Jim Freedman

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(HOST)Commentator Peter Gilbert remembers his old boss, Dartmouth President Emeritus James O. Freedman, who died on Tuesday, March 21st at the age of seventy.

(GILBERT) With the death of James O. Freedman, the nation has lost an inspired leader in higher education, and a noble advocate of American idealism.

Jim Freedman’s life is a great American story. He was born and raised in Manchester, New Hampshire, the son of a high school English teacher who, he said, taught him “that strong men and women of courage and wisdom can also be gentle, and instilled in [him],” he said, “a love of books, a respect for language used well, and a desire for lifelong learning.” Freedman went on to Harvard College and Yale Law School, and then clerked for Thurgood Marshall, his most influential mentor. It was Marshall who taught him “to ally both self and talents with an idea whose time has come.”

He became Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, President of the University of Iowa, and then, in 1987, President of Dartmouth College, where I had the privilege of working closely with him as his senior assistant for eight years. Upon his retirement from Dartmouth in 1998, he was named President of the American Association of Arts and Sciences.

What Jim was and what he accomplished stemmed primarily from two sources – his humane intellectualism, and his unapologetic idealism. His work at Penn, Iowa, and Dartmouth all focused on the never-ending pursuit of the highest academic distinction. He led by the power of his moral stature, he persuaded by the force and eloquence of his argument, and he inspired by the nobility of his vision.

Jim was first diagnosed with cancer in 1994, but continued to serve as a eminent educational leader until the end. In his 1994 Commencement Valedictory, he spoke about the relation between his cancer and liberal education. He said:

“During the difficult and dismaying days of chemotherapy, liberal education helped me in that most human of desires – the yearning to make order and sense out of my experience.”

He observed that, “Hearing a physician say the dread word cancer has an uncanny capacity to concentrate the mind. That is what liberal education does, too. God willing, both this disease and my liberal education will, each in its own way, prove to me a blessing.”

Freedman continued, “When the ground seems to shake and shift beneath us, liberal education provides perspective, enabling us to see life steadily and to see it whole. It has taken an illness to remind me . . . of that lesson. But that is just another way of saying that life, like liberal education, continues to speak to us-if we have the stillness and the courage to listen. That reminder is worth more than gold.”

Jim Freedman himself is a reminder worth more than gold. He serves as an exemplar, an inspiration, and a compelling advocate for the issues that matter most – excellence, thoughtfulness, justice, and idealism.

Peter A. Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke to us from our studio in Montpelier.

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