Prince Karim Aga Khan at Harvard: “My College Room Mate Rules 10 Million” By John Fell Stevenson

John Fell Stevenson, left, who roomed with Prince Karim Aga Khan at Harvard, with his father Adlai Stevenson (1900 - 1965), t
John Fell Stevenson, left, who roomed with Prince Karim Aga Khan at Harvard, with his father Adlai Stevenson (1900 – 1965), the beloved American Democratic Governor of Illinois who twice lost to President Eisenhower in the US presidential elections in 1952 and 1956. This photo was taken on March 17, 1954. Photograph: Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND. See perma link.

Introduced by MALIK MERCHANT
Publisher/Editor BarakahSimerg and Simergphotos

When Prince Karim Aga Khan became the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, there were few people, East or West, who knew him as well as John Fell Stevenson, son of Adlai Ewing Stevenson, the famed and much beloved Governor of Illinois, who was twice the Democratic nominee for President of the United States; he lost the elections to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.

John Stevenson had been a room mate of the new Ismaili Imam at Harvard and the two became close friends. In the fall of 1957, John Fell Stevenson wrote the following special piece for “This Week” magazine, part of the November 10 Sunday edition of the Washington D.C. newspaper “The Washington Star” (it ceased publication on August 7, 1981 after 128 years).

Barakah has accessed the (OCR) text of the article from the website of the US Library of Congress (LOC) that chronicles historic American newspapers. In the past, we have made use of LOC’s resources to bring to our readers two historical articles of great interest. To read them please click (1) Simerg: The Aga Khan’s First Visit to America in 1906; and (2) Barakah: A Beautiful Double Wedding in the Family of His Highness the Aga Khan I, as Reported in April 1874 in a Historic American Newspaper.

Note: The photographs published in this post are not part of John Stevenson’s original piece published in “This Week” magazine.

My College Room Mate Rules 10 Million

Karim impressed me when first we met as freshmen because he had a purpose — he wanted to help people. It wasn’t adolescent sentimentality or showing off: he meant it; and he has meant it ever since, as I’ve watched him diligently preparing to do it. So I was not surprised to read, while I was working on a ship in Asian waters this summer, that the new Aga Khan had already announced his objective: to fulfill the wish of his grandfather that each Ismaili have his own home or business concern as soon as possible — John Fell Stevenson, This Week Magazine, November 10, 1957

Aga Khan with British author J.K. Rowling at Harvard
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, standing 4th from left, returns to Harvard during the 51st year of his Imamat as he receives the Honorary Degree of Laws from the University on June 5, 2008. He is pictured with with other honorary degree recipients  including British author J.K. Rowling  who is seated in centre. Photograph: AKDN

By JOHN FELL STEVENSON

The whole world was startled when the will of the Aga Khan revealed that his successor was his grandson, at the time a 20-year-old American college student. The new ruler of some ten million Moslems turned out to be Karim Khan, a junior at Harvard. By-passed were two sons of the old ruler, Aly and Sadruddin.

Young Karim was summoned straight from his Harvard classes to take over the leadership of the Ismaili Moslem sect, a religious community scattered across India, Africa, and the Middle East. His position has more than spiritual importance; it has vast political significance as well. His grandfather was one of the most influential statesmen of his day. He was, for instance, president of the first meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva.

We Called Him “K”

What sort of man is the new Aga Khan? I first met him at the beginning of our freshman year at Harvard. “K,” as we soon came to call Karim, was dressed casually in a plain brown leather jacket, open white shirt, crease less baggy trousers, and shoes which I believe had never been shined. This attire changed only slightly for the better in the following years.

In that first meeting we quickly launched on a serious conversation about our personal interests. K was naturally drawn to the Middle East and wanted to study civil engineering so he could help raise living standards in the underdeveloped areas there.

Such determination and clear-cut purpose in life was refreshing. Most of us. and certainly myself, had only the foggiest idea at that point of what we wanted to major in, let alone a plan for later life. Although K’s plans were to change, I think it is important that at 17 he was already determined to help the world.

This first meeting was the beginning not only of a close friendship, but of my profound respect and admiration for this sensitive and shy young man. He does not make close friends easily. But once he does and feels at ease, his light side comes through and his sparkling wit and indisputable charm submerge his shyness. His friendship is loyal and thoughtful, and he gives more than he takes. During the last Christmas holidays I was injured in a serious automobile accident. K promptly took an all-night coach from Boston to Chicago to be with me. He didn’t fly because he didn’t have enough money for an airplane ticket!

The first year at Harvard was a bumpy one for K. He had been used to something quite different at his preparatory school in Switzerland. Finding himself in a new kind of school as well as a different country took some adjusting; but language was luckily no problem; his mother is English.

His ski clothes were a sight to behold: turquoise elastic ski pants, a multi-colored tennis sweater, and a black “beanie.” Any doubts one might have had upon first seeing this apparition were quickly dispelled as K took to the slopes. He was a top-notch skier, and with characteristic enthusiasm he was at it all day — John Fell Stevenson, This Week Magazine, November 10, 1957

K was eager to return to Europe at the end of his difficult freshman year (I had my troubles, too!), but he came back the next fall with renewed spirit and determination. He promptly dropped civil engineering because of trouble he had had with chemistry, and chose Middle Eastern History for his major field.

Four of us roomed together that year, so I was able to observe K’s study habits at close quarters. He worked hard, was almost always the last to bed and first to rise. When he was assigned a paper, we would seldom see him except when he rushed into the living room to get more books. I took one course with K that year and I must confess that I came to rely heavily on his excellent notes. They were always neat, complete and methodical, characteristics of all K’s work. He also invariably attended classes, which, not being a requirement at Harvard, is not exactly a uniform practice.

But he managed to find time for athletics, which with his studies left few spare moments for relaxation. He is an excellent all-around athlete. At his Swiss preparatory school he participated in many sports — soccer, hockey, skiing, tennis, track and crew, often playing several sports in one season. He was good at all but best at rowing, his favorite. He won many cups in international races. At Harvard, where he was limited to one sport at a time, he naturally chose his favorite, much to the disappointment of the skiing and soccer coaches. Unhappily, he did not make the crew, despite his perseverance. He’s lean but too stocky for the light crew and too short for the heavy crew.

Aga Khan rowing Le Rosey Switzerland, Barakah
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, rowing, Le Rosey, Switzerland. Photograph: 25 Years in Pictures, The Silver Jubilee of the Imamat of His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, published by Islamic Publications Ltd., London, England, 1983.
Portrait of Swiss-born Aga Khan IV (born Prince Karim Khan) in his Harvard University blazer as he smiles with an armful of books, on the Harvard Campus, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1958. Photograph: © Hank Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

I was able to observe K’s study habits at close quarters. He worked hard, was almost always the last to bed and first to rise. When he was assigned a paper, we would seldom see him except when he rushed into the living room to get more books. I took one course with K that year and I must confess that I came to rely heavily on his excellent notes. They were always neat, complete and methodical, characteristics of all K’s work — John Fell Stevenson, This Week Magazine, November 10, 1957

His Highness the Aga Khan receives an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard University at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: AKDN.
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan receives an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree in the 51st year of his Imamat from Harvard University at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photograph: AKDN.
His Highness the Aga Khan spoke as part of the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture series, which provides for “the delivery of lectures by eminent and well-qualified persons for the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations, and the peace of the world". AKDN / Farhez Rayani
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan delivering the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on November 12, 2015 in the 59th year of his Imamat. Photograph: AKDN/Farhez Rayani.

In his moments of relaxation, K liked to listen to music and read, usually both at once. His collection of books and records was considerable for a college student. The pride of his library was an autographed set of Churchill’s works. K’s taste in literature leaned toward history, but he was also fond of Robert Louis Stevenson and Victor Hugo. In music his preferences were primarily highbrow, but he is by no means indifferent to the charms of Latin American records!

Rhythm on a Wastebasket

While Karim read his involved history texts, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto or something similar wafted faintly through the closed door of his room. But the whole peace of the dormitory was shattered when K needed a recess. Rhythm bubbled within him and Tchaikovsky yielded to Perez Prado. His door was flung open and K bounced forth singing and snapping his fingers until he found an overturned wastebasket on which to beat the rhythm in bongo-drum fashion.

This mood struck at odd times. He would be walking to class when suddenly his dexterous finger-snapping and resonant whistling would invade the academic calm. You could hear him a block away! Another moment conducive to the gay mood was the shower bath. Many a time the quiet was shattered by his beating out the time on the shower wall!

K’s decency, his discipline, his responsibility, his infinite charm, his humility and compassion for the less fortunate have, I believe, equipped him to handle a big job in life and especially the one that has fallen to his lot — John Fell Stevenson, This Week Magazine, November 10, 1957

K seldom went out, generally preferring to spend his spare time reading, but not without these sporadic interruptions! Sophomore year he was “punched” by most of the clubs at Harvard and joined the Delphic. So did I. He rarely visited the club, though, regarding “gassing” with “the boys” as a waste of his precious time and not much fun anyway. He did not drink forbidden by the Moslem religion and adhered faithfully to the customs and religions practices of Islam.

When K did go out, he believed in having a good time. Among his favorite methods of letting off steam were trips to New York for the theater or on winter ski weekends.

One such trip began last year when a group of us headed north to the ski country immediately after our last examination. As we left Cambridge, we were all still somewhat dazed from a week of testing. K immediately proceeded to lift us from our doldrums by beating out Cha Cha Cha on the dashboard.

At the ski lodge the next morning we were awakened much too early by K, who wanted to be the first up the mountain. His ski clothes were a sight to behold: turquoise elastic ski pants, a multi-colored tennis sweater, and a black “beanie.” Any doubts one might have had upon first seeing this apparition were quickly dispelled as K took to the slopes. He was a top-notch skier, and with characteristic enthusiasm he was at it all day.

Two Suits, 12 Ties

On trips to New York — which he took only three or four times a year — K put on one of his two suits, dark gray or dark blue, and one of his 12 ties, of which six are dark blue and six dark brown. Since he had only one pair of shoes, dirty black, there was no problem there. On an occasion such as this, K usually had a date. He had quite a large selection to choose from, however, and I never knew him to get really serious over any particular girl, though he may have had a favorite from time to time.

K liked to arrive in New York with just enough time for a huge dinner, which he invariably began with a double order of shrimp cocktail with Thousand Island dressing. After this he generally preferred the biggest steak on the menu. His appetite was heroic, and with capacity to match he could really enjoy himself at these infrequent feasts, loosening his belt several notches in the process. Arriving at the theater, usually a bit late, K settled down contentedly and enjoyed the performance as much as anyone. After the theater he liked to go dancing. His favorite music was South American.

At the end of a long evening, during which Karim had just as much fun without drinking as anyone, he flew back to Boston in time for morning classes. His humor and gaiety bubbled to the end, but he had come to Harvard for an education and he took the opportunity very seriously.

Karim’s Aim

Karim impressed me when first we met as freshmen because he had a purpose — he wanted to help people. It wasn’t adolescent sentimentality or showing off: he meant it; and he has meant it ever since, as I’ve watched him diligently preparing to do it. So I was not surprised to read, while I was working on a ship in Asian waters this summer, that the new Aga Khan had already announced his objective: to fulfill the wish of his grandfather that each Ismaili have his own home or business concern as soon as possible.

K’s decency, his discipline, his responsibility, his infinite charm, his humility and compassion for the less fortunate have, I believe, equipped him to handle a big job in life and especially the one that has fallen to his lot. I’m only sorry that his qualities, which we all admired, have deprived us of a wonderful roommate!

Date posted: August 5, 2022.
Last updated: August 6, 2022 (typo)

[The OCR’d text on the LOC website has a few typos which have been corrected above to correspond with the text in PDF version of the piece. The four page PDF piece which includes some rare photographs can be read by clicking on Page 1, Page 2, Page 3 and Page 4 — Ed.]

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5 comments

  1. Wow it was exhilarating to go through the account of our Hazar Imam’s youthful university life by his roommate. I was particularly touched by John Fell Stevenson’s last remarks “I was only sorry that his qualities, which we admired, have deprived us of a wonderful roommate”. This sentence goes to the heart of the message that the sacrifices our Imam has made of his entire life for the upliftment of not only the Ismaili community, but of entire humanity.

    Like

  2. What a beautiful, eloquent and warmhearted portrait of the young Aga Khan. No mention is made of his pedigree as a prince but rather offers a vivid image of His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan’s purposeful zest for life, focus and humanity.

    Like

  3. Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America” used to arrive each month to our home in Uganda. My late dearest father would write to Alistair Cooke in a fashion of “Letters to the Editor.”

    In 1957, my dad wrote to Cooke of the coronation of Hazar Imam. Sometime after that he received a handwritten note from Alistair Cooke with a cutting of your aforementioned article!

    The note and the article was kept under a glass top of my dad’s working desk. It stayed there until we left, in a hurry, for Canada from Uganda in 1972. Thank you for sharing the memories through the piece you have just published.

    Like

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