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Enduring Vision

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James Wright steps down on June 30, following 40 years at Dartmouth, 11 of those as president. David Shribman '76 considers his legacy.

Jim and Susan Wright on Baker TowerPresident James Wright—who steps down at the end of June—and Susan DeBevoise Wright on Baker Tower, fall 2008. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69) Read more about the careers of President James Wright and Susan Wright.

He stood there in front of the lectern at 105 Dartmouth Hall and told the most remarkable stories. About cattlemen and ranchers. About the role barbed wire played in the building of the West. About fights over water, and land, and (Native American) souls. About how Hollywood created its own West. About how the West was not so much a place as an idea.

He told them in such a marvelous way. And even now, even as a grown adult with a daughter of my own at Dartmouth, even precisely 35 years later, I remember how I was hooked on Jim Wright's voice and on the man and on the way he looked at the world. I was so hooked that I called up my father, himself a Dartmouth '47, and told him he had to get in the car and drive up here and listen to this man lecture. Just how often has a Dartmouth student demanded that his father drive to college to hear a history lecture? In the dead of a New Hampshire winter?

I took James E. Wright's course on the history of the American West, and then I took his course on 19th century politics, and then I took his course on 20th century politics, and it was not too long after that I took him on as a friend. I'm lucky to have had him in the first role, blessed to have had him in the second.

Let me tell you a story about Jim–a story I told my fellow trustees on a weekend in April 1998 when we chose him as the 16th president of Dartmouth and in so doing decided the character of this important decade in Dartmouth's life. This story took place in January 1976, when I was a senior and was on a bit of a slide, and besides, I had a lot of reading that term. So I went up to the second floor of Reed Hall and told this giant of a man that his syllabus looked a bit too rough for me and maybe I'd take something else. "I made the syllabus tough to scare away some students," Professor Wright said. "I didn't think I'd scare away the good ones."

So, of course, I took the challenge and took the course. The story is apt because Jim has always set out challenges for others and then established challenges for himself that were so much more formidable than the ones he had for the rest of us. We trustees liked that in Jim on that weekend in which we elevated the guy who taught History 57-"Cowboys and Indians," in legend and lore-to the big office in Parkhurst.

In truth, we were lucky. We didn't know then that along with that remarkable voice came the voice of compassion. We didn't know then that along with the hard work came a gentle heart. We didn't know then that along with his view on the past came a vision for the future. We didn't know any of those things, but we knew these truths: He was a man of intelligence, character, humor, and perspective. Plus one other thing: He was married to Susan Wright. Do not underestimate the importance of that latter fact.

David SchribmanDavid Shribman '76, trustee emeritus, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Together Jim and Susan Wright have remade Dartmouth-not in their image, not according to some furtive trustee plan, not in compliance with some formula developed on some other campus, especially one we don't like very much, which is most of them. They have remade Dartmouth in its own vision, according to its own lights, here in its own place, assuring that even though the College must change it must always remain the same. Our College, and Jim Wright's legacy.

Last Updated: 1/14/10