The Tragic Death Of A Harvard MBA

His Harvard friends, unaware of his departure from the pub, had tried to find him that night. At one point, Bihlmaier told them on his cell phone that he was in front of a large, ornate building. But they were unable to connect and he never showed up at his room in the Hilton Garden Inn where they were staying. Still missing at 9 a.m. on Sunday, his friends called the police.

That phone call set off a desperate search for Bihlmaier. Search dogs were used to try to pick up his scent on land. Dive teams scoured the murky waters around the port. His parents flew into Portland from their hometown of Osborne, Kansas, and his pregnant wife came up from Boston along with several other classmates. They tacked up posters of Bihlamier and handed over photos to police for the manhunt.

HARVARD DEAN NITIN NOHRIA GOT INTO A CAR AT 6 A.M. ON MONDAY TO ASSIST WITH THE SEARCH

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria was called with the news of Bihlmaier’s disappearance on Sunday and at 11 p.m. was in a conference call coordinating the school’s response. At 6 a.m. on Monday, he was in a car headed for Portland to lend support and encouragement to the family who had flown into the city to look for their son.

But on Monday, an ominous sign showed up on the harbor waters: one of the tan flip -flops Bihlmaier had been wearing was seen floating not far from the Irish pub where he was last seen alive. A day later at 11:45 a.m., everyone’s worst fears were realized when police pulled his body from the bottom of Casco Bay near Custom House Wharf.

Within two hours. Dean Nohria was grimly standing at the side of the harbor for a makeshift news conference where he told reporters that the tragedy will cast a shadow over the school’s commencement. “It’s a day that will now be forever tinged with sadness,” Nohria said. “This is a tragic moment for our community. We’re a tight-knit community preparing for graduation. Nathan was supposed to be one of 900 receiving a diploma. We were all hoping this would be a day Nathan could celebrate. Instead, we are here trying to grasp this unspeakable tragedy.”

‘HE WAS NOT A DRINKER. IN FACT, MANY THINK HIS LACK OF PARTYING EXPERIENCE LED TO THE TRAGEDY’

The devastating news also brought to the surface underlying concerns of Harvard Business School administrators that many of its students have been engaged in binge drinking. Only last month, the school disciplined the co-president of the student follies show because empty containers of alcoholic beverages were found on campus after the show even though he was out of town for the event.

Nate Bihlmaier

Though many students were critical of the school’s decision to hold a student leader accountable for the infraction, the crackdown was motivated by concern over an MBA culture that made excessive drinking and hard-partying socially acceptable. That culture, no doubt, helped to claim the life of a promising young man. “He was not a drinker,” says Brian Kenny, a spokesperson for Harvard Business School. “In fact, many think his lack of partying experience may have led to the tragedy.”

Indeed, what made Nathan Bihlmaier so extraordinary was how ordinary he was. Unlike many of Harvard’s MBA students, he did not graduate from an Ivy League college. He did not come from a bulge bracket bank on Wall Street or an elite global consulting firm.

AN UNCONVENTIONAL HARVARD MBA WHO MADE A MARK

He grew up in Osborne, Kansas, a small, close-knit farming community of about 1,400 people in north-central Kansas. His parents, Steve and Cheryl, own and run the Farmer’s Bank in the town, while his grandfather, Gene, manages the local State Farm insurance agency.

Bihlmaier worked at the community pool as a lifeguard, earned enough merit badges to become an Eagle Scout, and excelled as a student at Osborne High School. One of his teachers, Kenny Ubelaker, remember him as “a very good student–very smart and very organized.” Ubelaker, who taught classes in government and world history, told a newspaper that “was a pleasant kid to be around.”

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder of C-Change Media, a global digital media company of higher education content. C-Change now has five websites, including Poets&Quants, and the author or co-author of more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers, and is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, and editor-in-chief of Fast Company. He also is the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools.