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Whitehead remembers Tsongas's courage and commitment

Former US Senator Paul E. Tsongas was remembered fondly by his friends at the Whitehead Institute, where he was chairman of the board of directors from 1993 until his death January 18 at age 55.

Mr. Tsongas had been a member of the Whitehead board since 1987. After undergoing a bone-marrow transplant for cancer, he was chairman of the state Board of Regents of Higher Education when he resigned to campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 1991. He also served on the boards of other not-for-profit institutions, including Yale University, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the International Institute for Energy Conservation.

"Paul Tsongas cared deeply about the Whitehead Institute and our work," said Dr. Gerald R. Fink, Whitehead's director. "He had a powerful grasp of the complex issues facing biomedical science today and appreciated the importance of educating tomorrow's leaders in science. His exemplary career in public service is an inspiration to all of us as we seek to apply our own skills to improve human health and welfare. I am honored to have known him. The Whitehead Institute is extremely saddened by this loss. We are indebted to Senator Tsongas for his guidance and commitment to the Whitehead Institute."

"Paul was a great leader and a good friend," said Susan Whitehead, vice chair of the Whitehead board and daughter of Edwin C. "Jack" Whitehead, founder of the Whitehead Institute. "He brought to the Institute the same commitment and vision that exemplified his career in public service. Earlier this fall, Paul insisted on hosting the dedication of our new research wing despite his failing health. He carried out his role as host with a lot of fortitude and good humor and inspired all those who were present. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Many remember how Mr. Tsongas touched their lives personally. Manju Chaudhuri, library assistant at Whitehead, recalled a Friday in October 1995 when she was rushed to get home before her son returned from school. She missed a step and fell down the stairs, suffering a concussion.

"Senator Tsongas, who happened to be at the bottom of the stairs, heard me fall, rushed back up the stairs and knelt by me, holding my hand as I lay trembling on the floor," she said. "He called through the building for a doctor and an ambulance and then simply stayed with me, holding my hand until the ambulance arrived. He asked me my name, and my husband's name, and when I told him I was worried about my son arriving home from school to an empty house, he asked John Pratt, associate director of Whitehead, to send someone to my home to meet my son and bring him to the hospital.

"Later that day, he called the public affairs office from his home and asked after me; he told them that he was very anxious to know how I was doing, and that they should keep him informed of my condition through the weekend," Ms. Chaudhuri said. "He touched my heart, and although I never met him again, I feel as though I have lost a close friend. I never had the opportunity to tell him how much his actions that day meant to me, but somewhere, I'm sure he knows."

Fran Lewitter, Whitehead's senior biocomputing scientist, echoed Ms. Chaudhuri's sentiments. She became involved with the Tsongas family while attending graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she met Tsongas's cousin, Theodora Tsongas. When Dr. Lewitter moved to Boston during Mr. Tsongas's 1977 Senate bid, she became involved with the campaign at Theodora's urging.

At the 1994 groundbreaking event for the Whitehead's new wing, Dr. Lewitter introduced herself to Mr. Tsongas and told him she had volunteered for his campaign. "There were many ways he could have responded, but he thanked me for my help with great sincerity," she said. "The campaign had happened nearly 20 years earlier, and he could easily have commented on any aspect of the campaign in general. But he was genuinely grateful for my contribution and told me so. I found it very moving."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 29, 1997.

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