Adele F. Bacow has worked in urban planning for over 30 years, was the founding president of Community Partners Consultants, and is married to Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow.
Adele F. Bacow has worked in urban planning for over 30 years, was the founding president of Community Partners Consultants, and is married to Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow. By Courtesy of Rose Lincoln/Harvard University

Fifteen Questions: Adele Bacow on Urban Design, Life with Larry, and Book Clubbing

The urban planner and first lady of Harvard sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss her artistic pursuits and her formative college years at Wellesley. “I grew up in a very protected, secure, happy home life,” she says. “And then to come up North and be exposed to all the new ideas and the changes in the world, it was extremely eye-opening.”
By Maya M. F. Wilson

Adele F. Bacow is no stranger to Cambridge. She’s worked in urban planning for over 30 years and was the founding president of Community Partners Consultants. Before that, she completed her undergrad at Wellesley College and received her graduate degree at MIT. Her husband is current Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: Have you all been celebrating the high holidays? Does your family have any traditions for Rosh Hashanah?

AFB: Of course, we always do. It’s a time of reflection. We got to have dinner with my niece and her husband and my sister and her husband and their families, so that was a treat. And then going to our synagogue. What we always do is part of the time we go to Harvard Hillel and part at our synagogue that we belong to in Newton.

FM: Do you have a favorite dish you like to eat?

AFB: It’s so funny, I emailed a staff person, wrote an email and said, “I made your chocolate date cake. It was delicious.” And I then was like, well actually, lately I’ve been baking this apple cranberry tart that I make every year because it’s got apples for the start of the New Year. So I sent her that recipe. So we’re trading recipes.

FM: Given all of your work in urban design, I’ve been wondering what you think the best designed part of Harvard or Cambridge is? What’s the worst?

AFB: I don’t know that I have one spot that I’d say “this is my favorite place in Harvard.” I think what I appreciate about Harvard is how easy it is to walk in and out of the various parts of campus. Even though Harvard Yard has a fence around it, it’s open and accessible and anybody can walk in and feel welcomed. So I like that part.

FM: What about Cambridge more broadly? Any parts that you think could be reinvisioned?

AFB: I spent a lot of time around Central Square when I was an undergrad and graduate student. It makes me feel good to see how Central Square has really strengthened, both its commercial but also its connection to the street and the various neighborhoods. That’s an area I think has really strengthened in the last 20 years or so, which is saying a lot, because I think it’s hard after two years of Covid, with so many businesses having to close their doors.

FM: How did you and Larry meet?

AFB: His roommate, Alan, was dating my friend, Debbie, who lived across the hall from me in my first year of college. We didn’t meet until September after I graduated from college, but they introduced us, so our first date was a blind date. Do you know what a blind date is?

FM: Yes, I know what a blind date is! What did you do?

AFB: We went to a Greek festival in Watertown. He had a great smile and he was easy to talk to. They had dancing and a lot of ouzo and a lot of fun, which is hysterical because Larry doesn’t like ouzo and he doesn’t like to dance. But we had a good time. We double-dated with the couple that introduced us — that’s another old term. Oh, and the important thing to know about them is they got married a week before we did and drove on their honeymoon down from Massachusetts to my hometown in Florida for the wedding. And we’re all still good friends, and we’re all still married.

FM: Do you remember what your second date was?

AFB: Larry was in law school at the time, and he invited me with his friend, his friend was dating another roommate, they’d since got married the same week we did —

FM: Wait, the same week again?

AFB: Yes.

FM: All three of them got married the same week?

AFB: No, all four. He had three roommates named Alan. We were the first ones to admit we were engaged. Within six weeks, they all got engaged, and we all got married in successive weekends in June in 1975. We’re all still married, and we’re all still good friends.

FM: In a Gazette article, you said being in college is the best age! Do you still feel that way?

AFB: I did say that! No, your life will get better than being in college. Being around people at college age is wonderful because generally people are full of promise, full of hope, full of enthusiasm, full of curiosity, and open to ideas. Your life should get richer and fuller as you get older, which I think it does, if you’re fortunate. So for someone in my stage, I love being around college-aged kids for the reasons I just said. But don’t be dismayed. There’s so much uncertainty, and those questions can feel overwhelming, but with time, you’ll figure it out.

FM: What were you like in college?

AFB: I went to Wellesley College, and I came from a very mediocre public high school in Jacksonville, Florida, and I really didn't learn to study until I got to college because I kind of didn’t have to. So I was very nerdy the first couple years. I just studied all the time, because I was worried I was going to flunk out. For some unknown reasons I made up a major in Urban Design and took a lot of classes at MIT in architecture and planning. I think I was braver than I knew I was, because I didn’t know anyone in those fields, and I took the bus most days to MIT to take these classes and I would be literally the only woman in these classes studying architecture and planning. And you just sort of put one foot in front of the other and do what you think you want to do somehow. In retrospect, I think that was pretty brave of me to do that, but I don’t think I thought about it in those terms at the time.

In college, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I loved the opportunities that Boston offered. Every weekend I would usher at the ART and I would see the concerts for free. In those days you could do that. Symphonies, plays, that kind of thing. And I just really ate up being in the city.

I was a freshman in 1969. That was a pivotal year. It was the Women’s Revolution, it was right after Martin Luther King, it was Bobby Kennedy, race riots. The spring of my year, students were sent home. It was Kent State, it was Vietnam War protesting. I was protesting in front of the president’s house at Wellesley. When I was taking classes at MIT I was gassed at one of the protests. It was a very complex time to be in college, and I grew up in a very protected, secure, happy home life. And then to come up North and be exposed to all the new ideas and the changes in the world, it was extremely eye-opening. I feel like it was very pivotal to my development as a human being, as a woman, as a professional, as someone just opening your eyes to the world. I think that perhaps what I witnessed helped steer me towards my professional goals.

FM: The arts have clearly been a really important part of your life since forever. Do you pursue art in your free time, or as a hobby still? Do you have a favorite medium?

AFB: I’m more into music now. I’ve been taking piano lessons for years, and I probably play the piano almost everyday. I read a lot when I can, but I’m not, like, a painter. I used to do pottery very seriously, but I finally gave away my potter's wheel. I was actually the founding president of the Wellesley College Potters Association. And then, when I took up piano, and working, it became hard to combine everything. My friends and I, we’re at the stage now where we’re like, “Well, what am I going to do with all these pots?” I think that sometimes when you do something for a long time, it’s time to move on to something else. I got a lot of enjoyment out of it for many years, and now I’m more drawn to music — classical music. I also play a lot of duets with a friend, which is fun. I used to play with my mother, and I used to play with our son.

FM: Does the friend you play with happen to be married to a person named Alan?

AFB: No. But there’s a high probability!

FM: What are you reading right now?

AFB: I just finished a book of essays by — she wrote the “Dutch House” and “Bel Canto” — Ann Patchett. She wrote a book that came out during Covid, similar to essays she’d written previously, but they were beautifully written, I really enjoyed that. Each essay talks about a different time in her life that was profound, ranging from her first semester at college when she couldn’t come home and decided she was going to make Thanksgiving dinner for her college friends and what she learned about herself in doing that, to someone who was her mentor, to what it was like being a writer. I think it was a time of reflection, and a compilation of previous essays that she’d written, but they were very insightful. Let me look up the name, you might like this book: “These Precious Days: Essays.” I’m also just starting to read a book called “River of Doubt” that talks about Teddy Roosevelt’s passage down the Amazon after he lost the presidential election, which my book club is reading, but I literally just started it so I can’t speak on that. And before that I read “Crying in H-Mart.” Do you know it? It’s a memoir.

But I’ve been in the same book club for over 35 years, it’s really fun. We raised our family in Newton and it was started by some friends when our kids were little and in preschool together, and one of them said, “We can talk about things other than kids.” So they started a bookclub, so I joined it! And we’ve been meeting for a long, long time.

But they’re avid readers. A number of them are in more than one book club. It’s impressive. One friend — this shows you how much she likes to read — she said when she was a little girl, she would read in the shower. And I said, how do you do that? She said she stayed in the shower and the water would go down her back. Hahaha. Don’t worry, I don’t read in the shower.

FM: What misconceptions do you think people have about the Harvard presidency?

AFB: People say to me a lot, “How does Larry handle all the stress of being president?” And the one thing I’ll say about him is he doesn’t get stressed about hard decisions. He’s a good decision maker and he’s got a great team, and he’s good at working with his team in having to navigate really complex issues. So it’s not like he stays up all night thinking, “What am I going to do about this next issue?” It’s more that it’s consistently relentless.

FM: So, you retired, and Larry is phasing out of the presidency. What are you guys looking forward to in this next stage?

AFB: For me, the thing I’m looking forward to the most is to have his undivided attention. He’s always juggling so many issues and so many demands on his time and wanting to respond quickly, which he does, to every overture. So I think for both of us it’ll be nice to just relax and for him not to have those consistent demands on his attention. Just to be able to walk the beach with relaxation, spend time with family and friends, and smell the roses a bit more!

— Associate Magazine Editor Maya M. F. Wilson can be reached at maya.wilson@thecrimson.com.

Tags
Fifteen QuestionsConversations