For nearly half a century, Harriet Mayor Fulbright has been the spiritual and human connection to the founding Senator for whom the most sustained and wide-reaching international exchange program in history is named: The Fulbright Program.
She wore the mantel well: graciously joining in Advocacy efforts, making remarks onstage at ceremonial events all over the globe, having appropriate stories of the late Senator always in mind when asked how he thought, listening long and well to grantees thrilled at the chance to meet her in person, and giving her imprimatur to projects that forwarded his vision of peace and understanding through educational exchange through many venues.
She was so good at her role that she was sometimes asked what it was like to be with him when the Fulbright Program began. She had to remind people that she was only nine at the time! She was a second wife, one who came into his life from professional experience, through the singular opportunity to be the founding Executive Director (ED) of the Fulbright Association in 1977.
The Senator was deeply interested in the project of an alumni association, and he visited the office numerous times to discover how it was developing and to give suggestions of what might be desirable. Things changed suddenly when Harriet was badly injured by a truck running over her legs (twice! It backed up when the driver was alerted to having run over her, cycling to work in Dupont Circle). In the ensuing months, hospitalized while she mended, his visits grew along with his devotion to her well beyond her work as ED.
Shortly after her release from the hospital, he insisted—in no uncertain terms, she revealed–that she come stay with him: she was not strong enough to be by herself! The rest is history.
As Executive Director in 2012, and interim once more in 2016, I came to know Harriet’s power as the embodiment of the Senator’s vision. For instance, when we visited congressional offices to advocate for the program, her presence inevitably caused congressional leaders to appear in person just to see her, initiating long conversations in which the rest of our team could more fully make the case for funding the Fulbright Program. She outlasted those who knew her husband well (with 8-term Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont among the last as he retired in 2023).
In 2014, when the King of Spain honored the Fulbright Program with the Prize of Europe, she was escorted by the new ED, Steven Reilly, to grace the grand ceremony in Madrid.
She has now entered history as a woman of stature: charming and effective representing the Fulbright Program and its founder, but a woman of achievement in her own right in the era of US engagement with the globe after the end of WWII: she was the founding Executive Director of the Fulbright Association and its advocate for nearly half a century. We are grateful for her life of dedication and service.
Mary Ellen Heian Schmider
Former Board President & Executive Director, Fulbright Association