Class of 1969
President's Letter



My Fellow Sixty-Niners:

Who's your 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.

John 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 the grave.”

The 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.

All we 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.

A few 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.”

John 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.

Charles 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.

This is 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.

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