College commemorates Freedman at Rollins

by Phil Salinger | 5/16/06 5:00am

The Dartmouth flag flew at half mast over the Green Monday afternoon as hundreds filed into Rollins Chapel to commemorate the life of James Oliver Freedman, the 15th president of the College, who died in March after battling cancer for more than a decade.

The service of prayer, music, meditation and reflection featured addresses from College President James Wright, a former student, Hillel Rabbi Edward Boraz and a few professors and trustees. In the speakers' accounts of their experiences with the late president, they touched on his qualities and ideals, personal and professional, from his dedication to liberal education and diversity to his humility and care for others.

Wright, who referred to Freedman as a mentor of his, praised the former president for his commitment to academics and free intellectual discourse. The current president also celebrated Freedman's success in making Dartmouth more open to those who had not previously felt accepted at the College, including many minorities and "the loner," referring to Freedman's inaugural address in 1987 when he promised to make Dartmouth welcome to the "creative loner," as well as to more outgoing students.

Wright recalled the 1994 Commencement ceremonies at which Freedman, bald from chemotherapy, marched in the procession as he normally would and spoke to the crowd about the importance of intellectualism and introspection in the face of grave challenges.

"He reminded us all that liberal education is the best preparation for the worst life can deliver," Wright said.

Each of the accounts at the ceremony intertwined stories of Freedman's personal qualities with his professional and intellectual priorities.

In one of the most moving moments of the service, Theresa Ellis '97, who served as the president's intern during her senior year at the College, read a letter that Freedman had sent to her years after her graduation after a positive biopsy revealed that she might have cancer. To the crowd, which included Freedman's widow Sheba and his two children Deborah and Jared, a teary-eyed Ellis recited Freedman's words of empathy and advice in which the then-president explained how his battle with cancer had helped him appreciate all that was good in his own life.

Sociology professor Raymond Hall told of his and Freedman's visits to each other's hometowns, Freedman's in Manchester, N.H., and Hall's in rural Texas. Professor Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, one of Freedman's closest friends, recounted a phone call Freedman made to him from Massachusetts General Hospital this winter to bemoan Boston Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon's departure to the New York Yankees.

"James Freedman had an unparalleled gift for friendships," Gardner said.

In addition to stories about how Freedman had touched their lives, each speaker discussed the 15th president's accomplishments at Dartmouth. From dealing with the Board of Trustees maturely and humbly to promoting the ideals of liberal education and diversity, Freedman, the speakers agreed, has had a lasting effect on the College.

"He did the best he could to make us the best we could be," said Wright, who added that Freedman influenced his own aspirations for Dartmouth. "The Freedman legacy will continue to enrich the Dartmouth experience."

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