Dan Nyhart, at 77; served as dean and professor at MIT

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 23, 2009
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Sitting on the floor with legs crossed and hands clasped casually, Dan Nyhart inclines his head upward in a photo taken at MIT in 1969, his first as dean for student affairs. Brow furrowed, eyes intent, he was doing something he did a lot during that time of student protests and campus upheaval.

"I remember that picture of him listening, and I think the reason the students really loved him is because he did - he really did listen," said his daughter, Lynn of Madison, Wis. "He really wanted to make things smooth, to make trouble go away, and so he was a good person for that time."

Mr. Nyhart, who spent 41 years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, serving in several posts, died of pneumonia Dec. 6 in Sherrill House nursing and rehabilitation center in Jamaica Plain. He was 77 and had lived in Brookline for many years before moving to Sherrill House while being treated for Lewy body dementia.

"You had the sense that he was on your side," said Bonny Kellermann, who is director of special constituencies at MIT and was a student there while Mr. Nyhart was dean. "He was interested in the well-being of the student body and doing whatever he could to enhance the experience we were having. And the fact that he had such a good rapport with students at that time says something about him as a person."

In an article written for the student yearbook during Mr. Nyhart's first year as dean, Karen Wattell of the class of 1970 quoted him as saying that "MIT does have a chance to operate within the revolution going on and better itself in the process - not in reaction [to the revolution] but with it."

Praising his many meetings with students, faculty, and administrators, Wattell wrote that "instead of talking about advocacy at the interface of students and administration . . . he was doing it."

As protests against the Vietnam War filled Boston Common, Mr. Nyhart sometimes found himself on the front lines of student unrest.

"He'd go to work with his sleeping bag sometimes, because he didn't know if he'd be able to come home," said his son Andrew of New Haven.

"I remember some of the stories," said his other son, Nick of Durham, Conn. "He was squirted in the face with urine and ammonia squirt guns. He was liberal in politics, and that really put his liberalism to the test, but he never lost faith in people. He believed in listening and had faith that through discussion and peaceful negotiation, you can accomplish a lot."

The younger of two brothers, John Daniel Nyhart grew up in Indianapolis, where he was on state champion debate and swimming teams.

He graduated from Princeton University in 1953, then spent two years in the US Navy, serving aboard a destroyer in the Atlantic.

While at Princeton, he met Nina Gibbon, a student at Vassar College whose brother was in his Princeton class. After they married in 1954, she returned to finish at Vassar while he spent his last year in the Navy before heading to Harvard Law School.

Graduating from law school in 1958, "he was sure that he did not want to go to Wall Street and did not want to do any of the obvious things he could have done," his wife said. "He wanted to travel and be part of the wider world, so we went to Africa for two years."

As they divided their time between Uganda and Nigeria, Mr. Nyhart studied banking and law in the developing nations, "and this is before the Peace Corps, so it was adventuresome and unusual at the time," his wife said.

Through people he met while working in Africa, Mr. Nyhart was asked to come to MIT as a research associate in 1960. Over the next four decades, along with serving as dean, he was an assistant professor, associate professor, and retired as full professor with appointments in MIT's Sloan School of Management and the department of ocean engineering.

As a researcher, his work included developing computer-assisted models for negotiation and dispute resolution, and exploring how emerging ocean technologies would be handled by the legal systems of various nations.

"His intellectual curiosity took him through a whole wide range of disciplines," Nick Nyhart said. "He was always digging in more deeply into what he thought was important. He used to say, 'Every time there's new technology, you need new laws to govern things that couldn't happen before.' "

That willingness to jump into new things extended beyond Mr. Nyhart's career. When his children began skiing, he did, too, even though "he was kind of old to start a new sport," his daughter said. "And he had always talked about wanting to play the clarinet, so we rented one for him for a year and dared him to learn, and he did it. He played for a few years."

Just as important was the time Mr. Nyhart spent with family and the hours his schedule allowed for swimming.

"We spent two or three weeks every summer in Maine," his daughter said. "He would just plunge into the cold water and swim underwater as far as he could and then emerge. He just reveled in that. He swam for exercise and would do laps - it was like meditation for him."

At his house, he often sat in a chair "writing on his yellow legal pad, preparing notes for his lecture the next day or the paper he was working on," she said. "But he was always willing to put it aside when we were home."

"To me, he was the most generous man on earth, kind of a gold standard for generosity," Andrew Nyhart said. "You could hear that in his voice and see that in his smile all the time."

Said Mr. Nyhart's wife, "He was a sweet guy, very warm, very kind, and we all miss him a lot."

In addition to his wife, daughter, and two sons, Mr. Nyhart leaves seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. on March 7 in the MIT Chapel.

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