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Former Dartmouth President James Wright dies in Hanover

  • Presidents Emeriti Jim Yong Kim, left, and James Wright pass on the Wentworth Bowl to Philip J. Hanlon, Dartmouth's 18th president at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 20, 2013. The bowl, which was given to the college at the second commencement in 1772, is handed down to each president of the college. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

  • Dartmouth College president James Wright answers an interviewer's question during an editorial board meeting in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 22, 1998. Wright is the college's 16th president, where he began working as a history teacher in 1969. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

  • Student body president Timothy Andreadis, left, and president James Wright follow the procession from Leede Arena at the end of convocation in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 19, 2006. (Valley News - Channing Johnson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Channing Johnson

  • James and Susan Wright applaud the Dartmouth Aires during an event in Hanover, N.H., on May 20, 2009, in their honor. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — James M. Patterson

  • Former Dartmouth College President James Wright talks with junior Michael Stinetorf in Wrightís office in Hanover, N.H., on June 8, 2010. Both Wright and Stinetorf are former Marines. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2022 11:22:42 AM
Modified: 10/12/2022 12:49:36 AM

HANOVER — When James Wright assumed the presidency of Dartmouth College, in 1998, he had already spent three decades teaching at the college and living in Hanover. His familiarity with both Dartmouth and the town allowed him to shape them both to a greater extent than an outside candidate might have done.

A revered history professor, Wright led a review of the college’s curriculum in the late 1970s before serving as dean of the faculty. He supported the establishment of new programs for Native American, African American and Women’s and Gender studies. During his presidency, the college’s financial support paved the way to renovate Hanover High School and build Richmond Middle School, and Dartmouth redeveloped part of downtown Hanover.

Despite his accomplishments, Wright was a relatively quiet president. Colleagues described him as a kind, compassionate, humble man who oversaw a period of substantial change and growth.

“It’s hard for me not to think of the James Wright years as pivotal years, very important years, without being about to pin it down and say there was something dramatic,” Colin Calloway, a history professor and longtime colleague of Wright’s said Tuesday.

Wright, Dartmouth’s 16th president, died at his Hanover home at age 83 on Monday, the college announced. He had been undergoing treatment for cancer.

As the only Dartmouth president from a working class background, Wright brought to the Ivy League school a desire to open it up to a wider range of people, and making the school more diverse was a hallmark of his administration.

“He wasn’t one of the stuffy Ivy presidents who are self-important and who thought that their job conferred power and privilege,” David Shribman, who had Wright as a professor and who was one of the Dartmouth trustees who hired him as president, said Tuesday. “Jim was the people’s president.”

Hired to teach history at Dartmouth in 1969, Wright witnessed 40 years of dramatic change. Arriving just before the start of co-education, he helped shape the growth of a small college into a unique institution that prizes undergraduate education but has the research abilities of a university.

A native of Galena, Ill., a mining town, Wright grew up without much thought of higher education. “I assumed after I graduated from high school I would probably go to work in the mines or the Kraft Foods cheese plant nearby or the John Deere Dubuque Works in Iowa, across the river,” he told the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine when he retired as president in 2009.

But he read a lot, including when he went into the Marines. After his service, he thought he might teach high school history and worked his way through the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

“I discovered I was an A student if I worked hard,” he told the alumni magazine.

He earned a doctorate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and moved from there straight to Hanover. He specialized in the history of the American West, and transformed a class on that subject, Shribman, who took the class, said Tuesday.

“Jim took it over, and all of sudden it became a very rigorous course,” Shribman, a journalist who served as editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2003-19, said in a phone interview.

Early in his Dartmouth career, Wright took on leadership roles. He chaired a committee in 1972 that recommended the college establish a Native American Studies Program, and in 1978 led a committee studying the college’s curriculum and its unusual system of year-round education. He also pushed to end the college’s use of its Indian mascot, a professional risk, since he wasn’t yet tenured, Shribman said.

He also was engaged as a scholar, writing or editing five books. He moved into the administration, serving as associate dean of the faculty, then as dean, acting and then full-time provost, and as acting president for a year while then-president James O. Freedman underwent cancer treatment.

When choosing Freedman’s successor, Wright was an obvious choice, for reasons both conventional and not.

“He had a vision for the college, and he had a fabulous wife,” Shribman said.

Wright and Susan DeBevoise, a much-beloved student adviser at Dartmouth, were married in 1984 at Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Mass., where her mother was the longtime resident curator. She was the first spouse of a Dartmouth president to draw a paycheck for the role, Shribman said.

“One of the keys to Jim’s presidency was that it was a shared operation with Susan,” he said.

“In all the jobs I’ve had at Dartmouth, I’ve never worked harder than this,” she told the alumni magazine in a 1999 interview.

“I have been a part of the college for so long,” she added. “I know these students. Now that my role has changed, I am committed to using it to benefit them.”

Among the candidates, Wright stood out as someone who thoroughly understood the institution and its strengths and weaknesses, Susan Dentzer, a trustee who was on the search committee, said Tuesday. In his time at the college, “he clearly had acquired the confidence of the faculty” and of the alumni, Dentzer said.

The first full year of his presidency saw the roll-out of the trustees’ Student Life Initiative, an effort to bring the quality of student life on campus in line with the quality of student life in the classroom, said Dentzer, who co-chaired the committee that created the initiative. Dartmouth’s residence halls were antiquated, and students lacked continuity in housing from one year to the next.

But the announcement quickly turned into a referendum on Dartmouth’s fraternities, which played an outsize role in campus social life. In answering a question from a reporter, Wright said, “The system as we know it will change,” Dentzer said.

The hue and cry from students and alumni threatened to drown out the initiative. “Jim obviously was very regretful about that,” Dentzer said. But much of the initiative came to pass over the next two decades, an example of the patient approach Wright had learned from his predecessors.

“It was very hard to get people to understand that it was going to be a very complex and ongoing process,” Dentzer said.

During Wright’s presidency, the college built or rebuilt key parts of the campus, including Berry Library, an expansion of Baker Library; Rauner Special Collections Library; Kemeny/Haldeman, which houses several interdisciplinary centers; the MacLean Engineering Sciences Center and a pair of residence halls north of Maynard Street.

Other plans had to be put off. A planned dining hall north of Maynard Street was shelved after it drew condemnation from neighbors, some of them alumni, on Rope Ferry Road.

Wright also helped broker a solution to the thorny financial challenges faced by the Dresden Interstate School District when it planned to replace the aging Richmond Middle and Hanover High schools.

“We reached out to him; in one meeting in his office,” he agreed to contribute $9 million to the project, Julia Griffin, former longtime Hanover town manager, said Tuesday. “He didn’t bat an eye.” It took only a couple of weeks for him to get approval from the trustees.

“I think it was just a testament to the fact that his own kids had gone to Hanover High School,” Griffin said.

Also under Wright’s watch, Dartmouth purchased a substantial property in downtown Hanover, on East South Street, and between Lebanon and Sargent streets. The so-called South Block redevelopment saw substandard housing that was rented to students torn down and replaced by a block of retail shops with housing and offices above street level.

That was the heyday of the Dartmouth College Real Estate Office, which engaged with the community to build projects intended to serve both the college and the town. It was dismantled by Wright’s successor, Jim Yong Kim.

As much as Wright built, his efforts to open Dartmouth to a wider range of people might be the definitive piece of his presidency, Barry Scherr, who served as provost during the last eight years of Wright’s presidency.

“One thing, he had a real sensitivity and compassion for other people, just broadly speaking,” Scherr said Tuesday. “He wanted to make Dartmouth more accessible.”

Dartmouth raised more money for financial aid, which allowed it to convert more loans into scholarships. And he brought more women into leadership roles, Scherr said.

Later in his presidency, Wright extended those efforts to military veterans. He met with troops wounded in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He made Dartmouth more welcoming to veterans, but he also raised money for veterans’ higher education and lobbied Congress to do the same for other institutions.

His last three books, written since he retired, were about war and veterans.

In retirement, he kept an office on South Street, in one of the buildings constructed while he was president. Griffin called it “a very unassuming office” for a retired university president.

But there was a practical reason, Scherr said. “He felt his could write a little better if he was a few feet off campus.”

If he kept an office near the library, say, he knew he would run into people and would fall into conversation. As much as he loved the people at Dartmouth, he still had work to do.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.


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