Bill Rainer planned to enter Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1999 as a full-time student. At age 53, the successful finance industry executive had discovered a passion for the study of religion and looked forward to immersing himself in the Divinity School's curriculum. Then loyalty to an old friend from his home state of Arkansas intervened.
"I was prepared to begin the master of theological studies (MTS) program when the Clinton administration asked me to be head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission during the last years of his term," says Rainer. "Larry Summers, who was deputy treasury secretary at the time, discussed the position with me in the spring. By August of 1999, I was sworn in. I deferred the MTS for a couple of years but was never able to follow through."
Rainer may not have earned his master's degree, but it would be hard to say that he never followed through for HDS. For nearly a decade, Rainer has served the School—first as a member, then as the chairman of the Dean's Council. In these roles, Rainer became one of HDS's most trusted advisers and helped steer the School through the worst recession in over 60 years. On April 5, Dean David Hempton recognized this contribution with the Dean's Distinguished Service Award.
"Friend to presidents and senators, public servant, and savvy investor," the citation reads, "your knowledge and leadership enabled Harvard Divinity School not only to navigate the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, but also to emerge transformed as a leader in the study of each of the world's major religious traditions."
Ironically, Rainer's career started neither in finance, nor in government or education. A two-sport athlete at Southern Methodist University (SMU), Rainer was drafted in 1967 to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball organization. When an injury forced early retirement, Rainer returned to SMU, got his MBA, and joined securities firm Kidder Peabody as a trainee in 1971.
"I had to quit baseball in my third year because of an arm injury," he says. "I always thought I'd get to the big leagues. I loved it."
Over the next decade, Rainer built his experience and knowledge of financial markets. In 1981, he and a partner started their own firm, Greenwich Capital Markets. The company grew into a highly respected primary dealer of government securities and was successfully sold to a Japanese bank in the late 1980s.
In the early 1990s, Rainer reconnected with Bill Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas. The two first met when they were in high school, and then fell out of touch as their careers took them in different directions. Their friendship rekindled, Rainer became deeply involved in Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign. When he reached the White House in 1993, the new president asked Rainer to join his administration as chair of the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), a government corporation that managed the country's uranium enrichment activity. "After the election of 1992, I wanted to serve," Rainer says.
Just prior to joining USEC, Rainer had developed an interest in the humanities and joined a New York-based reading group organized by a colleague he'd met in the Clinton campaign. The aim of the group was to read through the undergraduate curriculum of St. John's College, which focused heavily on the "great books" of the Western tradition. "That experience—along with some actual coursework at St. John's—was the stimulus for me to study religion at a serious and formal level," Rainer says.
Around the same time, Rainer also became a trustee at SMU. His budding interest in the study of religion led to meetings with Robin Lovin, dean of the university's Perkins School of Theology and a 1971 graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Lovin, in turn, connected Rainer with the late Ron Thiemann, who was dean of HDS at the time. After Rainer left government in 1998, he set his sights on a graduate degree in religion. He applied to Harvard, was accepted, and prepared to start school in 1999.
"I was interested in a concentration in the New Testament and in ethics, but I also wanted a broadly based religious education," Rainer says about choosing HDS. "Ron Thiemann was also just terrific."
In the long run, Rainer's detour to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission actually brought him closer to HDS. While in Washington, Rainer worked on various issues with Larry Summers at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the two became friends. After Summers became president of Harvard in 2001, he called his old colleague to talk about the Divinity School.
"Larry knew I was interested in HDS," Rainer remembers. "He had appointed Bill Graham to lead the School and asked me to consider joining the Dean's Council. I wanted it to be Bill's decision, so I met with him. We hit it off and I agreed to join."
Because Rainer missed out on being a student at HDS, he relished the opportunity to be involved with the School in another capacity. When Jerry Baker, the chair of the council, stepped down, Dean Graham asked Rainer to lead the group. "I thought it was a great privilege and quickly accepted," he says.
The first seven years of the century were good to HDS. The School's endowment grew, as did its programming, faculty, and financial aid packages for students. Then, in 2008, the financial crisis hit. Like all Schools at Harvard, HDS saw its endowment drop by nearly a third. Graham looked to the Dean's Council and its chairman more than ever before to help guide the School through its worst financial crisis in a generation.
"Bill reached out to the Dean's Council and formed a subcommittee of members with experience in finance and in managing organizations," Rainer says. "We encouraged him to focus on the core activity, mission, and priorities of the School. He did a masterful job."
Rainer says that he's proud of the fact that, even during the worst of the crisis, HDS was able to maintain its commitment to student financial aid. The School was even able to conduct a multimillion dollar renovation of Rockefeller Hall after the late Richard Watson, a member of the council, suggested it explore the idea of repurposing the building's endowment.
"We had a couple of solid ideas," Rainer says modestly. "Dick Watson came up with the idea of asking the Rockefellers to use their endowment for the building renovation. When they said yes, it was a huge development for the School. HDS financed the work with almost no pain at all."
Though he's enjoyed his work on the Dean's Council, Rainer still hasn't given up on his dream of being an HDS student. During the fall semester of 2012, he participated in two HDS courses, Helmut Koester's course on the Apostle Paul and Andrew Teeter's course on the Hebrew Bible.
"It was outstanding," Rainer says of his experiences in class. "I worked hard and gained tremendously. I came out of Koester's course with an entirely different opinion of Paul than the one I had going in. And Andrew lights up the Bible in ways you can't imagine. He paints a picture that makes the Old Testament exciting."
Though Rainer is stepping down as chair, he plans to remain on the Dean's Council and to continue to support HDS. He says that he's both inspired and humbled by the devotion to service that unites the members of the School's community—faculty, students, staff, and alumni.
"I believe in what HDS does," he says. "I believe in its mission. There are a lot of good causes out there. You can find them very easily. What I like about HDS is that the Dean, the faculty, and students are people who are committed to serving their lives out in service to something larger than themselves. It's a way to make a difference."
—by Paul Massari