Obituary of Robert Francis Sermier

December 4, 2023

Robert Francis Sermier was born in Saugerties, NY, to Francis Sermier and Henriette Carrieu Sermier on April 22, 1943. He died on December 4, 2023, in New York City.

He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Martha Ackerman Sermier, his brother, Edward Sermier and his family. he is also survived by the Indhur Mandhyan family and the extended Ackerman family.

After Annapolis and his years of service in Admiral Rickover's nuclear submarine program, he received his MBA from Harvard Business School and began his career in public service at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington DC and continued at the Human Resource Agency in NYC. Robert then became CFO of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and remained a professor in the Master of Public Administration program until his retirement. In addition to his professional life, he served on the Board of the Harcourt Foundation until the time of his death.

Robert enjoyed his homes in New York City and North Bennington, VT. He especially enjoyed his leisure time playing golf and traveling, most recently to Kyoto.

Robert will be deeply missed by all who knew and loved him. Celebrations of his life are planned for New York City and Vermont.

As part of his obituary, let him speak for himself as he did in a profile for Harvard Business School:

Robert F. Sermier 1972

Narrative for Profile Book

Now, 25 years later, what I do for "fun" is teach by using the case studies method exclusively. Then, in 1970-72, case studies were our full time "work." Now, I struggle to avoid saying too much in class, trying hard to fulfill the basic tenet of the method--that we learn best that which we teach ourselves. Then, I struggled to say anything in class--in awe of my surroundings, the faculty, and my classmates. Now, I try hard to live life and consider myself exceptionally lucky to do so with the love of my life. Then, I had few ideas about life, and none about sharing my life with another. It's been quite a ride over the last 25 years--exhilarating, but with many bumps. Most of the positive outcomes I owe to my experiences at the school.

In 1970, I came to the School directly from 9 years of military service. Even on our side of the river, strong feelings about the Government hung in the air. Yet, a small group of junior faculty (especially Assistant Professors Bennigson and Russell) and some senior faculty (particularly Professor Anthony) were teaching courses which focused exclusively on the application of business management principles to the operational aspects of government. I took those courses, and the influence of those public sector oriented faculty members has remained with me to this day.

I've spent my entire career in public service--the first 13 years in Washington and the remainder in New York City where after a brief period as a welfare administrator, I have for the last 10 years been the CFO and a part time teacher at a public college. All of my experience has been with human services programs. From that perspective, you need only to stand on the dirt floor of a public health "hospital" on a Native American reservation, or sleep for a few nights in a homeless shelter, or hold a Crack-addicted baby in your arms, to be able to feel the pain and the potential joy of public sector work. Similarly, after expending thousands of hours managing a program, you need only to read a legislator's or a reporter's 1,000 word description of your efforts; or, more dramatically, to hear the 90 second sound bite version, to feel the special responsibilities and particular level of frustration which attend to public sector work.

The government is not nor should it be a business. But, we in public service need to be more business-like and to acknowledge our relationship to and dependence upon the private sector community. There are real bottom line sin public programs. We need to be more courageous in identifying in measurable terms those desired end results, despite the sometimes suffocating pressures applied by the varied and competing interests of our shareholders. Most public administrative functions, and many operational tasks, can be performed more effectively and efficiently by the private sector. At a minimum, we need to have open competition on a level playing field, to determine which sector does the work. Finally, we in public service need to remind ourselves constantly that a meaningful public sector exists only because of the fruits produced by the extraordinary engine of capitalism.

I've used everything we learned together at the School, even the most technical and arcane elements of finance and marketing. but, of course, it is the basics that matter. To do anything, one must begin at the end by defining those desired end results. Then, with a systematic method to analyze objective factors, experiential techniques to address uncertainty, and a basic understanding of and sympathy for the human condition--one can do anything! So simple to say; so easy to forget; so hard to do. Yet, the School did give us all the tools, and the ways to access both those tools and other resources within ourselves. None of us would have asked for more.

The one area, however, where at least I would have benefited from more guidance and perhaps outright assistance was in learning how to take a little bit better care of myself. A former CEO of multiple companies and a Cabinet Officer in the 70s summed up one of the differences between the private and public sectors as follows--"When you walk the halls late at night in the private sector, you see only the junior people. When you walk the halls late at night in the public sector, you see only the senior people." I can say only that the public sector part was true for me. It took me a very long time to come to terms with job-related stress, and even longer to understand and accept the need for the primacy of family life. These may be lessons which each of us must not only learn for ourselves, but also by ourselves. If so, I must say that the cost of those lessons was certainly very high for me in all personal dimensions. Perhaps, as it did in the field of ethics, the School could place more emphasis upon helping students learn more about the wholeness of a life.

In the few treasured hours a week in which I am in the classroom, I try to pass on what the School and my experiences have given me. Even after 7 years of teaching, it remains quite terrifying to be on the other side of a case studies classroom. Sometimes when I look out upon the students in a class, I see in their eyes all of us, and myself, 25 years ago. It has been nearly a full circle--I can't wait to being going around again for the next 25 years, wherever that may lead!

Funeral Services


December 8, 2023

10:30 AM to 12:30 PM

Greenwich Village Funeral Home

199 Bleecker St.

New York City, NY 10012

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Bob and I were section mates at HBS and were among the few who went into government service AFTER business school. That he stuck with it despite lucrative options reflected his commitment to public service. He wanted to make a difference and he did! May his memory inspire his family, friends and students to make the world a better place.

Posted by: Alan Silberstein - Tenafly, NJ - Classmate December 11, 2023

Bob was the best of friends to me and many others.We were lab partners at USNA, traveling buddies on a cross country motorcycle and friends at Harvard. Bob was the Best Man at my wedding and there was no question he was the best man. Bob constantly offered advice on life and love to me and others. I miss him already.

Posted by: William John Widhelm - San Antonio, TX - Friend December 12, 2023

I was in the 22nd company with Bob. When he told me his father was a chef in NYC I thought that was very cool but also a little strange. Coming from a Navy family myself, I had never known anyone whose father was chef or anyone who was a chef, period. Twenty five years later my own son became a pastry chef, and it seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do. How little most of us knew of the world then.

Posted by: Jeffrey Callahan - CLEVELAND, Ohio - Classmate December 12, 2023

I had the honor and privilege of working alongside Bob as a junior faculty member when i came to the College in the late 1990s. He always personified the dignity, honor, and professionalism that I am sure he was born with but honed in his extensive military and government service. I still remember dragging him to a lunch meeting near campus a few years ago when he was still adjuncting. He was as font of good advice and a role model for any faculty member of government employee. Beneath it all you got the sense of a person of incredible depth (and innumerable stories). I will miss him.

Posted by: Charles Jennings - New York, NY - Coworker February 7, 2024
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