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A Chance Meeting, a Shared Love of Education: Harriet and Samuel Nash

Harriet and Sam Nash
Retired Drexel faculty members Samuel and Harriet Nash at their home in Philadelphia, PA.

January 22, 2015

It was 1945 and the world was in its last year of war; Hitler’s empire unraveled, the U.S. dropped its first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.

It seemed that nothing could reverse the horrors the war had wrought on humanity for six long years; but even in the fog of war, there was a glimmer of hope.

Samuel “Sam” Nash, then a 26-year-old soldier in the Navy, was taking a well-earned vacation in the Catskill Mountains in the summer of 1945.

As he and his colleagues were gathered in a meeting hall, they suddenly heard an announcement.   

“A man came on the loudspeaker: ‘we have an important message from President Truman,’” Sam said. “We all ran to the common room to listen.”

World War II was over.

“I was with a friend, who said ‘would you like to meet a girl?’ Sam said. “A few feet from me was a young lady who he introduced me to.” Her name was Harriet, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn who was finishing up her bachelor’s degree in Spanish at Hunter College.

After almost 68 years of marriage today, Sam and Harriet Nash simply recall that day as “auspicious,” for it was day the war ended and their life together began.

After marrying and briefly living in Annapolis, Md., Sam decided to pursue a degree in metallurgy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Ma. The couple moved into a quaint home only three blocks from campus where they lived until Sam earned his master’s and doctorate of science five years later.

After Sam graduated in 1951, they moved to the Philadelphia area where Sam earned a position at the Frankford Arsenal, a U.S. Army ammunition plant, where he stayed until its closing in 1977.

“I was there the last day it closed,” Sam said. “It was the same day they gave me my discharge papers.”

A retired naval officer, Sam started a new career with a part-time teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania, and then a position teaching metallurgy in an evening program at Drexel University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering.

It was there Sam realized he had found the second love of his life: education.

Sam recalls the program’s makeshift beginnings: “the Drexel metallurgy program actually started in a Quonset hut,” he said, referring to the steel, semi-circular structures produced during World War I and II as lightweight, easily-transported buildings for the U.S. Navy, where classes were often held. “We also worked out of a metallurgy lab in the basement of the Main Building.”

“The evening classes were tiny, maybe we’d have three or four students,” Sam said. “But those students were out there for a reason—they wanted a leg up so they could get a promotion at work. They were serious about learning and getting a degree.”

Harriet was also pursuing a career in teaching Spanish for over a decade at Jenkintown High School, about 10 miles north of the city. “I had a wonderful 12 years teaching those students [at Jenkintown],” Harriet said.

After a brief stint teaching at South Philadelphia (now Southern) High School, Harriet decided it was time to take her career in education to the next level. At 61-years-old, Harriet went back for a master’s degree in library and information science at Drexel’s School of Library and Information Science—known today as the College of Computing & Informatics.

When she became a professor at Drexel in the library science program in 1987, she found constant inspiration though her colleagues—many whom she still calls close friends—including Thomas Childers (professor emeritus), John Hall (professor emeritus), and Jacqueline Mancall (professor emeritus), who passed away in 2013.

Drexel was a vibrant, enriching community that energized her until her retirement in 2006. “I was at Drexel all the time,” Harriet said, “and I never gave it up until I was 80 years old.”

After retiring as professor emeritus at 76 years old, Sam pursued his third career as a museum volunteer at MASCA (Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology) at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. MASCA officially closed in 2009, however, the Museum recently opened a new space for their metallurgical specimen collection. Sam continues to volunteer at the museum twice a week.

Despite their busy careers over the years, Harriet and Sam still found time to explore the world around them. After their last trip to Italy, they felt it was time to set aside their traveling funds and turn their attention to a new, even more rewarding experience: philanthropy. With their shared, lifelong love of education, there was no doubt in what their cause would be.

“Education supported us—it gave us opportunity to earn a living and have a decent life,” Sam said. “It was very important to us to give something like that back to Drexel. When we could afford it, the best thing we could do with our money was to provide for somebody else’s education, because it gave so much to us.”