returned to finish his Harvard bachelor’s degree in 1946 and was appointed an assistant dean at the college.

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He went on to serve as executive director of the World Affairs Council in Boston, teach at Harvard Business School, and edit the school’s publications.

In 1972, he received a master’s in international relations from Harvard.

In all, Mr. Fenn taught at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School for 56 years, including holding a class via Zoom in June.

At commencement last year, he was awarded the Harvard Medal for his service to the university.

Mr. Fenn’s first marriage, to Nancy Ring, ended in divorce. They had four children – Thomas, Peter of Washington, D.C., Anne of Londonderry, N.H., and David of Evanston, Ill.

Mr. Fenn subsequently was married to Lenore Sheppard, who lives in Lexington and survives him. Their marriage ended in divorce, and Mr. Fenn remained close to his stepchildren, Greg Sheppard of Medford, Marie Sheppard of Dickerson, Md., and Chris Sheppard of Wilmington, N.C.

A service will be announced for Mr. Fenn, who also leaves a brother, John of Minneapolis; 14 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

“He knew everything about those kids,” Peter said of his father’s relationship with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “He would bring you into his orbit, whether you were his child, grandchild, or great-grandchild, or if you were his student or if you worked for him. He had this extraordinary gift.”

Mr. Fenn’s facility for working with others was useful as he helped guide the library through planning stages before officials settled on the site in Dorchester.

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“Dan was an inspirational kind of guy,” Stewart recalled. “Dan was absolutely tremendous in dealing with people. I remember going to meetings with Dan when we started the library. He was determined to let people know — movers and shakers in Boston – what this institution was going to be and how it would contribute to the educational and cultural life of Boston.”

Stewart added that Mr. Fenn “made the Kennedy Library into something that was a lot more than a museum or presidential library.”

The legacy Mr. Fenn leaves, family and friends said, stretches from the White House to the library to Lexington’s institutions.

“He was very, very special. It’s hard to imagine Town Meeting without him,” Brown said.

Thomas recalled that his father “was asked one time, ‘Why are you so involved? Why do you do so much?’ He said, ‘I just want people to know I was here.’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.