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Good will Hunt

Born to vast wealth, Swanee Hunt '72 could be painting her nails in the south of France. Instead, she is organizing displaced women in the Balkans and directing Harvard's new Women and Public Policy Program -- spearheading a sweeping social agenda that educates and supports women.

By Nancy Bartosek

Swanee Hunt '72 does not like protocol. She especially dislikes long, wide banquet tables that "ensure a certain percentage of the guests are bored." So while serving as U.S Ambassador in Vienna, she broke established rules and cut tables down to seat four, then put five or six at each.

With knees touching, people began talking.

Swanee Hunt has always gotten people talking. In fact, she's made it a lifetime commitment, devoting time, talent and fortune to causes ranging from the mentally ill to peace efforts in Bosnia. Thrusting her heart and hands into the work, Hunt is known internationally as a woman who cuts new doors in old walls, finds windows in steel hearts.

Her sometimes unconventional methods quickly endeared her to many at Harvard when she began leading the year-old Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP). At her first address in her new position, she moved from stories of her life to song. Despite puzzled looks from the audience, Hunt sang her heart out:

"The king was in the counting house / Counting out his money, / The queen was in the parlor, / Eating bread and honey."

A pause. Then an observation.

"I would really like to make some changes so the poem might read, The king was in the nursery / Reading to his daughter. / The maid was at the opera / Soaking up some culture. / The queen had left the counting house, / The checks had all been signed. / And God is in her heaven / smiling down on humankind."

Youngest daughter of oil billionaire H.L. Hunt, Swanee Hunt is a bit of a contradiction. Despite her family background, she spends much of her time with the poor and helpless, giving away at least half her yearly income and openly sharing her home and life with paupers, students and rulers (sheoften hosts up to 100 people a week in the Cambridge home she shares with her conductor husband, Charles Ansbacher, and two of their three children). Raised in a strict Southern Baptist home by a compassionate mother and a politically arch conservative father, she holds graduate degrees in psychology, counseling and theology and was the third-largest contributor to President Clinton's 1992 campaign.

"People often put adjectives like 'oil heiress' before Swanee's name," said Valerie Gillen, assistant director of WAPPP. "And that just doesn't convey who Swanee is." Truth is, Hunt is a wildcatter, like her father before her. At least that's what those close to her say. She's a gentle powerhouse who knows when to prod and how to persuade, and won't hesitate to reinvent the box when necessary.

During her 16 years in Denver, the then-young mother earned a doctorate, founded the Women's Foundation of Colorado, co-directed a halfway house for the mentally ill and involved herself in a myriad of other social issues and projects through Hunt Alternatives, her philanthropic organization that provides funding to grassroots social efforts, all while restoring an old house.

"I remember carving out a place where I could sit in the middle of the construction with the hammering going on, two card tables to spread my doctoral research work out on and being nine months pregnant," she said. "And I was working with psychiatric patients 40 hours a week. "So I've always juggle a lot, I'm just doing it at a somewhat different level now."

While Ambassador, the woman who believes that with privilege comes responsibility, launched the Vienna Women's Initiative to encourage the new democracies of Eastern Europe and involved herself with neighboring Bosnia, hosting negotiations between two of the three warring factions. She then turned to the displaced women, meeting with and helping victims of ethnic cleansing. Following the war, she organized a relief campaign and spoke at a major gathering of 500 women leaders from across all ethnic lines. The Sarajevo office of Hunt Alternatives continues to provide support for women in the war-torn communities. She is currently gathering these women's stories into a book which will be published in the next year or so.

Her stormy schedule does have lulls built in. That's when she can be found curled up in bed with one of her children, books in hand.

"My general way of understanding action in the world is to think of it as a tree," she said. "What is above ground has to be matched with the same kind of depth underground. If you become top heavy, or outward heavy, you'll blow over. So I actually spend a lot of time in relationships and reflections to help those roots grow."

And how deeply and broadly those roots have grown. Philanthropist. Diplomat. Educator. Social reformer. Columnist. Composer (she wrote The Witness Cantata which has been performed in Washington, D.C., and abroad). Photographer (she's had several one-woman shows). Poet. Wife. And mother.

"I've been sailing around Kodiak Island in Alaska as one of the crew members, trekked in Nepal to 15,000 feet and run the Venice marathon," she said. "I think that's descriptive of my mindset, how I approach life‹pushing past the limits, setting a goal that seems interesting and worthwhile then doing whatever it takes. That's generally how I operate.

"I don't usually say, 'Is this possible?' "

Because with Swanee Hunt, it seems all things are.