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McLaughlin, Freedman Memoirs Reveal Humble Beginnings

David T. McLaughlin '54
David T. McLaughlin '54
James O. Freedman
James O. Freedman

This is an unusual passage in the history of Dartmouth: no former presidents of the College are alive. But it is also an unusual season in Dartmouth's history for another reason: the appearance of two volumes of presidential memoirs, each eminently readable, each remarkable in its own way, each mirroring in a gloriously peculiar fashion the personality and character of the author-president who wrote it.

David T. McLaughlin '54, Tuck '55, and James O. Freedman were vastly different men who presided over vastly different Dartmouths and who left behind vastly different legacies. And yet the surprising, even stunning, thing about the 14th and 15th presidents of the College is how similar are their memoirs: warm, affecting, tending toward the big picture of life's lessons. The memoirs (McLaughlin's, written with Howard J. Coffin, is called Choices Made and Freedman's is titled Finding the Words) are all of those things and one thing, startling and beguiling, more: They are poignant accounts of their triumphs and unforgiving, sometimes even brutal, portraits of their sadnesses.

McLaughlin's book is a glimpse of a whole man, childhood to college president and beyond, while Freedman's focus is on the childhood that, he shows with great skill, formed the whole man we came to know at Hanover. The result is that we have McLaughlin's reflections on his presidency-a parade of challenges including shanties on the Green, the new hospital in Lebanon, the place of ROTC in the life of the College-along with his insights about important moments in Dartmouth's history preceding his years in Parkhurst, coeducation chief among them. From Freedman there are no such moments in Dartmouth's life, but many turning points in his own life, which was punctuated by the reading of great books and the consideration of great questions.

Each volume has lovely moments of reflection. Here is McLaughlin, the classic early-riser, on his walks at dawn: "When I began my workday, often a thin layer of fog lay over the Hanover Plain. In those early hours, the campus belonged to the president and to the members of the buildings-and-ground crews, going about their morning chores.'' Even today, you can imagine the man, walking the campus of the college he loved, luxuriating in the very sounds of its silence.

Now here is Freedman, the classic man of letters, speaking of his feeling of mission, which rested uneasily on his shoulders even during his undergraduate days in Cambridge: "My parents implanted in me the sense of destiny, often fragile, that I brought to Harvard. The sources of my success and the limitations of my happiness during my entire life have been rooted in that fact. Often that sense of destiny brought me satisfaction; it assured me that I would do something significant with my life. But sometimes it controlled me more than I controlled it, making me fear, as Lincoln told Joshua Speed, 'that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.'" This was a man who would accomplish great things, but not without great personal struggle.

These were men whose beginnings were anything but fancy. McLaughlin speaks of eating a lot of Spam as a child in what he called the "fairly insular community'' of East Grand Rapids, Mich. Freedman grew up in gritty Manchester, N.H., in a family of such modest means that it did not own a car or a home in all of his childhood; indeed, the young Jimmy Freedman had his Bar Mitzvah at 6:30 a.m. on a school day (he went to class right afterwards), which was a lot cheaper than performing the Jewish rite of passage at the more traditional Saturday morning hour.

To a reader who knew both men, or to a reader who knows the College they share, these books are oddly moving, which is a bit of a surprise given that, in such different ways, they were men of such sober, steely judgment, the one drawing upon the unyielding precepts of business, the other drawing on the iron lessons of law and literature. McLaughlin's account of how he became a Trustee of the College, and then its president, underlines the awkwardness that oftentimes is the companion of men of such apparent self-confidence. Freedman's account of his parents' loveless marriage and his own tentative way makes his later brave assertions about his vision for the College seem all the more remarkable, all the more difficult for a man whose ambition was at war with his shyness.

For so many men and women of Dartmouth, McLaughlin and Freedman are the founding fathers of the College they know, cherish, and fight over. For that reason, these are big men with big, booming voices who left big footprints in the snows of Hanover. No one can understand the modern Dartmouth without understanding these two men, and without reading these two memoirs, memorable additions to the Dartmouth bookshelf.

By DAVID M. SHRIBMAN '76, P'10 

David M. Shribman '76, P'10, is a Trustee emeritus of the College, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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Last Updated: 5/30/08