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Remembering Paul Farmer

Remarks made by President Bacow on October 1, 2022 at a memorial and symposium to remember and celebrate the life and impact of Paul Farmer.

Good morning.  My name is Larry Bacow and as President of Harvard University I would like to welcome you to this celebration of life for our dear friend, colleague and teacher, Paul Farmer.

One of the greatest gifts of the presidency is the gift of knowledge—knowledge of our faculty, knowledge of their work, knowledge of their skill.

Before I met Paul, I had read about him—I had read his own writings and those who wrote about him—but nothing could have prepared me to hear him speak in person. His searing and vivid descriptions of reality, his impassioned yet measured aspirations for humanity, opened my eyes more fully. His devotion—to every person—opened my heart more fully. My time with him was a gift I will cherish forever. 

The Jewish tradition offers us a beautiful idea. There are, it asserts, in every generation, thirty-six righteous people — 36 in Hebrew is lamed vav—or 36 lamed-vavniks, whose commitment to justice justifies the existence of the world. These people are not known to us, in fact, they are not even known to themselves which means that any one of us could be one of them. 

Paul, I believe, was a lamed-vavnik, a person who walked among us for a time to remind us that none of us travels alone. We proceed through life alongside one another, revealing, witnessing, and practicing humanity on the journey. Every step we take—as individuals and through the institutions we build and renew together—can move us—should move us—closer to our ideals.

Thank you, Didi, for sharing your husband with the world. Thank you, to the Farmer children, for sharing your father with the world. We in this room—and countless others—are all the better for your generosity and for the generosity of the entire Farmer family.

May you find peace in today’s embrace of the Harvard community. And may memories of our friend and colleague be for you—and for all of us—a blessing.