I like to talk about “Middlebury Moments”—those moments I’ve experienced in my time as president that best exemplify Middlebury’s values and character.
There are also “Middlebury People”—men and women who live what it means to be Middlebury, and who help us be even better at who we are.
Dave Mittelman ’76 was one of those Middlebury People, and his memorial service in Boston on September 28 was one of those Middlebury Moments. The room, set for 350, was packed, with several people standing outside listening. Speaker after speaker spoke to his extraordinary qualities—of curiosity, caring, and inspiring positivity even in the face of a difficult diagnosis.
Dave embodied so much of what makes Middlebury such a uniquely enduring and meaningful institution. He was an alumnus who delighted in sharing his story of how he got kicked off the soccer team rather than cut his long hair to conform to the coach’s early 1970s sartorial standards. He was a parent of three Middlebury graduates, Andrew ’08, Jamie ’10, and Melissa ’13. He was a passionate lifelong learner, a devoted husband to his wife, Michelle, and a dedicated and highly engaged trustee. He was curious, intelligent, ambitious, grounded, competitive, compassionate, mindful, and deliberate.
His deep curiosity and intellect meant that he was always hungry for more knowledge—about situations, problems to be solved, ideas to be considered, facts to be learned. One of the great scientists he admired, the astronomer Johannes Kepler, wrote, “The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.” That idea that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment is such a Dave Mittelman idea—and such a Middlebury idea too.
Dave’s mind was never lacking in fresh nourishment, and he made sure Middlebury was not either. An amateur astronomer, he brought his love of the study of the universe to Middlebury, and opened the heavens up to our students, faculty, and the greater Middlebury community. He endowed the P. Frank Winkler Professorship in Physics, honoring the professor emeritus who joined the faculty in 1969, and he helped fund significant upgrades to the College’s observatory, including renovating the telescope in 2015.
Galileo said, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered. The point is to discover them.” What Dave discovered was considerable, both in the stars and in his career. For 22 years, he was a brilliant partner, director, and senior vice president of Harvard Management Company, the firm that manages Harvard University’s endowment. Dave brought his considerable financial acuity to the Middlebury Board of Trustees, on which he served from 2008 to 2017. He also served on the board of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and was an advisor to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Like Galileo, Dave believed in discovering truths for the purpose of understanding them. Whether those truths were in finances, or in his observations of the heavens, or in how he lived his daily life, or his relationship to Middlebury, he committed himself to fully, and mindfully, cultivating understanding, and also wonder.
While Dave was not someone who used the word “god” very often, he had a deep sense of the sacred, and a profound sense of wonderment. I could sense that the sacred light of the stars was always teaching him, that it was just underneath the surface, and in the pauses we sometimes experienced when we talked together.
Losing a friend is never easy. Losing a friend like Dave, which we did on May 23 of this year, less than nine months after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, has been profoundly difficult. Middlebury lost a great friend, and the Mittelman family lost the husband, father, and guiding star they shared with us.
Dave gave back to Middlebury in ways that allow us to give forward to students, present and future. He was a model of what it means to be a Middlebury Person, one of the innumerable and invaluable people who have helped bring us to where we are today.
To honor him, this past spring the College named the observatory, which hosts more than 1,000 visitors each year to open house stargazing and other events, for him. We will remember him, in large and small ways, especially when we ascend to the top of Bicentennial Hall, enter the Mittelman Observatory, and ask new questions of the stars.
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