Remembering Phil Hansen, Faculty Emeritus

Phil Hansen—longtime history department chair and Scribner Professor of Global Studies Emeritus—died on June 25, at the age of 79, at a memory care hospital in Saco, Maine.

As his brother wrote in Phil’s obituary: Phil’s teaching career included faculty positions at Kimball Union Academy (English); the Woodstock (VT) Country School (English and Headmaster); and for 23 years, The Roxbury Latin School, where he taught world history, western civilization, U.S. history, modern European history, African history, and political theory. When, at age 28, he was asked to take the helm at Woodstock Country School, he became the youngest headmaster in the country.

At Roxbury Latin, his accomplishments included reviving the school’s debate team and founding the Model U.N. and public speaking programs, all of which, under his tutelage, became the school’s most popular activities and distinguished RL in competitions, nationally and internationally, leaving the school (in a retirement tribute in 1998 by a fellow faculty member) “an empire and a dynasty which are glory of the school and the admiration of the world.” When Phil retired in 1998, he was described as “a towering intellect” and “one of the truly great minds on the RL faculty.”

Equally important to Phil was the positive impact he had on hundreds of students who engaged in his classes and extracurricular activities. His retirement tribute included many accolades from grateful former students: “a positive driving force in my life.” And another: “his relentless efforts to teach, discipline and advise. . .are testament to the devotion, dedication, and loyalty he possesses.”

Phil was particularly adept at nurturing the academic and personal lives of students who struggled. Said one former student: “He never seemed to be afraid of the worst in a student and approached his frailties with uncommon humanity.” In addition to teaching and mentoring RL students, Phil served as a foster parent for at-risk youth referred to him by the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

His compassion and commitment to social justice were evident early on. As a student at Bowdoin College, he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He was instrumental in establishing a student exchange program with Morehouse College and in bringing Dr. Martin Luther King to the Bowdoin campus for an address to the student body and community at large. For these activities, Phil was awarded the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Prize presented to the student “whose vision, humanity, and courage most contribute to making Bowdoin a better college” and was commemorated, in 2014, in the Bowdoin convocation as an inspiration to current students.

Phil also worked with inner-city youth groups in the New York City area while a student at Union Theological Seminary. In retirement, he volunteered on the Jefferson School Committee, as the Bowdoin debate coach, and for LGTBQ support groups. (Read Phil’s complete obituary.)

Headmaster Kerry Brennan wrote to the Roxbury Latin community the following, in memory of Phil and his long, storied relationship with the school:

“Phil had a distinguished career of social activism and academic excellence at Bowdoin and other schools before arriving at Roxbury Latin in 1975. One of Tony Jarvis’s first appointments, Phil went on to serve for 23 years as chair of a colorful department and as a teacher of virtually every course in the history curriculum. Not long into his stay, Phil would be named Director of Studies, a position that would allow him to influence the curriculum writ large. Perhaps Phil’s most enduring and distinctive contributions were as director of the debate and Model United Nations programs. While scores of RL boys would hone their public speaking and interest in global affairs thanks to these programs, Phil was also responsible for forming the regional association of debate programs (DANEIS) and, indeed, was one of the founding fathers of the international organization through which RL debaters have competed over the years. Phil was famous for supporting the underdog both at school and in the community. Many boys whom he advised or otherwise supported are the beneficiaries of his great care. We are grateful for Phil’s long, generative career at RL and his model of engaged stewardship.”

Phil’s family has indicated that a memorial service and celebration of Phil’s life will be held in the fall. To share a memory or leave a message of condolence to his family, you may visit this page.