A Tribute to Dartmouth’s Favorite Son

We salute James Wright for his service not only to Dartmouth but also to America’s veterans (photo credit: Eli Burakian).

It is with tremendous sadness that we share the news that James Wright, the 16th president of Dartmouth College and a man whose life of service touched more Dartmouth students, alumni, and faculty than he likely ever knew, died earlier this week at the age of 83. Wright, a historian of the American West who served as Dartmouth’s president from 1998 to 2009 and who worked at the College on the Hill as a member of its history faculty and later as an administrator since 1969, arguably shaped the trajectory of the Ivy League institution more so than any other leader of an Ivy League institution in recent memory.

And while the accomplishments of this former Marine from a small midwestern mining town who went on to become the first in his family to attend college — even though attending college was never expected of him — are immeasurable, we wish to highlight three for our readers: (1) recommitting Dartmouth to its founding mission of educating Native Americans by launching the Native American Studies program during his tenure; (2) significantly expanding access to Dartmouth for low-income students and underrepresented minorities; and (3) fiercely advocating for America’s brave veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan by helping pen, and lobby for its passage, the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill as well as the Yellow Ribbon Program, to subsidize the full cost of a college education for our troops. Heck, behind the scenes, we always encouraged our veterans who work with us on a pro bono basis to reach out to the former Dartmouth president when applying to the College on the Hill since he was such a fierce advocate for veterans. Unsurprisingly, Jim Wright always took the time to meet with them.

Today, we took the time to read many tributes about Jim Wright. But there was one in particular that touched our hearts. It was written by a former history student of Wright’s who would go on to become a Dartmouth trustee. The impact of Wright’s teaching — and later his lifelong friendship — on this man is lovely to read. It was perhaps highlighted by when the former pupil, who had a ticket to Game 6 of the World Series featuring the Red Sox in what would turn out to be one of the most memorable games in baseball history, didn’t attend because he had a midterm in Wright’s class. When, years later, the former pupil expressed his regret at not attending the game, Wright, himself a longtime Red Sox fan, remarked, “If I’d known that at the time, I would have given you an F.”

In this piece, he also shares with readers a note another former pupil, the CNN journalist Jake Tapper, sent Wright days before his death: “I hope you know how much you and your friendship have meant to me. Your class my freshman year inspired me to become a history major, a passion that has continued throughout my life…Your experience as a Marine helped shape my reverence for the sacrifice our service members make. And your friendship and support over the years has moved me in personal and profound ways.”

And though we never got to take a famous Jim Wright course during our time at Dartmouth, we did get to attend the school he so loved during the years of his presidency. Perhaps most memorable during our time was when his administration decided to eliminate the swimming and diving teams — leading to several student protests. But Jim Wright was not a man who didn’t listen. He was not a man who could not admit he was wrong. Within days, he reinstated the teams and vowed never to make such rash decisions again in the name of the bottom line.

Jim Wright ended every convocation speech, a ceremony at the start of each Dartmouth academic year, with the words, “We have work to do, you and I — and it is time for us to begin.” Reflecting on his words, Dartmouth’s current President Philip J. Hanlon wrote, “Jim Wright’s work continues as a legacy here at Dartmouth and beyond. And our work to live up to that legacy has just begun.” We’d like to share one additional quote uttered by Jim Wright, in his beautifully sonorous voice, at our commencement: “You are ever a part of Dartmouth undying, as Dartmouth is forever a part of you.” James Wright is ever a part of Dartmouth undying, as Dartmouth is forever a part of him.

 
 

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