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.