Thomas M. Menino dropped out of Boston College night school as a young man in the early 1960s, defending his decision on grounds that — after all — his political idol, Harry S. Truman, didn’t go to college either. It wasn’t until Menino’s daughter graduated from college in 1988 that he earned a bachelor’s degree.
But on Thursday, Boston’s longest-serving mayor will receive an honorary degree from one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions, Harvard University, according to a person with direct knowledge of the award.
Crossing the stage, Menino will be walking in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, and Mother Teresa, among others. But not Truman: Despite ending World War II and serving seven years in the White House, he never landed the honor.
“This is a great honor for Tom Menino,” said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former City Council president who graduated from Harvard College in 1971. “It’s indicative of the wonderful relationships he has crafted with major institutions across the city.”
Harvard is notoriously secretive about its honorary degree recipients. A university spokesman would not confirm or deny that Menino had been selected. Menino is expected to be joined by Oprah Winfrey, who will deliver the principal address at Harvard’s 362d commencement.
A few other Boston mayors have been bestowed the honor. The most recent, in 1964, was Mayor John F. Collins, a proponent of urban renewal who built Government Center after the razing of the West End and Scollay Square. Harvard described Collins as the “courageous rebuilder of an Old Boston [whose] . . . leadership has given the Hub a new spin,” according to a Globe story published at the time.
For Menino, the nod from the academic elite at Harvard may have more meaning. He was the son of a factory foreman who rose to power as an unsophisticated everyman, a mayor whose first campaign mantra in 1993 was, “I’m not a fancy talker.”
In two decades in office, Menino has certainly stumbled over his words. But he also demonstrated how to effectively wield power in municipal government, working with influential institutions such as Harvard.
Harvard owns about 360 acres in the Allston section of Boston, which is almost double its home base across the river in Cambridge. Menino has pushed Harvard to make good on its development plans in Allston, which include an art museum and a science center. But he has done so without alienating university power brokers.
After construction stopped on the science center in late 2009, Menino sent Harvard President Drew Faust a strongly worded letter urging Harvard not to abandon its commitments to the city. But Menino also noted that he was buoyed by Faust’s commitment to think creatively on how to complete the project, which remains on hold until 2014.
When Menino announced earlier this year he would not seek a sixth term, Faust issued a statement describing herself as “one of this extraordinary leader’s grateful students.”
“He has made an indelible impression on the city to which he’s given his heart and soul, always staying focused on how to help its people and its neighborhoods thrive,” Faust said. “Discoveries and degree holders are as much a part of his legacy as buildings and businesses, and his efforts to promote education will pay dividends for generations to come.”
After graduating from high school in 1960, Menino found work with Metropolitan Life insurance and enrolled in three night courses at BC. He decided college was not for him, much to the dismay of his late father, Carl Menino, a factory foreman at Westinghouse Electric.
In a 1983 documentary about the future mayor’s first run for City Council, Carl Menino recalled his son’s rationale about school. “Truman didn’t go to college,” Carl Menino recounted his son saying.
The younger Menino would regret his decision to leave school. He would earn an associate degree in business management from Chamberlayne Junior College. In his mid-40s, Menino enrolled in a special adult program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He took all of his courses on a pass-fail basis and received significant credit for his life experience as a Boston city councilor.
When Menino became mayor, he hung a portrait of Truman behind his desk.
“Truman never went to college,” said Randy Sowell, an archivist at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo. “He was the last American president that I know of not to have attended college.”
Truman did collect several dozen honorary degrees, Sowell said, which included Princeton University in 1947, Oxford University in 1956, and Brandeis University in 1957. But Harvard never came calling, he said.
In 1967 the Harvard Crimson noted that Truman felt the snub.
“The 81-year-old ex-haberdasher has been miffed because he has never received an honorary degree from Harvard,” the Crimson reported.
Perhaps the president could have used a lesson from a Boston mayor.