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Conversations with Kemeny

When Donald H. Morrison, then dean of the faculty at Dartmouth, came calling on John G. Kemeny in 1953 at Princeton, the 27-year-old assistant professor of philosophy had no idea that the dean had done some extraordinary homework. Kemeny, a visionary mathematician who would become Dartmouth's 13th president, coinvent BASIC and revolutionize computing, said that his introduction to the College came on a piece of paper. "It started with a telegram," he said. "I received a telegram that said, roughly, can you have lunch with me on Friday? Signed Donald H. Morrison, dean of the faculty, Dartmouth College." Morrison, faced with a raft of retiring mathematics professors, was recruiting Kemeny to rebuild the department.

Kemeny
Melissa Fan '08 listens to the Kemeny oral history in Rauner Special Collections Library. June 2006 marked the 25th year following the end of Kemeny's administration, the period of time that will elapse before the opening of successive presidential oral histories. The exhibition is open through July 31; by the end of the summer audio clips and searchable text from selected interviews will be available on the Rauner Web site. (Photo by Sarah Memmi)

His homework was to talk to a few people about the young scholar's qualifications. Those people, Kemeny related at the beginning of almost 20 hours of taped interviews, were Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman.

The interviews are part of an oral history project focusing on Dartmouth presidents, and the Kemeny recordings are part of Reinventing Dartmouth: In John Kemeny's Words, an exhibition in Rauner Special Collections Library featuring documents and artifacts from his career at Dartmouth, starting in 1953 as a professor of mathematics.

Begun in 1958 by Edward Connery Lathem '51, dean of libraries and librarian of the College, emeritus, with a series of interviews with President Ernest Martin Hopkins '01 (1916-1945), the project was renewed by President James Wright in 1995, when he was acting president during James O. Freedman's sabbatical leave. "The study of history is multidimensional," says Wright. "In addition to the written record and other documentary approaches, recording technology allows us to hear the voices of those who shaped the College as we know it today. These tapes provide another way—a very personal way—to learn about President Kemeny's contributions to Dartmouth."

Following the Hopkins interviews, Jere Daniell '55, professor of history, emeritus, completed a series of interviews with John Sloan Dickey '29 (1945--1970). Jane Carroll, assistant dean of the faculty, interviewed David T. McLaughlin '54 (1981--1987) and played a major role in shaping the renewed project.

The Kemeny presidency (1970-1981) spanned some of the most turbulent years in the history of American higher education, marked by political and civil unrest, the civil rights movement, and the women's movement, among other social changes. In his 11 years at Dartmouth's helm, Kemeny transformed the College, overseeing its decision to admit women, renewing its charter commitment to educate Native Americans, developing the "D Plan," and, of course, putting Dartmouth at the forefront of computing science.

In the recordings, Kemeny answers wide-ranging questions posed by his former executive assistant, Alex Fanelli '42. Visitors to the exhibition can browse a complete transcript of the interviews, or search for topics of interest in an electronic file. Perhaps most rewarding, they can don headphones and hear the former president speak, in a lilting Hungarian accent, about such topics as the Board of Trustees' vote on coeducation, the particular challenges of the Dartmouth presidency, or the fireplace smoke in the president's house that diffused a potentially tense meeting with the Student Democratic Society (SDS), the radical national student activist movement.

Mary S. Donin has been the oral history interviewer and editor at Rauner since 2002, and she has seen firsthand how the interviews bring history alive. "They enrich the historical record of the College in ways that no paper document can," she says. "The project allows us the opportunity to hear the voices behind the events and the traditions that make up Dartmouth's history."

By STEVEN J. SMITH and LAUREL STAVIS

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Last Updated: 12/17/08