My Fellow Sixty-Niners:
favorite Oberlin professor? Dewey Ganzel, Ellen Johnson, Clyde
Holbrook, Geoff Blodgett? Someone else? Well, mine is
John Scovill, John Frederick Scovill to be exact. Let me tell
you who he is, or was, and what he has to do with you.
Scovill was the first Oberlin professor. He wasn't the founder
(that's Shipherd) and he wasn't the most important (that's
Finney). But he was the first to teach a class 181 years
ago. Oberlin's original prof was supposed to be Sam Hall,
principal of Andover Teachers' Seminary and author of the now-not-so-famous
Lectures on School-Keeping. Then Sam got shut up
by a cold and dropped out. So he substituted his sidekick
Seth Waldo, a seasoned teacher and distinguished graduate of
Amherst. Everything looked swell until Seth was taken
with bilious fever and found himself at the borders of
college (actually the Institute in those early days) was
set to open December 3, 1833. Obies spent the fall constructing
the one and only college building, the Oberlin Hall Boarding House
(Oberlin Hall for short), across from the historic Elm on the
southeast corner of the square. This was the college
(see authentic rendition below).
It was all
of 35' x 44', two and a half stories (a third added in 1838), housing
forty students (from seven states, one-third female) and the families
of Shipherd and Stewart, plus a classroom, dining hall, office, and
chapel all rolled into one, complete with barn/outhouse in the
back. Ladies were closely quartered on the second floor, gents
doubled up in 8' square rooms with folding cots in the attic.
The little schoolhouse lay in a tiny clearing within the dense,
virgin forest, surrounded by wilderness amidst scattered log cabins,
with the smell of burning wood, chopped brush, and farm animals.
were missing was a teacher. Oberlin will rise,
summoned Shipherd full steam ahead, the Devil cannot hinder
it! So at the eleventh hour, up steps John Scovill, a
sophomore at nearby Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio.
John takes a leave of absence and, sensing some celestial compulsion,
proclaims, Providence seems to say, Go to Oberlin!!
therefore you may expect me (Deo Volente) on the spot next
week. He modestly warns Shipherd not to expect as
much from me as from an experienced hand, as I have taught but
little. But I will not present a long list of excuses. I
shall endeavor to discharge the duties imposed upon me according to
the best of my abilities. Scovill arrives on November 30,
three days before classes begin, and squeezes into the crowded
enclave along with everyone else.
weeks later, shouldering the responsibilities and expectations of an
entire community on that corner where the drugstore used to be (note
historic map above), our enterprising student teacher writes,
Almost 40 Young Gentlemen & Ladies are under my care, all
looking up to me for counsel & instruction. They possess
minds too of a rare quality, & demand the utmost efforts from a
teacher to store them with that rich science, heavenly as well as
earthly, which will prepare them to act successfully & usefully
their parts upon the theatre of life. And then, in a
tantalizing metaphor distilling the essence of Oberlin, this
third-string, pinch-hitting, sub-for-a-sub proclaims, The grand
object of this Institution is to educate those who shall be prepared
physically as well as intellectually & morally to illuminate
the world with Science & Civilization.
taught only one semester, the very first one, all alone. By the
spring of 1834, the big-ticket profs, Dascomb, Waldo (recovered), and
Branch took over. Scovill packs his knapsack and resumes his
own education at Western Reserve. The following year, our heavy
hitters, Finney, Mahan, and Morgan, join the faculty. Oberlin
found its feet and was up and running, boasting hundreds of students
and a national reputation.
Finney is the seminal figure in Oberlin history. This has
always been Finney's College and he casts a long shadow
even today. But a young kid from Hudson, Ohio, unknown to all,
was our pedagogical pioneer. Plucked by fate, steered by
service more than self, he singlehandedly jump starts our alma mater
and plays a pivotal role in its birth, an unlikely midwife in a time
of transition. Scovill's image of Oberlin
illuminating the world foreshadows the Oberlin
Illuminate campaign of today, though few if any are aware who
coined the term.
Why am I
conjuring antiquity (again!) instead of reporting campus/classmate
news? Because it illuinates the spirit of Oberlin, and how we
might better appreciate it after all these years. John Scovill
embodies the best of us: spunk, sacrifice, a willingness to
pitch in, give our best, and step aside. That's what Obies do;
it's how we roll. I believe we Sixty-Niners, forged in time and
place, make endless efforts, often unnoticed, to illuminate the world
and make our wilderness a little more civilized, a little more human.
the beacon I'm beckoning, bright in some, fainter in others, yet
still flickering in each of us. It's our afterglow, the echo of
our encounter, summoning us like the founder to step up like Scovill,
to shed our doubts and dismiss our apathy, to remember, to reconnect,
and not to yield, and together let Oberlin, our Oberlin, our
schoolhouse on the square, illuminate our minds, our hearts and our
spirits, all over again.