Paying Tribute to the Ultimate Mensch

I read the obituaries regularly. Some times one sticks out, like this one I saw today on, titled “the Ultimate Mensch.” Sam Allis wrote about James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth, who died of cancer recently.

“I first him met over a decade ago, when I covered education for a newsmagazine and he ran Dartmouth. It was in Hanover, ultima Thule of Ivy League campuses, and I was reporting a story on the scandalously small amount of time tenured professors at research universities in this country spent in the classroom.

‘Why shouldn’t they work as hard as the rest of us,’ I would ask, nostrils flaring. I’d get ludicrous answers from university spokesfolks who, straight-faced, maintained these mandarins were actually engaged in deep thinking while engaging in activities like shaving. (I too ponder big questions while shaving: khaki or corduroy?)

Anyway, I confronted this gentle man with an owlish presence and threw the bomb at him. He immediately replied, ”Of course they don’t work as hard as the rest of us.” I was floored.

Jim then went on to make a cogent case that it is reasonable for our best thinkers — at the time he was guessing maybe 8,000 people out of a population of 250 million — to be paid to do what they do best: think. What a refreshing answer. You could embrace it, carp about it, or flat-out disagree, but what he presented was a serious argument that did not insult your intelligence. I’ve adored Jim Freedman ever since.

Jim died last Tuesday. He took with him a brand of kindness alien to most of us. At the end, trapped in a hospital bed, one eye gone and his speech slurred, he would deflect your question about him with one about you and your loved ones. He cared deeply about the answer. How odd.