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Office of the President Emeritus
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Remarks by President James Wright at the Memorial Service for James O.Freedman, 15th President of Dartmouth College

Rollins Chapel - May 15, 2006

Today represents one of those symbolic occasions when the good work of learning pauses in order to remember and to celebrate an important figure in Dartmouth's history. Jim Freedman's contributions, to us and our world, are forever. Today is a time for friends to stop and reflect about someone whose memory will be for our lifetimes and an opportunity for us all to extend to Sheba, Deborah, and Jared Freedman our condolences and affection. Susan and I do so. And, more personally, this moment provides me a chance to say something about my predecessor in the Wheelock succession.

James Oliver Freedman was a wonderful colleague, friend, and mentor who taught by example and who enabled by encouraging.  I spent so much time with him, and I remember our times together with a fondness and deep respect that help ease the sadness I also feel today. He had an astonishing intellect, a deep humanity, courage in the face of adversity, and a great sense of humor. And we surely shared a passion for the Boston Red Sox!

Jim died on March 21st, and I was deeply honored when he asked me a few weeks earlier if I would speak at the funeral service at his temple Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts. On that occasion, I shared my reflections on Jim Freedman as a person, as a man who was remarkably well read (when he left Iowa City in 1987, people claimed, the revenue of the Prairie Lights Bookstore went down by five percent!  The Dartmouth Bookstore certainly counted him as their best individual customer during his Dartmouth years). But my theme at his funeral was not about his learning or even his obvious intellect-but his wisdom, which is what set him apart.

I also reflected then upon his courage-his intellectual courage to stand for principles and purposes despite criticism. And his personal courage in the face of repeated assaults from his cancer over twelve difficult years. If this disease managed to lessen his body it never lessened his spirits. He inspired many. Who can ever forget his remarks here at Commencement in 1994, his bald head shining from the ravages of chemotherapy, where he reminded us all that liberal education is finally the best preparation for the worst that life can deliver. "It does enable us to make sense of the events that either break over us, like a wave, or quietly envelop us before we know it, like a drifting fog."

I also talked about his Jewish identity and how increasingly important that became to him. Jim once wrote, "Growing up ... I often wondered ... what it meant to be a Jew. I gradually came to understand that a devotion to learning was at the center of Jewish identity. My parents were both readers. Our house abounded with books and conversations about ideas. And so, as I matured, my search for my most authentic self was ineluctably linked to my identity as an intellectual, and that identity was inextricably linked to my sense of myself as a Jew."

We mourn a friend who inspired, one who could elicit a smile in the down times, celebrate warmly in the good times, and who encouraged our aspirations to be higher for all times.

Today, I would like to focus more on Jim Freedman as president, what Jim meant to Dartmouth. Dartmouth, at its historic best, has drawn outsiders and free spirits, welcomed the loners and made them, on their own terms, part of this community. The 15th president in the Wheelock succession, the first in over 150 years to have had no prior connection to the College, Jim Freedman encouraged us to celebrate this legacy even as he expanded it. He reminded us that in the academy, ideas count for more than does place of birth, of education, or of appointment.

With Jim there was no disconnect between the personal and the public. The man he was, the friend he was, the teacher he was, these made him the president that he was. The Board elected him in 1987 to strengthen Dartmouth academically and to engage the community intellectually-goals that he embraced and set out to fulfill. Jim Freedman's administration at its core was deeply affirming and resolutely ambitious. And this College is the better as a result. 

There is little that happens at Dartmouth today that is not somehow rooted in what he did and his vision. I had the privilege of serving him in his last nine presidential years as dean of faculty and as provost. He was a mentor who surely influenced my vision for Dartmouth.

His presidency amounted to a celebration of intellectual life. Quite simply he wanted Dartmouth to be confident and proud of its academic accomplishments, a Dartmouth that lived up to its best promises. He wanted to recruit and retain the best faculty and to pair them with the most talented students we could find. He wanted learning to be joyful, discovery to be exhilarating, the academic life to be passionate. He insisted always on excellence, and he brought to his administration colleagues who understood and worked toward these common goals. And he was personally engaged in making all of this happen whether it meant talking about new curriculum requirements or how to hire the best faculty or valuing the positive impact that we derive from the strength and the diversity of the student body. Jim promoted always the essential importance of liberal learning.

It is not possible to consider the Freedman presidency without recognizing the partnership that it represented. Sheba Freedman was fully a part of and a partner in all that Jim Freedman valued and advanced. As a member of this community, a colleague in the psychology department, an informed advocate of the arts and as someone who shared Jim's passion for literature, for public affairs and politics, and for the Boston Red Sox, she too raised our sights and warmed our hearts. The modern Dartmouth owes much to Sheba Freedman.  

Lee Pelton, the current president of Willamette University served President Freedman as Dean of the College between 1991 and 1998. Lee wanted to be here today, but needed to be at the Commencement exercises at Willamette. I would like to share with you some of his reflections on a friend whom he and I both served and who served us so well.

He knew that education at liberal arts colleges was deeply rooted in and connected to human experience and human endeavor. 

He wished for the sons and daughters of Dartmouth that the process by which they deepened their connection to the living world would excite, inspire, delight and confound them every day of their lives.

Above all, he would have said that our students are educated to serve humanity

If President Pelton summarizes well President Freedman's academic ambitions, those ambitions also provide a good assessment of what Dartmouth does and represents today. When Susan and I visited him last at Massachusetts General Hospital a few weeks before his death I told Jim that we would at the appropriate time have a service here to remember him as an important historic figure whose ambitions for Dartmouth were now woven into the fabric of who we are and what we seek.  

Those of you who knew Jim well will not be surprised that he had thought about this day. In recent months he had guided plans for his funeral at his temple, who would speak and what would happen. Back in 1994 when he first learned he had cancer, he thought about a Dartmouth service. (As he would describe it at the 1994 Commencement, "Hearing a physician say the dread word 'cancer' has the uncanny capacity to concentrate the mind.") He wanted someone to read Psalm 121 and he selected the recessional music (The Battle Hymn of the Republic).

He also hoped to have a reference made to William Faulkner's acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Jim loved writers-his public addresses attested to the wisdom and insights and guidance he received from the best among them. Faulkner was probably his favorite. When he received the Nobel Prize William Faulkner told the assembled audience,

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and  endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

It is not surprising that President Freedman was drawn repeatedly to this statement.  And it is not surprising to know Jim articulated these values for Dartmouth. If he was not from Dartmouth, he was from New Hampshire and the granite of integrity and of courage were part of his character and of his legacy. He was an adopted son of this College-the Class of 1957 formally adopted him-who gave us pride and earned our love and respect. He reflected himself on his legacy at Dartmouth in this typically modest way,

As I conclude my eleven-year tenure as president of Dartmouth, I cannot help but wonder how my stewardship will be judged. ... I can do no more than to adopt the words of my mentor Justice Thurgood Marshall, who hoped that history would remember him as one who 'did the best he could with what he had.' ... I shall step down from the presidency of Dartmouth with a deep love for its people, a great respect for its mission, and a high confidence that it will forever remain a beacon of intellectual excellence and a commonwealth of liberal learning.

A commonwealth of liberal learning: Dartmouth proudly embraces and lives this vision and we give thanks to Jim Freedman, the 15th President of Dartmouth College, for everything he did to ensure that we realized it. He surely did the "best he could," a considerable asset, to make us the best we could be. His success shouts from the soul of the Dartmouth campus. Courage and honor, hope and pride, compassion and pity and sacrifice, Faulkner's values, have been the glory of our past and, through our faculty and our students, through Jim Freedman's vision and values and examples, they live today and shape our future. So here we say farewell but with the grateful knowledge and firm resolve that the Freedman legacy will continue to enrich the Dartmouth experience.

Last Updated: 8/21/08