The Tragic Death Of A Harvard MBA

Harvard MBA student Nathan Bihlmaier with wife


As Harvard Business School’s Class of 2012 marches through the Harvard Yard gates in full academic regalia tomorrow morning (May 24), a gregarious and beloved classmate will not be among them for commencement.

He won’t be there to listen to graduation speaker Fareed Zakaria or to receive his MBA diploma with his 900 classmates at Baker Lawn in the afternoon. He won’t be there to tell his proud parents visiting from Kansas that his wife, Nancy, is pregnant with their first child, as he had planned.

Instead, Nathan Bihlmaier’s family will be struggling to come to grips with what happened to their young son, brother and husband who died in an accidental drowning accident over the weekend.

The 31-year-old MBA student was as straight arrow as they come: a stellar student with a “sweet” disposition, an Eagle Scout, a highly admired and engaging classmate who was deeply passionate about health care. He stood out from the crowd, in the words of a former boss, because of his “genuine caring nature, authentic creativity, his passion, and his impeccable integrity.”

In the competitive classrooms at Harvard, where participation counts for half of a student’s grades, he was not, in HBS parlance, an air hog. “When Nate spoke in class,” recalls section mate Brian McIntosh, “he typically had something important to say and it was often about things he was most passionate about. So his comments had a lot more weight to them than the average student’s.”


In other words, he destroyed every unfair stereotype of what a Harvard MBA is supposed to be. He wasn’t privileged or overtly ambitious. He wasn’t motivated by greed. He wasn’t sharp-elbowed or destructively cutthroat. He was a sensitive young man, filled with promise and good intentions, who wanted to make the world a better place.

When he applied to Harvard Business School, Bihlmaier said in his application essay that coming from a small town in Kansas would be an uncommon path to Harvard, but that he was inspired by a quote from the late Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, who said “Make no little plans.” Adopting that adage as his personal motto, he realized his dream–until its heartbreaking end just days before his graduation.

What went wrong?

For Bihlmaier, the end started innocently enough. On Saturday, he had driven the two hours from Boston to Portland, Maine, for a celebratory weekend with two HBS classmates. That night the trio made their way to a popular Irish pub that sits perched on Portland Harbor and spent most of the evening partying away. The Rí Rá on Commercial Street, which serves 68 different kinds of beer and has a menu featuring Shepherd’s pie, won distinction in January when its patrons emptied a keg of Guinness in just 13 minutes.

Bihlmaier, who was not known either as a drinker or a big party person, over-indulged. At 11:30 p.m., he was asked to leave the bar because he was visibly drunk. His friends hadn’t noticed his departure from the bar, but Bihlmaier was soon in touch with them on his cell phone. About 40 minutes later, at exactly 12:54 a.m., his phone signal went dead. Bihlmaier had apparently stumbled off the pier and into Portland Harbor where he drowned.

  • theCardinal

    I don’t think any harm was meant from it. I am a non-party type and I know that I have my limits. I’ve been lucky that the one or two times that I was in real bad shape that I had a friend who recognized that I was to far gone. This is not to say that we should party to build up experience but rather be cautious and be close to pros you can trust.

  • Saitpradhan

    may his soul rest in peace

  • Banderson

    Great article. I think it’s a little irresponsible for the friend to say that his lack of partying experience was possibly part of the cause of this tragedy. Nate very well may not have been a big drinker, but people don’t need to party and heavily drink just to get “experience.” That is an unfortunate excuse. May his soul rest in peace. 

  • Br549

    This is well done. -k

  • SoCalKans

    very sad….  RIP… Thoughts and prayers with family and friends… Very nice article that gave the whole picture…

  • Pachatomatoes

    yes, so the non-ivey, non-elite candidate disappeared. HBS is back to track with its elites. Not very bad for them.

  • Heartbroken

     I too am from Osborne,KS and I am glad to finally read an article that describes who Nate truly was. Once from Osborne, always from Osborne. This community will come from near and far to wrap their arms around this family and greive for the loss of one of their own. RIP Nate.

  • Osborne Native

    Ditto. Very nice article. Nate was an unbelievable young man. I am proud to say he was from my hometown of Osborne, Ks.  The community is in shock and disbelief.  Any comments about Nate investigation getting priority treatment are not true. Nate is surrounded by a strong family bond, not to mention life long friends. With a support like this, there is always connections and people and friends you know.  Being from a small rural  town area that is how we live, we take care of each other in the good and bad, something many people don’t understand.  My heart  and prayers go out to the family and also to all of Nates’ dear friends. He will be a legacy for many young people far and near. 

  • Byrne332

    Thanks for letting me know. I’ve fixed the date in the story and regret the error. The incorrect information was based on the date of their marriage license. 

  • Daveho

    Thank you for writing this piece. it was well done except for one small error. Nancy and nate were married 1/8/11