Richard J. Clasby, Harvard football star and confidant of Ted Kennedy, dies at 87

The Boston Globe

Dick Clasby.

By Globe Staff 

On a sunny afternoon in 1953, in front of thousands of football fans who packed Harvard Stadium for the venue’s 50th anniversary, Dick Clasby put on a dazzling show of athleticism and character.

One of the best players in Harvard’s history, he caught a kickoff in his own end zone and ran it back 102 yards for a touchdown – bursting into a sprint at midfield, even though by then he had been on the field for all 57 minutes of the game, playing offense and defense.


Then the referees called a clipping penalty on one of his teammates. Harvard defeated Dartmouth College that day, but his touchdown run was called back before he had a chance to catch his breath. On the sidelines, Harvard’s coaches jumped up and down in anger, but “Clasby didn’t say a word,” a referee told the Globe afterward. “He came back up the field as though nothing had happened, a real gentleman.”

The referee wasn’t the only one who noticed how Mr. Clasby handled himself at difficult moments. After the season’s final game, future Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam – then a Harvard undergraduate – wrote in the student newspaper that during Mr. Clasby’s years at the university, “Harvard may have been outplayed, but it was never outclassed, because no one has more class than Clasby.”

Mr. Clasby, who formerly was president of the Davenport Peters wholesale lumber brokerage, died Saturday in his Waterford, Vt., home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87 and previously had lived for many years in Milton and Quincy.

Among his closest friends was Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whom he met when they were freshman football teammates at Harvard, falling into long discussions on walks to and from practice.

They were tight on the field, too. In a game against Brown University their freshman year, Kennedy “went across the middle, and I threw him a long pass, and he made a spectacular catch,” Mr. Clasby said in an oral history interview for the Miller Center Foundation and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate. Kennedy was stretched out midair, horizontal to the ground, when he caught the ball, and “to this day, we reenact that pass.”


Over the years, Mr. Clasby worked on the campaigns of Kennedy and his brothers, John and Robert, though he remained closest to Ted. “I understand him; he understands me,” Mr. Clasby said in the oral history. “If he said to me, or if I said to him, ‘I’ll meet you under the Cape Cod bridge at 10 o’clock, 10 years from tomorrow,’ I think he’d be there. I know I would be there.”

Meeting Ted Kennedy also changed Mr. Clasby’s life. Kennedy’s brother Jack came to watch him play in a Harvard football game one day and brought along their cousin Mary Jo Gargan. She was a student at Manhattanville College in Harrison, N.Y., and Mr. Clasby and Ted Kennedy often visited her when they were traveling to and from New York City on social occasions. “I finally woke up to the situation,” Mr. Clasby recalled in the oral history. “Why am I going to New York? I like this girl!” They married in 1955 and had seven children.

Richard J. Clasby was born in Boston, a son of Michael Clasby and the former Anita Wollaston.

The youngest of three brothers, Mr. Clasby grew up in Natick, where he was All-Scholastic for Natick High School’s football, hockey, and baseball teams. He graduated in 1949 and almost went to Boston College, where his brother Ed was a football star. “About two weeks before I was to report at Boston College, Harvard said, ‘We’d like you to go to prep school,’ ” Mr. Clasby said in the oral history, so he spent a year at Trinity-Pawling in Pawling, N.Y.

At Harvard, he played three sports and worked jobs to supplement his scholarship, which inspired the opening of a 1952 column by legendary sportswriter Red Smith: “Less than two minutes remained in the first half of Harvard’s tryst with Yale yesterday when Dick Clasby, a waiter in the Harvard Faculty Club, rushed for the end zone as though it were peopled with famished professors demanding pork chops under pain of flunking grades.”

A football All-American at Harvard, Mr. Clasby tied the record for male athletes with nine varsity letters and was captain of the football team his senior year. He was inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame as an all-around athlete and the Natick High School Athletic Hall of Fame.


In December 1953, when the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston awarded Mr. Clasby the George H. “Bulger” Lowe trophy as New England’s best football player, he called himself “fortunate for having unselfish teammates and fortunate for having great friends. But the most important factor is being fortunate in having my mother and dad. You have no idea how I felt knowing there were two people in the stands praying for my safety and praying I’d make good for my school.”

Mr. Clasby graduated from Harvard in 1954 and served in the Army for two years, mostly in Alaska, where he coached and played on a hockey team of servicemen that won 31 straight games. When he went into the lumber business after the service, he and his family lived for a time in Michigan, where he was a county leader for Jack Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Upon returning to Massachusetts, the Clasbys moved to Milton.

“He showed his love for his children by giving us experiences and by really creating a magical home in Milton,” said his son Bob of Scottsdale, Ariz.

In addition to his wife, son, and brother, Edward of Westborough, Mr. Clasby leaves three other sons, Michael of Marblehead, Richard Jr. of Irvine, Calif., and John of Wilton, Conn.; two daughters, Gail Mustoe of Windsor, Vt., and Mary Jo O’Neill of Waterford, Vt.; and 13 grandchildren. Mr. Clasby’s daughter Susan died in 1997 in a fall from a horse.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Friday in St. Elizabeth Church in Milton. Burial will be in Milton Cemetery.

Mr. Clasby reveled in spending time with friends, whether they were part of the Kennedy clan, with whom he and his family spent time on Cape Cod every year, or were among the lumber mill owners he met in the South during some 50 years in the business. “They were very loyal to him,” his son Bob said. “He created relationships with people. They knew him and they liked him.”

He added that his father “always wanted to make everybody around him happy and laugh,” and that Mr. Clasby’s grandchildren now tell the jokes he had repeated for years.

Mr. Clasby also “never complained, which was kind of his philosophy in life,” his son said. “He just put his head down and kept going.”

That was evident in 1953, when the penalty nullified his breathtaking 102-yard touchdown. When someone tried to console him, he just grinned: “Well, they can’t take the thrill of the run away from me, anyway.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at