Former President of the Board of Trustees David Underwood ’54 passed away August 30 at the age of 78 last month, following a long period of illness. He may be most well known to students as a result of his first major gift to the school, the Underwood Room. His contributions and the legacy that he left behind, however, extend far beyond his donations to the school.
“Mr. Underwood was the President of the Board of Trustees before I became the Head of School, but he has continued to be an active alumnus and one of the great leaders of the school, certainly of the 20th century and into the 21st,” said Head of School John Palfrey.
As the President of the Board from 1989 to 2004, Underwood led his team through many decisions, including the appointment of Barbara Landis Chase as the Head of School and the implementation of policy change allowing same-sex couples to serve as house counselors. The latter was an extraordinarily controversial decision at the time, and both Head of School John Palfrey and Peter Currie, President of the Board of Trustees, recalled his steadfast demeanor in handling this bold, political move.
“I think his leadership on the topic of same sex house counselors which now seems non-controversial was extraordinarily controversial at the time and I think he was very effective in his handling in that. I think he saw it as a complex decision personally,” said Palfrey.
An editorial in The Phillipian the following week praised Underwood’s keen ability to “navigate our ancient ship” on such a disputed matter and his “morality” and “goodness”.
Both Palfrey and Currie recounted Underwood’s effective leadership in the Trustees Room.
Currie said, “He led with empathy, care, decisiveness and attention to the school’s founding principles. After encouraging debate and dialog from all trustees, David would bring a discussion to a close, with the issues better understood and the direction clear. ‘I think we’ve chewed all the sugar out of that gum,’ he would say, as he brought the matter to a vote,” said Currie in an article on Andover’s website.
Prior to his appointment as President of the Board, Underwood had served as a charter trustee since 1983. In 2003, Underwood earned Andover’s highest honor, the Claude M. Fuess Award, for his service to hospitals and health care systems in the Houston area (he was a Texas native) and for his gifts supporting campus facilities. He supported numerous building and program initiatives as the chair of Campaign Andover, the largest fundraising effort among secondary schools at the time.
Palfrey said that Underwood’s funding of the expansion of Cochran Chapel in 1997 was transformative because it ensured that the entire student body could gather in the same space at the same time. He felt that it “spoke to the needs of the community”. In addition, Underwood spearheaded the expansion of Oliver Wendell Holmes Library and the overall planning that led to the construction of Gelb Science Center.
In a message to classmates on their 50th reunion in 2004, Underwood said: “I have served on several boards, I have led various organizations, but nothing can ever match the experience I have had working with Andover. Nowhere could I find a more constant source of inspiration for me. I would not have traded it for anything.
Underwood is survived by his wife and four children.