Tom Stanton, HDS ’68, only attended Harvard Divinity School for one year, but the experience had a big influence on the rest of his life.
You can see it in his career path. Inspired by his HDS field education experience at an inner-city church, as well as his studies with Professor Harvey Cox, Stanton decided to practice law in part to help stimulate urban development and revitalize cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and other Rust Belt metropolises.
Most of all, you can see the impact of Stanton’s time at HDS in his close and continuing relationship with the School. He’s been a member of the HDS Dean’s Council—a group of the School’s most devoted supporters—since 2011. In 2013, Stanton became chair of the council during the record-breaking Campaign for Harvard Divinity School.
“My time at HDS was deeply meaningful,” he says. “It’s a very special place, doing so many things right in terms of educating scholars, fostering deeper, broader, and stronger religious understanding, and sending principled leaders out into the world to bring what Paul Tillich referred to as the ‘religious dimension’ to all aspects of life. It certainly helped me sort things out.”
A lifelong midwesterner from the small town of Erie, Illinois, Stanton grew up in a churchgoing family. He learned the importance of hard work in seventh grade when he took his first paying job after the sudden death of his father, a tenant farmer and church elder. Stanton worked throughout high school but still graduated as valedictorian, senior class president, and center fielder for the varsity baseball team. He attended Knox College as an Illinois State Scholar and received generous financial support, but still held down multiple jobs, at one point working as a railroad hostler and nightshift mail handler.
A history major at Knox, Stanton was also drawn to religious studies and did coursework in contemporary theology with Professor William A. Matthews, an authority on Paul Tillich and Alfred North Whitehead. The subject of his senior thesis was the missionary efforts of Protestant denominations to establish small liberal arts colleges across the American heartland in the nineteenth century.
Impressed by Stanton’s scholarship, Knox College’s dean, Hermann Muelder, who supervised Stanton’s thesis, nominated his advisee for a Rockefeller Theological Fellowship and encouraged him to pursue graduate work in religion. Stanton received the fellowship, was admitted to HDS, and came to campus as a bachelor of divinity candidate in the fall of 1967. He stayed only one year, but Stanton still speaks glowingly of his time at the Divinity School.
“I had a wonderful experience at HDS,” he says. “I took ethics with James Luther Adams. I was in the inaugural class of Harvey Cox’s church in the city course. I studied the Bible with G. Ernest Wright and Helmut Koester. I lived in Divinity Hall just down from Peter Gomes and spent many evening hours in long conversations with him and other classmates. It was a very special time.”
Ironically, Stanton’s year at HDS helped him to realize that he wanted to pursue a career in the law, where he could bring his religious knowledge and ethics to bear, particularly on urban environments. A top student at Northwestern Law School, where he received a full scholarship, Stanton had his choice of some of the country’s most prestigious law firms after he graduated. He joined Cleveland-based Squire Sanders in large part because its public sector practice provided an opportunity to represent state and local governments and to “get back to the inner city.” Before long, Stanton was helping to shape housing and urban development policy on a national scale, representing governments, public authorities, and developers in the effort to create and strengthen vibrant communities across the country. Thanks to his efforts and those of his partners, the firm evolved to include one of the nation’s leading public infrastructure practices.
“The New Communities Act of 1972 gave federal funding and support to the creation of new cities, both in existing urban areas and in greenfield settings,” he explains. “I got involved in several projects throughout the country. I also drafted Ohio legislation for the creation of New Community Authorities, which is still used for urban development infrastructure support around the state.”
Stanton served as chair of Squire Sanders for 20 years as it grew into an international firm with over 1,500 lawyers across 46 offices in 21 countries. He says he’s particularly proud of the firm’s work with former eastern bloc countries making the transition from command economies to new legal and economic structures after the fall of communism.
“This was essentially more public sector and community development work on a global scale,” he says. “We spent a lot of time and effort, developing new legal structures, training young lawyers, helping to re-establish the rule of law in the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary, Poland, and other emerging countries. It was very rewarding to support that kind of change, to see the appreciation for it and to assist in the transformation of those countries.”
Recognized as a national leader in the legal profession, Stanton today chairs a roundtable comprised of the heads of 30 top global law firms. Here, too, he says his HDS background comes into play.
“In an effective law firm cultural environment, there’s a very small difference much of the time between being chair and being chaplain, so everything James Luther Adams had to say still rings true,” he says.
Throughout his career, Stanton maintained his relationship with HDS. In 2011, then-Dean William Graham asked him to join the School’s Dean’s Council, where he became one of the School’s most trusted advisors. When the council’s previous chair, William Rainier, stepped down in 2013, Dean David Hempton approached Stanton to take the reins as HDS embarked on the largest capital campaign in its history. It wasn’t a small request, given Stanton’s other board and visiting committee responsibilities at Northwestern Law School, Case Western Reserve University, and elsewhere. To no one’s surprise, however, Stanton has thrived in the job, thanks in large part to his regard for Dean Hempton’s leadership.
“Working with David is my favorite assignment,” he says. “He’s so engaging. Wonderful sense of humor. Great clarity of vision for the School. He’s a natural leader and it’s simply a pleasure to support his efforts in any way possible.”
With Stanton as Dean's Council chair, and in close coordination with the HDS campaign co-chairs, HDS blew past its goal, raising over $77M—mostly from Dean’s Council members. Moreover, his enthusiasm for the School was infectious, inspiring others to donate and get involved. During his tenure, the council has expanded, ensuring that the success HDS experienced during the campaign will continue now that it is done.
“The capital campaign was a transformational moment for HDS,” he says. “The renovation of Andover Hall in particular will help the School become even more of a preeminent center for the education of religious scholars and community leaders and for hosting interreligious conversations that can help to reduce intolerance and division that plague the world.”
Moving forward, Stanton believes that HDS can be a truly global institution, advancing understanding of and among religious traditions to create a more pluralistic and peaceful world.
“From the Religious Literacy Project, to Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, to the Pluralism Project and the great work at the Center for the Study of World Religions, HDS can, should, and must continue to extend its global reach,” he says. “What it’s doing is so valuable. We just need to make the School’s mission more well-known and supported, so that its impact can be even greater.”