HMC Mourns Passing of Founding First Lady Jean Platt

February 20, 2013

Jean Ferguson Platt
Jean Ferguson Platt

Jean Ferguson Platt, founding first lady of Harvey Mudd College, passed away on Feb. 18 in Claremont, Calif. She was 91.

Jean Platt, wife of Founding President and physics Professor Joseph Beaven Platt, was deeply involved in the founding of HMC, helping to establish the College in the 1950s and supporting its mission in the decades that followed. After leaving HMC in 1976, Joe and Jean Platt devoted five years to Claremont Graduate University as president and first lady.

Jean Platt was preceded in death by Joe, who died July 10, 2012. They are survived by two daughters, Ann Platt Walker of La Jolla, Calif., and Elizabeth Platt Garrow of Willowbrook, Ill.; their husbands, Richard Walker and Thomas Garrow; grandchildren Stephen Cavell Walker, Jay Bradbury Walker, Jennifer Elizabeth Garrow and Erin Alexander Garrow; and five great-grandchildren.

“Jean’s love of HMC was an integral part of the College’s early years, especially in the development of our students and alumni,” said HMC President Maria Klawe. “During her 20 years as HMC’s first lady, she opened her home to host first-year dinners, arranged faculty teas and stood by Joe’s side through the building of the College. In addition to her contributions to HMC, Jean was an energetic and faithful community volunteer. I am so thankful to Jean for all that she has done for Harvey Mudd College and the community at large.”

Early Years

Jean Platt was educated at Miami University in Ohio and completed a major in mathematics and minor in English in 1943. After graduation, she worked for several years as a technician for Polaroid, where during the war, she was involved in making and testing heat-detecting bolometers. Later she worked with Edwin Land on experiments related to the development of the Polaroid camera. In 1946, she married Joe, who was then on the faculty of the University of Rochester. Once settled in Rochester, she took up ceramics, delivered library books to the home-bound, raised funds for the Philharmonic, joined Campus Women and helped plan international physics conferences.

Founding of HMC and the Claremont Years

Arriving in Claremont in 1956, Jean Platt became involved in starting Harvey Mudd College, together with Joe, who became the founding president. She assumed a variety of roles, including host of campus functions and admission officer. The Platts often shared that members of HMC’s first class were selected from vitae and application forms spread out on their living room floor.

In 1976, Joe Platt accepted the presidency of the Claremont University Center and Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University). Joe and Jean Platt served CGU as president and first lady from 1976 to 1981.

Jean Platt was also active in the Claremont community. She was an officer of Campus Women, one of the founding members of Foothill Philharmonic and a member of the ARCS Foundation. In addition, she was active in the United Church of Christ, Congregational, the Red Cross and the Girl Scouts, and was deeply involved in Pilgrim Place and Mt. San Antonio Gardens, two of Claremont’s retirement communities. She also served on the board of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Hobbies included flower arranging and gardening, and she was a silversmith par excellence.

A True Team

Joe Platt often shared how his deep respect for his wife’s intellect, her work in mathematics and her research background inspired him to champion the recruitment and matriculation of women at HMC.

“It is impossible to quantify how much her steadfast dedication to Harvey Mudd played a role in the amazing trajectory of the institution,” said Jean Strauss, wife of former HMC President Jon Strauss. “Obviously, many key people helped the College plant strong roots. Joe Platt stands above them all, as the thoughtful and joyful leader who set the whole Mobius strip in motion, with a guitar in one hand and a heavy dose of wisdom and imagination in the other. But he could never have done it without Jean. She was not only his chief confidante and wise counsel, she was his best friend. Together, they mutually chose to nurture the College and its people for the rest of their lives.

We invite you to visit a memorial website to reminisce about her life and share your personal memories of Jean.