‘Jim Never Forgot Who He Was’

News subtitle

Former students, colleagues, and friends pay tribute to Dartmouth’s 16th president. 

Chris Koppell shakes hands with Jim Wright onstage at commencement
President James Wright at commencement in 2009. (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

For more on the legacy of James Wright, visit a Dartmouth News collection of stories, photos, and videos.



As the Dartmouth community mourns the death of President Emeritus James Wright this week, tributes continue to pour in from all quarters—a testament to Wright’s impact as a leader, scholar, veterans advocate, and human being. Many have turned to social media to share their condolences and memories on Dartmouth’s FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram feeds, as well as Dartmouth News.

Ryan Irving ’24, president of the Dartmouth Student Veterans Association, calls Wright, who died on Monday at 83, “a hero for the veteran community at Dartmouth” because he championed educational opportunities for former servicemembers.

“As a Marine veteran and respected historian, he knew how difficult the transition from military service to academia can be,” Irving says. “His work with congressional leaders on the Yellow Ribbon Program allowed for millions of veterans to attend private institutions free of financial barriers and opened the doors of elite institutions to veterans and their families. Even after he retired as president of Dartmouth, he continued to be a fierce advocate and friend of the veteran community. It is impossible to overstate how impactful his work was to veterans around the country. He will be sorely missed, but his presence will echo on in the lives of all that he helped for generations to come.”

Annette Gordon-Reed ’81—the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, author, and Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard who served on the Dartmouth Board of Trustees from 2010 to 2018—says Wright “was one of my favorite professors at Dartmouth. I took every class of his that I could. I learned a great deal about being a professor from him. It was great to get to know him after graduation when I became involved with the College again through the Alumni Council and then on the board. He was so supportive of me and my work. A lovely person. I’ll miss him very much.”

Another student of Wright’s, CNN news anchor Jake Tapper ’91—a current trustee—says he wrote to Wright a few days before his death to tell the former president how much his friendship had meant.

“Your class my freshman year inspired me to become a history major, a passion that has continued throughout my life,” Tapper wrote. “I still remember visiting you in your office. ... Your experience as a Marine helped shape my reverence for the sacrifice our servicemembers make. And your friendship and support over the years has moved me in personal and profound ways.”

Nathaniel Fick ’99, a Marine Corps veteran and former Dartmouth trustee, says of Wright, “He was a self-effacing giant of a man, both in stature and in spirit. He changed so many lives for the better.”

Fick himself became interested in joining the Marines as a junior—an unusual path for students at the time, he says.

“It meant a great deal that Dartmouth’s president was also a former Marine,” Fick says of Wright. “I will always remember grasping his hand and receiving my diploma on the stage on the Green just hours before being commissioned as a second lieutenant. I said, ‘Semper Fi,’ and he replied with a tighter grip and a deep ‘Semper Fi’ in his sonorous radio-announcer’s voice.”

Later, Fick observed Wright’s advocacy for veterans’ issues. “I saw firsthand how Jim galvanized broad bipartisan support in bringing the transformative power of higher education to bear on behalf of those who had—as his book was titled—borne the battle,” he writes. “A young Marine I served with in Iraq came to Dartmouth as an undergraduate. It changed his life, and Jim made that happen.”

Gail Patten, who served as administrator in the Department of History for more than 50 years, describes Wright as “one of the most thoughtful, compassionate, and—most of all—humble individuals I have ever met.”

When Patten’s husband suffered what was ultimately a fatal stroke, Wright—then on sabbatical in Cambridge, Mass.—“drove back to Hanover to be by my side in the hospital,” she says. “When he was chosen as Dartmouth’s 16th president, he called me the night before the formal announcement and asked if I would do him the honor of attending the event and sit in the front row with his wife, Susan.”

His graciousness extended to everyone at Dartmouth. “Whenever you mentioned Jim’s name among the staff, everyone had something positive to say about him,” Patten says. “A worker from Collis Café once told me that Jim had given him two tickets so that he could take his young son—an avid Red Sox fan—to a game at Fenway Park. He was blown away that the president of Dartmouth would do that for him. Jim never forgot where he came from.”

Professor of Russian Emeritus Barry Scherr, who served as provost during Wright’s administration, experienced Wright’s trademark ability to empathize with others when controversial issues came up among the faculty.

“When Jim was dean of the faculty and I was a professor of Russian, he and I were on opposing sides of a matter that was being debated in the faculty, with strong feelings in both groups,” Scherr recalls. “The vote ultimately went against me, and a couple of days later I received a message that Jim wished to see me. I was a little concerned that he might be about to take me to task for the views I had expressed, but instead when I came into his office, he simply wanted to know if I was feeling all right after my position had not been adopted. We ended up shaking hands.”

Scherr continues: “That moment was characteristic of Jim, who in my experience always expressed concern for others and would reach out whenever he could. His openness and welcoming manner, along with his unmatched knowledge of the campus and its history, helped make him a particularly effective leader. I will simply add that he was wonderful to work for: He knew how to delegate effectively and was both supportive and appreciative of one’s efforts.”

Anne Hudak, associate dean of student support services, who works with student veterans, recalls Wright’s almost uncanny ability to remember names and faces.

“The first time I shook President Wright’s hand was on the sidelines at a football game. I was new in Athletics at the time, but the next time I saw him crossing the Green, he greeted me by name,” she says. “It shocked me. That is who he was—someone who cared about everyone at the College and always remembered those he met.”

Later, Hudak served as undergraduate dean for veterans on campus. “President Wright acted as a mentor. He was curious about the student population and always wanted share ideas on how to move initiatives for the veterans forward,” she says. “He always wanted to meet the students and get to know them. He cared about their experience and the ways in which they enhanced the Dartmouth community. His loss will leave a hole in our work with undergraduate veterans, but his legacy will live on in the work we do every day.”

Colin Callowaythe John Kimball Jr. 1943 Professor and a professor of history and Native American and Indigenous studies, says Wright “was instrumental in making sure I stayed at Dartmouth at a moment when I had reason to go elsewhere. It was good to have a president with a sense of history who could articulate a vision of Dartmouth’s educational mission with which I could fully align. He was always appreciative of my work.”

Calloway describes Wright’s impact on the formation of what would become the Department of Native American and Indigenous Studies, “which he had helped to establish as a young faculty member. Having Jim as president and ally when I served as chair of NAS was a huge help in building the program. Jim Wright played a major role in getting the department to where it is today. In all my dealings with him, I knew without question that Jim was committed to Dartmouth, to the faculty and students, and to the Native American programs. He stood for so many of the things we care about.”

Susan and James Wright greet a line of students.
Susan DeBevoise Wright and President James Wright greet students from the Class of 2006. (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

Other members of the Dartmouth community share their memories:

Robert Bonner, the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography and a professor of history:

“Jim’s transformational leadership of Dartmouth had many sources. Perhaps the taproot was his sense of history—gained from his life experience and from his academic training in our discipline. He inspired me and other younger departmental colleagues when he stepped away from College leadership and into teaching an upper-level history seminar as an emeritus professor. In the three books he produced over the past dozen years, Jim’s broadly considered accounts of U.S. history offered lesson after lesson to a general readership. His main focus—to probe the meaning of U.S. military service—allowed the general public to benefit from his learning, his historical imagination, and, most of all, his wisdom.”

Sheila Culbert, President Wright’s former chief of staff:

“I would not have had the career I had without Jim’s mentorship. He always championed others and made it possible for them to get ahead. A wonderful man, a great leader, a thoughtful colleague, and someone who brought out the best in everyone. He loved everything about Dartmouth and worked especially hard to support students and faculty.”

Margaret Darrow, professor of history emerita:

“Big, that is the first word that comes to mind about Jim. The only man I’ve ever known who looked natural in cowboy boots. Kind and caring of colleagues and students in trouble. And of course caring for Dartmouth. His thoughtful help of wounded veterans is well known, but perhaps less well known is how much these young people enriched Dartmouth. Having a veteran in my course on the First World War gave an entirely new perspective to discussions. Jim took seriously the three pillars of faculty life—scholarship, teaching, and service—and made sure everyone else did too.”

Susan Dentzer ’77, former chair of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees:

“Jim’s calm and thoughtful presence, steady hand, and masterful knowledge and understanding of the institutional complexities of Dartmouth were an inspiration to all of us who served with him on the board of trustees. When I was the board chair, I came to appreciate more than ever how he brought a historian’s perspectives and skills to all his work, including leading Dartmouth. Like any great historian, Jim could understand the beliefs, experiences and viewpoints of the different elements of the Dartmouth community, from the faculty, to the students, to the alumni, to the town of Hanover and beyond. He appreciated the social, intellectual, and emotional lenses through which they viewed aspects of Dartmouth’s reality, and the fact that although those perceptions might often differ from the board’s, they were no less deserving of being taken into account in our decision-making. We did a better job of holding Dartmouth ‘in trust’ for the future because of Jim, and those of us honored to serve with him will never forget him.”

Cecilia Gaposchkin, professor and chair of the Department of History:

Jim was already president when I arrived at Dartmouth in 2000. As I wrote out to my colleagues when I received the news, he will always remain my lodestar for what we aspire to in university leadership.

Gene Garthwaite, the Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor in Asian Studies Emeritus and professor of history emeritus:

“I had been in the history department one year when Jim Wright was hired. Early on, Lou Morton, our chair and a distinguished military historian, observed that someday Jim’s leadership skills would make him president of Dartmouth. Jim did quickly rise through all of the academic leadership roles as a distinguished scholar. He was always committed to the faculty, increased their number as well as their salaries. Moreover, from his very first years he was committed to diversifying both the faculty and the student body. His style of leadership was not flashy, but quiet, deliberative, supportive at every level of the complexity that makes up Dartmouth—and then, especially after he stepped down from the presidency, in reaching out to the wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. His scholarship—focused initially on late 19th- and early 20th-century American political progressive movements, and then on the military in U.S. history, especially Vietnam—grew out of his own modest Midwest beginnings and experiences. Jim never forgot who he was, and his humanitarian instincts always shone throughout his career.”

Charles “Ed” Haldeman Jr. ’70, former chair of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees:

“Jim Wright was a Marine, a world-class scholar, an author, a teacher, a visionary, and a leader. But despite his remarkable achievements, countless thousands in the Dartmouth community will remember Jim simply as their friend.”

Elizabeth Cahill Lempres ’83, Thayer ’84, chair of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees:

“What always impressed me about President Wright was his personal journey—his working-class origins, his service in the Marines, his drive to get an education as a first-generation student who had to pay his own way through school. It was these experiences that gave him an incredible empathy for the struggles of others, and especially for veterans, whose issues he championed to the end.”

Michael Mastanduno, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Professor of Government:

“Jim Wright was a man of great integrity who served Dartmouth in so many ways, yet he was first and foremost a dedicated teacher and scholar. No matter the challenges he faced as dean or president, he always found time to connect at a personal level with faculty colleagues, staff members, and students. Jim led by example; he was a role model to many of us inspired by his firm conviction that Dartmouth was a special place. I will miss his wisdom, modesty, and understated sense of humor.”

Louise Moon, assistant to the president emeritus:

“I worked with Jim Wright as his assistant since he stepped down from the Dartmouth presidency in 2009. His reputation for integrity was a valid one, and staff, alumni, and students invariably spoke of their high regard for him. He truly valued and exemplified service, with a kindness and graciousness I have rarely seen. As president emeritus, among many other projects, he wrote three books and over 20 op-eds about American wars and veterans, always advocating for ‘those who have borne the battle.’ He often encouraged people to make a difference, and he surely has. His leadership, scholarship, and service are his enduring legacy. I am grateful to have known Jim. We will all miss him.”

Carrie Pelzel, former senior vice president for Advancement:

“Serving in Jim’s administration was the privilege of a lifetime. As Jim’s vice president for development throughout the Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience, I and my team travelled with him and Susan around the world. Whenever Jim and Susan Wright walked into a Dartmouth room, spirits soared. As a team, they were remarkable. Jim taught us what it means to be loyal to Dartmouth, to love Dartmouth, and to work diligently to make her better. His character and courage enabled him to combine those threads into a powerful form of leadership, and an enduring legacy. Through his actions, he reminded us that our work was about the educational experience of our students, the scholarship and academic aspirations of our faculty, and the sense of community shared by students, faculty, staff, alumni, and families.”

David Spalding ’76, former vice president of Alumni Relations, chief of staff, and senior vice president:

“Jim Wright was a gifted professor who cared deeply about his students—you could see that in his interactions with alumni at the many events he attended over the years, even after his retirement. I was fortunate to have been one of them, and to have then had the chance to work alongside him. He loved Dartmouth and made it a stronger institution, as a teacher, scholar, and leader. I was so lucky to have known him.”

Jacques (Jack) Steinberg ’88, a former New York Times national education correspondent and former president of the Dartmouth Alumni Council:

“I was fortunate to be a history major at Dartmouth in the mid-1980s, and even more fortunate that Jim Wright, then a professor of history, agreed to be my thesis adviser. The topic was in his sweet spot: a revisiting of the on-the-ground press coverage of the Vietnam War. I will never forget how hard he pushed me to elevate my thinking and analysis. Over the ensuing 35 years, that running conversation broadened and kept going. The last time we talked was July 21, 2022. I know the date because we spoke by phone just hours after Sian Leah Beilock was named Dartmouth’s 19th president, taking her place—along with Jim Wright, of course—in the Wheelock Succession. Jim was so obviously pleased by the board’s selection. He spoke with admiration about the many ways Dartmouth had continued to flourish since he departed Parkhurst as president in 2009, and he expressed excitement about the places Dartmouth would surely go next, on Sian’s watch.”

Dax Tejera ’07, a former publisher of The Dartmouth student newspaper:

“It was my first interview with Jim as a reporter for The Dartmouth, the College was facing serious challenges on governance, and I came into Parkhurst with some tough questions. My report made such a splash that questions were raised by national outlets as to whether Jim had been misquoted. But he backed me up—stood by The D’s reporting and by the candor he had revealed. That respect, support, and admiration for a free press continued throughout my career, and I’m one of the many who owe Jim so much for the virtue he passed onto us all.”

Hannah Silverstein