ATLANTA – The popular president of one of Atlanta's most prestigious prep schools gave a rousing talk to the faculty about the new year. Hours later, he apparently jumped to his death from the eighth floor of a hotel.
Harry C. Payne, 60, left behind short letters to his family and the board chairman of the Woodward Academy. But friends and colleagues were still baffled by the suicide of the highly accomplished and ordinarily upbeat man.
"It's just one of these great unexplained tragedies in life — an example of what all you don't know about the kind of pain some people live with," said Ben Johnson, chairman at the 2,850-student school.
Payne came to Woodward in 2000 after resigning abruptly from elite Williams College in Massachusetts, where at the time he left he was the highest-paid college president in the country, with more than $878,000 in salary and benefits as part of special package related to his departure, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
On Monday, he gave a speech at a Woodward Academy faculty and staff luncheon, and Johnson said he seemed upbeat and "was at the top of his game." Hours later, Payne's body was found outside the Marriott Courtyard in midtown Atlanta.
Police said that when officers entered his eighth-floor hotel room, they found an opened package of steak knives and bloody tissue on a counter, as well as a note to police and two or three envelopes, none of which have been made public.
The medical examiner's office ruled the death a suicide.
Johnson said he got a short note that was typewritten and signed, while the other letters were for Payne's wife and two sons, both of whom teach at Stanford University. He would not discuss exactly what his letter said, except to say that it "reflected a deep depression." The educator said he did not know Payne was depressed.
At Williams, Payne was credited with overseeing the creation of a new science center, opening a new student center and nearly doubling the endowment to $800 million. A room and a professorship at the college bear his name.
He previously was president of Hamilton College in New York and provost at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
He had a doctorate in history from Yale and for 12 years taught history at Colgate University. He wrote and edited many books and articles, chiefly on 18th-century European intellectual history.
Nancy McIntire, who was Payne's administrative assistant at Williams, said she never detected depression in him.
"Absolutely mysterious," she said of his death. "He was a wonderful boss. I liked working with him a lot. He was very accessible. He had a wonderful sense of humor. And he was very, very smart."
He resigned from Williams at a time of controversy — Payne and a prominent donor were proponents of a theater project that was fought by Williams faculty and by people in the town.
The flap was one reason he left Williams, McIntire said. The opportunity to work on new challenges in a vibrant big city was another, Johnson and McIntire said.
"He really wanted to get out of small towns like Williamstown and Clinton and Hamilton, New York," Johnson said.