(Photo:   The Lion's Roar Yearbook, 1974 edition)

Harrison Matthews Symmes

(Reference:  Published in The Washington Post, Wednesday, 12 May 2010)

Harrison Matthews Symmes
November 11, 1921 – May 8, 2010

Harrison Matthews Symmes died of natural causes at his home in Winchester, Virginia, on May 8, 2010.

A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, Symmes earned his undergraduate degree in Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After some graduate work at that university, he completed a Master’s degree in International Relations at George Washington University in 1947. He was awarded a Harvard University Fellowship at the Center for International Affairs in 1962-1963. He was a member of the National Honor Society, Phi Beta Kappa, and Pi Gamma Mu, and received several honorary doctorates in Humanities and Laws.

His four years of U.S. Army service in World War II (1942-1946) took him to North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. This experience served as the basis for his life-long interest in the Middle East. After the war, he received an appointment to the U.S. Foreign Service in 1947, and served for almost thirty years as an Arabic Language and Area Specialist. He was widely regarded as one of the State Department’s foremost Middle East experts. His posts included Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Libya, and Jordan, and his duties took him to Israel, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Emirates. He was Director of Near Eastern Affairs from 1963 to 1966, and served briefly as Director of Personnel before being appointed Ambassador to Jordan from 1967-1970.

After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1974, his career took a new direction when he became President of Windham College in Putney, Vermont. In 1977, he was appointed Resident Director of Mount Vernon, the historic property of George Washington, where he introduced a number of horticultural innovations and updated museum practices. Later, his life-long interest in environmental conservation was given full rein when he became Deputy Director of the Wilderness Society in 1980. From 1983-1985, he was a consultant for a variety of non-profit organizations.

From 1985-2003, he and his wife of 63 years, the former Joan Margaret Shanahan, of Norfolk Virginia, were stewards of their 40-acre property, “Dry Pond Farm,” in Fauquier County outside Upperville, Virginia. A graduate of the Cooperative Extension Service’s Master Gardener Program, he was an avid gardener his entire life, beginning as his grandmother’s “assistant” at age 5, and continuing during overseas tours of duty. He was an active board member of the Foundation of the State Arboretum of Virginia, the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Audubon Society, as well as the American Boxwood Society. He had spoken frequently on a variety of horticultural subjects, including the flowers of Palestine, and the propagation, culture, and landscape uses of native plants and boxwood.

Symmes is survived by his wife, three children, five grandchildren, two brothers, and a number of nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Blue Ridge Hospice, 333 West Cork Street, Suite 405, Winchester, VA, 22601, 540-536-5210,

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