From Dallas to Dover our 25 notable Dickinsonians have been on the leading edge of the arts, culture, education, business, politics, community action and science. Some are noteworthy for their wise decisions, others for making choices that were not so prudent. Still, no one can deny their influence.
But what is influence?
The Atlantic, which published an issue on the 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time in December, was our role model for this issue. Here’s how Atlantic editors defined influence: “… a person’s impact, for good or ill, both on his or her own era and on the way we live now.”
One of our 25 featured Dickinsonians, Barry Lynn ’70, added to that definition: “Influence is about changing perceptions and changing persons’ minds—that’s what influential people do.”
We left it to you, our readers, to nominate alumni you felt filled the influential bill (you even chose some Bills). Alumni Council communications committee members reviewed the nominations, added some of their own and made the final selections. Their decision-making was based on the number of votes cast for a candidate and the Dickinson Dimensions, which President William G. Durden ’71 defines in his letter to alumni (Page 3).
The 25 individuals selected exemplify one or more of the Dimensions: a global sensibility; the ability to seek connections; a passion to engage the world; a commitment to practice civility; a sense of personal accountability.
Of course you’ll wonder, “But why wasn’t so and so included?” Send us names and descriptions of folks you feel were passed over, and we’ll note them on the Web or in a future print issue.
Now a word about our writers. Six of us undertook the task of producing the 25 brief profiles that follow, in reverse chronological order. This was the last blast for Barbara Snyder Stambaugh, our assistant editor for six years, who left to direct media relations at Denison University. We’ll miss her presence in our pages.
For more information on many of the individuals depicted, go to chronicles.dickinson.edu. Chronicles was compiled by archivist Jim Gerencser ’93, who also served as consultant for the 25 Most Influential Dickinsonians project.
Chad Mirkin ’86
He’s a big name in a small world. Chad Mirkin ’86 is one of the 10 most-cited chemists and is the top-cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. And his job title is a mouthful; he is Northwestern University’s George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry, professor of materials science and engineering, professor of medicine and director of NU’s International Institute for Nanotechnology.
Mirkin is one of the best in the world at conducting science on an ¨uber-small scale. Nanotechnology involves components that are 100 nanometers or less, and a nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
Mirkin’s research focuses on “developing methods for controlling the architecture of molecules and materials” on a nano scale, which leads to the development of analytical tools for better, faster and more accurate medical tests, lithographic applications, chemical and biological sensing and improved optics, to name a few. He even commercialized the world’s smallest pen—capable of writing legible volumes on the head of a pin, which could shrink electronics as we know it to ever teensier sizes.
So while he’s won a list of awards as long as your arm, and his curriculum vitae is 5 million nanometers thick, give or take, it’s the small but mighty practical applications of Mirkin’s research that could revolutionize our lives.
—Barbara Snyder Stambaugh
Elaine Livas ’83
Elaine Livas ’83 will never forget the time a boarder at the dilapidated Molly Pitcher Hotel returned from Woolworth’s with a gaudy, blinking star to put atop the Christmas tree she’d replaced after the first had been taken. He told her that she brought light to a dark place. Livas continues to share her light as the director of Project SHARE, an interfaith, nonprofit cooperative that distributes food to approximately 880 Cumberland County families each month.
As a student Livas was inspired by her boss—a Carlisle merchant—to love and care for the underprivileged. Livas started Project SHARE in 1985 in response to local church leaders’ desire to consolidate services for the poor. Her ingenuity and sincerity have crafted an organization in which volunteers and recipients work together to harvest unsold vegetables from local farmers, operate weekly clothing drives, sort food donations and deliver food to homebound recipients. On monthly distribution days, more than 100 volunteers participate.
“If you come with willing hearts and hands, you’re welcome here,” she says. “I know it’s cliché, but I have learned more from the people who come to Project SHARE than I have given.”
—Alicia LeBlanc ’07
John E. Jones III ’77
At age 52, John E. Jones III ’77 predicts the first line of his obituary already has been written: “He was the judge who presided over the Dover trial.”
Nearly two years after the U.S. district judge rendered the decision that halted intelligent design’s creep into public-school classrooms, Jones still finds himself under the media microscope.
Three books on the trial have appeared, one of them by Darwin’s great-grandson, Matthew Chapman. A theatrical film is in the works, with a script by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia). And, in July, Jones appeared in Hollywood before a panel of TV critics to promote a Nova episode that re-enacts the trial, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” set to air Nov. 13. Since the Dec. 20, 2005, decision, he has given more than 30 speeches on the decision, dealing with the media in a high-profile trial and judicial independence in controversial cases.
Jones gave the 2006 Commencement address at Dickinson—“truly one of the best days of my life,” he says. “That ranks right up there with the Time award [as one of the most influential people in the world for 2006].”
Though Jones struck an important blow, he says, “I was never under any misapprehension that I wrote the last chapter. The creationist/evolution battle will go on for as long as I live.”
Susan Stewart ’73
While the children’s game invoked in the title of Susan Stewart ’73’s next book of poetry, Red Rover, is all about breaking links, her career has been about forging bonds between disciplines.
An award-winning poet who also is considered one of today’s most important cultural critics, Stewart says, “My time at Dickinson helped me see how productive it could be to think among and between disciplines, whether they belonged to the humanities, the arts, the sciences or the social sciences.”
She tends to alternate between genres, publishing a book of poetry one year (most recently, 2003’s National Book Critics Circle award-winning Columbarium), a critical book next. The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics was released in 2005, and she has another critical work planned to follow Red Rover, set for fall 2008 publication.
Despite her many accolades (MacArthur, Pew Charitable Trust and Guggenheim fellowships and a brace of National Endowment for the Arts grants to name a few), Princeton’s Annan Professor of English is “startled and honored” to be named one of Dickinson’s 25 Most Influential.
“It’s gratifying to be chosen as a poet, especially because we poets don’t have the kind of impact on public life that, for example, someone like Judge John Jones [’77] has,” she says. “I must say I am deeply grateful to him, as is every thinking person in this country.”
Rick Smolan ’72
At age 16 Rick Smolan ’72 dumped Kahlúa onto a client’s photo negatives after reading that alcohol can speed up drying time, but he’s since figured out a few things and become the mastermind behind photographic projects that capture the world’s attention for their massive coordination of thousands of photographers treating the same subject in the same time period.
It all began with a series that included No. 1 New York Times best-seller A Day in the Life of America, but Smolan’s reputation was cemented with America 24/7, a best-seller that landed on Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list. The largest collaborative photography project in U.S. history depicts multifaceted American life. Professional and amateur photographers submitted more than 1 million photographs taken during the same week in May 2003.
Having children in recent years has changed Smolan. Now seeing the world in a new way, he is working on a book about the global water crisis. Photographers on every continent are covering the human impact on water supplies and technologies being developed to alleviate the problem. When asked about his work, he simply replies, “My wildest dreams couldn’t have come close to what I am living.”
—Alicia LeBlanc ’07
William G. Durden ’71
President William G. Durden’s challenging of college rankings, commitment to sustainability and appreciation for Dr. Benjamin Rush may be widely publicized, but he’s quite sure his legacy will be the red Adirondack chairs scattered throughout campus. A first-generation college student who chose Dickinson on a whim after blindly picking its catalogue out of a stack, he has transformed the college into a spunky leader in American higher education.
Ever an engaged scholar with a passion for transforming ideas into action, in college he infamously spent three weeks in silence for his senior honors thesis research on the role of silence in Heidegger and Dostoyevsky—an experiment that he says “drove everyone nuts.” He continues to provoke with his self-proclaimed “knack for finding the space between what everyone else is thinking” as he takes on the big issues facing liberal-arts colleges and higher-education institutions, all the while staying true to his Dickinsonian spirit.
A dizzyingly active and accessible leader, he has pushed Dickinson into the spotlight for its distinctive approach to liberal arts and emphasis on global education. Unsurprisingly, Durden hopes one day to “write the book on Benjamin Rush.”
—Alicia LeBlanc ’07
Barry Lynn ’70
If being influential includes the willingness to court controversy, Barry Lynn ’70 qualifies on that credential alone. He turns a brave face—and offers a witty rejoinder—to the prickliest of right-leaning pundits on national TV and radio. A minister and lawyer, Lynn has headed Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for 14 years. Besides running a 75,000-member organization, he keeps Americans United’s priorities in the public eye.
He succeeded magnificently when he enlisted his organization as a supporter of the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, bringing the issue of creationism in public-school curricula to the forefront. (The trial was presided over by another Influential Dickinsonian, John E. Jones III, Page 17).
“The evolution debate has been pretty much stymied by the wisdom of the decision,” he says. “It has stifled the enthusiasm for school districts for moving into this quicksand and facing everything from big legal fees to laugh lines on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
But Lynn is a moving target, recently making news for supporting the religious rights of the thousands of Wiccans who serve in the U.S. military.
His next big issue? Presidential candidates touting their religious credentials. “They’re not running for theologian in chief but commander in chief. This is not a healthy direction for American politics.”
Thomas Hull ’68
Thomas Hull’s dynamic 31-year diplomatic career has earned him a slew of professional and humanitarian awards, including a Presidential Meritorious Service Award from President Bill Clinton for his role in transforming communist Czechoslovakia into the democratic Czech Republic.
From August 2004-07, Hull was U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Sierra Leone, where he was a Peace Corps volunteer after graduation from Dickinson. Hull’s passion for international affairs was fostered in his history courses here. The more he learned, the more he wanted to pursue international affairs, he says.
Among other accomplishments, Hull, a public diplomacy specialist, established the Fulbright commissions for educational and cultural exchange in South Africa and the Czech and Slovak Republics.
A former director of African affairs at the U.S. Information Agency, Hull played an integral role in crafting democratic transitions in many countries. He was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and was twice assigned to Pretoria (South Africa) as well as to Lagos (Nigeria), Mogadishu (Somalia), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Kinshasa (Congo) and Prague (Czech Republic). Hull, now retired, assumed the Warburg Chair in Inter-national Relations at Simmons College in Boston last month. He says, “I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with the next generation of Americans.”
—Nina Scupp ’08
John Curley ’60
USA Today is so prevalent on the media landscape that we take it for granted, but it was only 25 years ago that Gannett Co. Inc. launched this new concept in journalism—a national, color newspaper. John Curley ’60 was its first editor, introducing fresh concepts in content and design.
The paper flourished, despite early imprecations by ink-stained traditionalists, and Curley rose through the ranks at Gannett to become chairman, president and CEO. In 2001, after five decades as a newspaperman—including a stint as head of Gannett News Service, during which time it won the Pulitzer Prize for public service—he decided to retire.
Now Curley’s passions include teaching, learning and, as ever, sports. He’s chairman of Dickinson’s board of trustees and teaches journalism courses in Penn State’s College of Communications.
But John and wife Ann Conser Curley ’63 also have made it a priority to help Dickinson students and faculty members have the right resources to deepen their teaching and learning with support for scholarships, student-faculty research and endowed chairs, including current positions in international business & management, global education and the liberal arts.
—Barbara Snyder Stambaugh
John R. Stafford ’59
When you’re as high-profile as John R. Stafford ’59, everything you do makes the papers. In November 1997, for instance, a headline in The Wall Street Journal informed readers that he made it through a surgery successfully. He also has been lampooned in The Wall Street Journal and described in Forbes as “a laconic, guarded man with steely blue eyes.”
Stafford’s career as a corporate mogul took off when he joined American Home Products (now Wyeth) in 1970 and became CEO and chairman in 1986. He is credited with significantly expanding the company through aggressive marketing, large acquisitions and major revamping. He was named one of the 20th Century’s Great American Business Leaders by Harvard Business School and a member of The Corporate Elite by BusinessWeek.
Known for his passion and forward-thinking attitude, Stafford has served as director of several major boards, including JP Morgan Chase, Honeywell International and Verizon Communications. His impact on Dickinson has been immense, including funding the John R. Stafford ’59 and Inge Paul Stafford ’58 Endowed Chair in Bioinformatics, scholarships in bioinformatics, neuroscience and psychology, the Stafford Reading Room in the Waidner-Spahr Library and a yet-to-be-named auditorium in the new Rector Science Campus.
Robert Brasler ’58
Bob Brasler ’58 is a man who turns ideas into action, and one of his biggest accomplishments is one of our nation’s most important historical museums.
In 1994, while Brasler was partner and vice chairman of The Binswanger Co., which is among the nation’s largest privately held commercial real-estate brokers/managers, he was approached with an idea that existed only on paper. In 1986, Congress had authorized the creation of the National Constitution Center, but it wasn’t until Brasler took the reins in 1994 that the center became a reality. As founding president, he raised awareness and credibility for the project, obtained the site for the building facing Independence Hall and recruited backers that included all of the former U.S. presidents.
According to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, “Bob Brasler took a simple idea—that in Philadelphia, the birthplace of modern democracy, we should create a place that tells the story of the great ideas behind our system of government—and breathed life into it.” The $160 million center welcomes more than 1 million visitors each year and shows them how the U.S. Constitution influences daily life.
Brasler is principal of Brasler Properties, a third-generation, family-owned organization that redevelops/recycles major industrial buildings for modern use. An avid tennis player since age 7, it was ideal that he co-chaired the 10-year effort for the new $12 million Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center, which just opened in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.
William A. Berggren ’52
A titan in the international scientific community and a master of four languages, William Berggren ’52 is a renowned micropaleontologist, marine geologist and biostratigrapher who used science as his ticket into other cultures. His career propelled him around the globe to Sweden, India, France, China and Russia, where he spent significant time publishing, teaching and conducting research.
During the height of the Cold War, Berggren was one of the first scientists allowed to visit the U.S.S.R., where he published groundbreaking research in several prestigious Russian journals. But Berggren is best known for his pioneering work on global biostratigraphy, which resulted in the publication and international adoption of a hugely revised global geologic time scale.
Berggren is reportedly the only living alumnus to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the pre-eminent science organization in the United States. He made some of his most significant contributions during his long career as a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. (Incidentally, another Influential Dickinsonian and fellow NAS member, Spencer Fullerton Baird, class of 1840, oversaw the founding of the institute’s marine-biology laboratory.)
Although technically retired, Berggren stays active in his field as a distinguished visiting professor at Rutgers University. He remains connected to the global scientific community—this past summer traveling to a conference in Bilbao, Spain.
—Nina Scupp ’08
Philip C. Capice ’52
He was the sage of Southfork—pioneer of the season-ending cliffhanger, leaving millions of Dallas viewers worldwide anxiously speculating through an endless summer until five episodes into the fall 1980 season. Three words on millions of lips: Who Shot J.R.?
At the end of each episode of the most successful prime-time serial of all time, scrolling across the screen came the name Philip Capice, executive producer.
Yet as easily as he executed a Texas Two-Step in Dallas, Capice could scare the pants off you. Little Charlie Manson with that nefarious grin made his way into your nightmares. Helter Skelter.
As executive producer of another TV movie, Sybil, he led Sally Field through 13 different personalities. Capice earned an Emmy for Sybil and two Emmy nominations and eight People’s Choice awards for Dallas. The Peabody Award, perhaps the most prestigious of television honors, was twice bestowed on Capice productions (Green Eyes and Sybil), and his Some Kind of Miracle received the Christopher Award (for affirming the highest values of the human spirit). He also produced the series Eight Is Enough, The Blue Knight and approximately 500 hours of TV during his career.
Retired since 1990 from Raven’s Claw Productions (named for Dickinson’s senior honorary society), Capice lives in Los Angeles. He keeps up with today’s series, but after all those years of being in the business, he says, “It’s sometimes frustrating trying to outguess the producers on where their plots are going. They get away with a lot more now than we could.”
J. William Stuart ’32
J. William Stuart ’32 never let anything stop him—even when his family cowered in embarrassment as he belted out off-key hymns at church—and his compassionate leadership inspired the best in those around him.
Stuart began working as a personnel supervisor at Charles Pfizer Co. in 1941, and his pioneering management skills during the rapid World War II penicillin-production expansion saw the company through its transformation into a world leader among pharmaceutical companies.
He served on some of Pfizer’s highest boards and committees, and he fought to hire more women scientists during the 1950s, aided factory workers with investments so that they retired with healthy stock portfolios and even picked out the artwork in a new building’s foyer, despite his colorblindness. Stuart always kept busy, always kept his promises and always cared about people.
His legacy inspired 13 relatives to attend Dickinson, where he served on the board of trustees and created an endowed scholarship with wife Helen Stover Stuart ’32. Their daughter Wynne Stuart Amick ’62 and son Robert Stuart, grandson William Amick ’93 and daughter-in-law Cheryl O’Connor Amick ’91 have contributed significant funds for the new Rector Science Campus and elevated science education to new heights.
—Alicia LeBlanc ’07
Ray H. Crist ’20
An open mind and a flexible nature. Even when he’d passed the century mark.
That was Ray Crist ’20, who gained renown in 2002 as the nation’s oldest worker and was the lead subject of a 2001 PBS documentary on centenarians.
A trail-blazing chemist who played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb as director of the Manhattan Project, Crist later led a team of scientists at Union Carbide Corp. He returned to Dickinson in 1963, teaching upper-level chemistry and a popular history of science course before mandatory retirement ushered him out. Messiah College quickly welcomed him as a researcher and teacher. Crist worked for $1 a year (by his own request) until he retired at age 104.
Son Henry ’62 reflects that his dad “was influential in trying to help future leaders of our country understand the importance of science and technology and its impact on nature and the environment.” Among his last studies: the effects of car exhaust on deer and toxic metals on trout.
In a 2001 interview for this magazine, Ray Crist typified himself: “I am a curious fellow and like to learn as much as I can and, as a farm boy, I know how to use my hands, get dirty and discover things.”
Frank Mount Pleasant, class of 1910
“To meet Frank Mt. Pleasant is to like him; to know him is to admire him; to live in the same world with him is to appreciate his sterling qualities and his noble nature”—1910 Microcosm.
A Seneca Indian born on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation near Niagara Falls, N.Y., Mount Pleasant entered the Carlisle Indian School in 1904 and became the first Native American to graduate from Dickinson College. Mount Pleasant was a superior athlete, dominating in basketball, baseball, track and football. In 1907 he was quarterback of the famed Carlisle Indian School team with Jim Thorpe at halfback.
His skill and speed led him to Olympic tryouts in Philadelphia, and he made the team for the 1908 London games. Even with strained knee ligaments, he finished in the top 10 in the long and triple jumps. Returning to the United States, he was captain of the football team at Dickinson and broke four records in two years. The 1909 Dickinsonian claimed he was “fast as a deer” on the field.
After graduating, he coached football at several colleges and was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was inducted posthumously into three sports halls of fame, including Dickinson’s.
James Gordon Steese, class of 1902
Although he lived within the limestone walls almost a century before the coinage of the catchphrase “engage the world,” James Gordon Steese truly epitomized today’s definition of a Dickinsonian.
Repeatedly venturing to the far corners of the earth, Steese made a name for himself as a veritable 20th-century globetrotter. His extensive travels took him from Carlisle all the way to, quite literally, Timbuktu. His voracious appetite for experiencing different cultures propelled him into the heart of every continent save Antarctica.
Steese served for many years in the Army Corps of Engineers and played a pivotal role in one of the most massive engineering projects of all time—the construction of the Panama Canal. During his long military career, Steese received many foreign medals and decorations and attended international events as a United States delegate.
Steese later became president of a major public-works project, the Alaska Road Commission (undertaking construction of the Alaskan Highway, the lifeline that supplies Alaska with goods; a portion of the highway is named for him). He was forced to retire due to an injury sustained in a bobsledding accident. Steese was able to continue crisscrossing the globe, and his detailed trip notes were published in the Dickinson Alumnus between 1934 and 1936. His explorations were cut short by a fatal car accident in Africa.
—Nina Scupp ’08
Zatae Longsdorff Straw, class of 1887
Whether silencing taunting male colleagues when she won Dickinson’s coveted Pierson Oratorical prize or tracking down her quota of venison in the New Hampshire wilderness—“Straw gets animal after mean chase through bog,” one newspaper clipping reads—Dickinson’s first female graduate had to be feisty as she broke new ground.
Straw pursued a medical degree, won a seat in the New Hampshire state legislature and even started a craze for marathons after deciding one day to walk the 18 miles between Manchester, N.H., and Concord, N.H., to attend a legislative meeting. She presided over the 1926 Republican Party Convention in New Hampshire—the highest political office a woman had ever held—and Granite Monthly magazine praised her “greater tact and readiness than most men who have served either party … in the past 50 years.”
She also was the first female president of the American Medical Society and was honored by the New Hampshire Medical Society in 1941 for her 50 years of medical service. Dickinson conferred upon her an honorary doctor of science degree in 1937, 50 years after her graduation.
—Alicia LeBlanc ’07
Moncure Conway, class of 1849
While at Dickinson, Moncure Conway said that Carlisle “is emphatically the place where nature blows its nose.” While his words remained bold and eloquent throughout his public life, his subjects broadened from excessive rain to world religions, literature, politics and more.
Known as a man of letters, abolitionist, philosopher, minister, atheist, feminist, humorist and humanist, he published nearly 50 books, fiction and nonfiction, and countless magazine articles and critiques. He traveled the world and befriended the most famous literary minds of his time, from Emerson and Thoreau to Twain and Browning.
Several testaments to Conway still stand today: a historical marker in Yellow Springs, Ohio, commemorates his role in the 1862 escape of a group of Virginia slaves owned by his family; Conway’s home in Falmouth, Va., is a Virginia State Historic Landmark; and at Dickinson, a residence hall bears his name. Perhaps most colorfully, Conway is remembered as the Dickinson prankster behind the near-committal of then-president Jesse Peck to a Virginia insane asylum.
Spencer Fullerton Baird, class of 1840
Catapulting the Smithsonian Institution into the national museum complex it is today takes a passion and dedication few possess. Then again, so does amassing an 89,000-pound collection of birds, lizards, fish, skins and skeletons.
Spencer Fullerton Baird’s super-sized love for, and fascination with, the natural world and its history began in his childhood and followed him after graduation and throughout his career, which started at Dickinson. He was a popular professor and respected ornithologist, zoologist and naturalist who strived to pass his passion on to his students through science fieldtrips.
He left Dickinson in 1850, headed to Washington, D.C., with two freight-train cars full of his collections, to become assistant secretary of the recently founded Smithsonian Institution. He labored diligently to support and expand the influence of the Smithsonian, even donating his personal collections, and eventually realized his life’s dream as he oversaw the creation of the National Museum, for which he served as director from its founding until his death. Baird also was the first U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries, spending time in Woods Hole, Mass., where he oversaw the founding of the site’s marine-biology laboratory.
—Alicia LeBlanc ’07
Andrew Gregg Curtin, class of 1837
Known by the favorable sobriquet “The Soldier’s Friend,” Pennsylvania’s Civil War governor, Andrew Gregg Curtin, was known for his compassion for Pennsylvania’s troops. An ardent unionist famous for his inspiring oratorical abilities, Curtin worked tirelessly to drum up support for the North.
Also a powerful leader, Curtin deftly steered Pennsylvania through the war with unparalleled enthusiasm and initiative and was the first governor to deploy troops to protect the nation’s capital. He effectively spearheaded numerous war initiatives including the founding of Camp Curtin, the first and largest Civil War military training camp, and, after his governorship, Curtin served as the minister to Russia and was later elected to Congress for three consecutive terms.
Gov. Curtin used his political clout to develop and implement bold improvements to the public-education system. He established a state-funded system of schools that provided education to children orphaned by the war and, as adamantly, championed public-education needs during his stint as secretary of the commonwealth.
—Nina Scupp ’08
John Miller Dickey, class of 1824
Clergyman-educator John Miller Dickey personified the old Quaker saying, “Pray—but move your feet!”
After several unsuccessful attempts to get aspiring black ministers admitted to Princeton (University) Theological Seminary—where he had studied and was later to become a long-term trustee, Dickey took matters into his own hands: He would create a “black Princeton.”
In 1854, Dickey founded Ashmun Institute—later renamed Lincoln University following the Civil War—the first degree-granting institution of higher education in the United States for those of African descent. He located the college near his home and church ministry in Oxford, Pa., and when economic hard times threatened to close the college during the Civil War, Dickey mortgaged his own house and farm to keep it afloat.
Dickey’s vision ultimately paid off as Lincoln became a powerhouse for generating leaders ranging from poet Langston Hughes to the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.
Although less well-known, Dickey also pressed for the political emancipation of women and started a private secondary school for young women in 1837—the Oxford Female Seminary—to advance this cause.
By the end of his long and storied life, it had become evident that the Rev. John Miller Dickey’s heavenly minded prayers had done much earthly good.
—J. Kevin Collins
Robert Cooper Grier, class of 1812
In 1846 President James Knox Polk plucked Robert Cooper Grier, a relatively unknown state court judge, out of obscurity to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. There he joined fellow alumnus Roger Brooke Taney— the chief justice — as the court took on some of the most momentous cases in American legal and political history.
While the Dred Scott case (1857), which denied citizenship to blacks, was being denied, Grier, a Northerner, joined with justices from Southern states. This ensured that the majority decision would not appear to have been made based on regional attachments. Perhaps Grier believed the decision could bring political calm to the crisis over slavery.
The decision had the opposite effect and when the country eventually plunged into Civil War, Grier became a staunch supporter of the Union, casting the deciding vote and delivering the historic opinion in the Prize Cases (1863), which upheld the Union's naval blockade and defined the limits of governmental power during armed rebellion.
Grier served on the court through eight presidential terms, creating a legacy—notwithstanding his involvement in Dred Scott
— that has fared considerably better than that of Taney.
—J. Kevin Collins
James Buchanan, class of 1809
Arguably the best prepared of any U.S. president—entering office with a political resumé that most candidates could only wish for—James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States, is now widely viewed by historians as a failure. What went wrong?
In what seems like Shakespearean tragedy, Buchanan’s considerable skills as a constitutional lawyer, diplomat and orator were spectacularly mismatched to the large moral and constitutional crises of his term. As the country—and even his own cabinet—began to break apart over the issue of slavery and long-simmering sectional tensions during the secession crisis of 1860-61, Buchanan tried to keep the peace by deploying what had served him so well in the past—legalistic negotiation and politically balanced accommodation.
These approaches failed, given the magnitude of the crisis, and Buchanan seemed relieved to hand it all over to Abraham Lincoln in March 1861. A few days after Lincoln’s inauguration, Buchanan—the consummate Washington insider—fled the capital for the relative tranquility of his Lancaster, Pa., estate.
Perhaps most presidents would not have fared well in handling America’s greatest political crisis—and James Buchanan had the historic misfortune to be on duty at the time.
—J. Kevin Collins
Roger Brooke Taney, class of 1795
Few figures in American history invite more disdain than Roger Brooke Taney, chief justice and author of the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision (1857). In it he argued that blacks, slave or free, could not be citizens and that Congress did not have the power to ban slavery in the new territories.
A century and a half after that decision, debates rage over whether to remove statues and busts of him currently standing in several places—Frederick, Baltimore and Annapolis—in his home state of Maryland. One side argues that his views disqualify him from the public square, while the other side says that his complex legacy—which includes crafting the underpinnings of modern American jurisprudence, especially in contract and banking law—should not be rashly judged through the prism of modernity. In his personal life, supporters add, he opposed slavery, had freed his own slaves and given pensions to those too old to work.
And, in court, the long-dead chief justice’s views are still very much alive, as some modern-day civil libertarians have resurrected his legal arguments against the arbitrary presidential suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War to challenge the more recent detention of “enemy combatants” and American citizens in the War on Terror.
Although slavery was abolished in Maryland on the day he died, the controversy over Taney’s legacy survives.
—J. Kevin Collins