175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 - 2008

175 Words or Less

We requested members of the Oberlin town and campus to express their thoughts on the history of Oberlin from their unique perspectives in 175 words or less. The following is the first installment of a series of commentaries that will be shared on this site as the 175th-anniversary year continues..

Submit your 175 Words or Less

The Rev. David T. Hill

Pastor, First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ, Oberlin, OH

Each Sunday morning, the last face I see before I enter into worship at First Church is that of Charles Finney. His piercing eyes, recalling the religious fervor of a bygone era, stare back at me from his framed portrait as I stroll past on my way into the Meeting House. Oberlin today contains greater religious diversity than Finney could ever have dreamed or imagined; yet within his heartfelt assurance, we find a common faith that “Whatever the Lord requires we can do.”

The original spirit of Oberlin, as exemplified in this bold and resolute proclamation of Finney, continues to inform and inspire both College and community. It is a restless spirit that refuses to be content with the status quo, a courageous spirit never hesitant to speak the truth, a compassionate spirit concerned with all victims of injustice, a determined spirit willing to overcome any and all barriers in order to embrace a grand vision of humanity at its best.

Mike J. Feinhandler '80

Chicago, Illinois

Oberlin students, as they intensely involve themselves in thorough texts, studying and growing with something like excellence, can pause to consider that there are other creative individuals in their midst, in the town of Oberlin, Ohio.

As a student listens to lectures and learns so much, a townsperson might be at home watching a Cleveland broadcast on television, learning, too. While an Oberlin College student is waiting in line at South Hall cafeteria for spaghetti, between classes and study, a townsperson is shopping at the Oberlin IGA, picking out a cucumber and judging its size and ripeness before purchasing it.

The sign "Oberlin College, Founded in 1833" stands proudly in Tappan Square and is only a block away from the red, white, and blue striped spiral sign in front of the local barber shop on Professor Street. Our College motto is "Learning and Labor," and in Oberlin, Ohio, our college town, work and labor continue to contribute not only to Oberlin and Oberlin College, but also to our great country.

Bill Hilton '65

President of the Alumni Association, Sunnyvale, California

Oberlin’s founding in 1833, its admission of blacks in 1835, its admission of women in 1837, and the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue in 1858, all seem remote to this history major in 2008. However, I have been celebrating the anniversaries by reading the late Professor Geoffrey Blodgett’s collected essays in Oberlin History. In the first essay he writes: “The main long-term significance of the [Wellington] rescue… is that it reinforced Oberlin’s sense of separation from the world of orthodoxy, from official outside authority, from the accepted norms of society… Oberlin has been not merely different… it has been separate.” (p. 9)

While many pay homage to being different, serving the mythology of separateness has made some aspects of being Oberlin difficult. “Fearless,” for example, may be the latest manifestation of trying to live up to the myth. It is not that we Obies have truly separated ourselves from fear, but that we do embrace separateness (or fearlessness) as a worthy goal.  Every once in a while, someone’s striving to live fearlessly changes the reality of our world.

Sharon Pearson

Administrative Assistant, Oberlin City Hall

I remember learning about Oberlin’s history from my seventh grade teacher, Allan Patterson. Learning Oberlin’s history, along with being born and raised here, I feel honored to be employed by the city of Oberlin for the past 21 years. Oberlin’s rich history and struggle for justice and racial equality in the past 175 years is what gives me the foundation for what I do as a city employee.

As in many communities, issues that socially and racially divide us are not as easily identifiable as in years past. However, they still exist today—even in Oberlin. It is my hope that as we celebrate the 175 years of our existence, community members will also reflect on such historical events as the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue [also being celebrated this year]. It offers a concrete example of how we can put into action efforts to eliminate these divisions and rise above these issues to create a true sense of community.

Jeffrey Hagan ’86

Director of Communications, Mandel School of Applied Sciences, Case Western Reserve University

When I was at Oberlin, believing that it had failed to live up to its history was sort of in vogue, and certainly there are examples when Oberlin followed when it could have led (divestment comes to mind). Now, as it confronts head-on challenges such as global warming and a widespread dismissal of the importance of diversity, and, now that I’ve had more experiences with which to compare it, I’m proud of the school.

Issues of such moral clarity that were present at the creation of Oberlin don’t come around that often. It makes sense that Oberlin struggles at times to live its commitment at that same pitch—a struggle I share.

Still, whenever I say I’m an Oberlin graduate (and a lot of us say it a lot), I know it becomes a bit of shorthand.  If it’s a stereotype, so be it: When someone thinks of a product of Oberlin I want them to think impassioned, progressive activist, off-center absorber, and creator of culture, nutty, crunchy, bohemian, slightly radical, Earth-loving, earthy. I’m sure the non-abolitionist Christians from which they split thought the Oberlin founders were punks. That’s a fine tradition of which to be part.

Leah Gage ’08

Project manager for Oberlin's 175th Anniversary Celebration, College Relations; student liaison, Main Street Oberlin, Inc.

The original residents of Oberlin signed a covenant to “educate all our children” and “provide for the widows, orphans, and families of the sick and needy” as long as they lived in Oberlin. Thus a community of progressive, well-educated, socially conscious individuals was born.

As an intentional resident of Oberlin, I feel a strong connection to those words. There are many like me—Oberlin College graduates who choose to stay here in part because of a dedication to the goals of educated social justice. We exhibit these goals as owners of local businesses; by fostering community development through the Chamber of Commerce, George Jones Farm, and the MAD* Factory; by being active in area churches and serving in city government; and by educating the next generation at Oberlin and Lorain County Community College. Such devotion from alumni demonstrates that the education we received was as much from the greater intentional Oberlin community as Oberlin College. We are lucky to have found this place and proud to participate in the larger mission of education, equality, and social justice that remains Oberlin.

Ann L. Fuller

Affiliate Scholar, Oberlin College
Executive Director Emerita, Oberlin Community Services

In 1983, Jim White, Oberlin College financial aid director, worked with Oberlin Community Services (OCS), a local social service agency, to place the first student intern in the community under the federal work-study program. Thus began a relationship between college and community that extended the founders’ idea of learning and labor.

OCS has benefited from affordable labor while interns learned first-hand about the struggles of Oberlin-area low-income families. They have supplemented staff for the emergency food program, helped develop the math-tutoring program, and used their academic skills to do projects and provide computer assistance.

Students have worked also at other local arts, educational, and social service organizations, helping to finance their education while sharing their talents with the community. Many have chosen to continue to pursue nonprofit work after college.

As executive director of OCS from 1981-2006, I played a role in community work-study and helped expand it from its beginnings. I have reaped great personal rewards from mentoring college students at a crucial time in their intellectual and emotional lives and have developed lifelong friendships.

Jason B. Barone ’92

Marketing manager and Webmaster, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University

I attended Oberlin College just when the term “political correctness” was becoming one of the top national buzzwords.  For all I knew, Oberlin created that expression, and as the concept evolved, it went through some painful (and at times silly) stages of growth.

Now, even with the unfortunate backlash against political correctness revealed within various levels of our media and government, I cannot help but smile and remember that its essence, however elusive, remains the same. The idea that our world is full of diverse cultures, ethnicities, beliefs, sexuality, education, and much more—and it’s important to both recognize and honor that reality.

That, to me, is the essence of Oberlin, and it is why I am proud to call myself an “Obie.” To many, Oberlin may be an anomaly, a throwback to another time, when freethinking idealism held its own against corruption and persecution. The world could use Oberlin’s positive influence once again. By shedding our collective apathy, perhaps we can draw nearer to that elusive spirit that many of us affiliated with Oberlin admire.

Marvin Krislov

President, Oberlin College

When the Reverend John Jay Shipherd and the missionary Philo P. Stewart founded Oberlin in 1833, they created a utopian, Christian community centered on a “collegiate institute” where students supported themselves through manual labor and were trained as teachers and preachers. The community was named for John Frederic Oberlin (1740-1826), an Alsatian pastor, who created the first kindergarten and developed innovative, educational techniques to battle the poverty and ignorance which plagued Alsace.

Oberlin College and the Conservatory of Music have changed greatly since 1833. But the founders’ progressive, perfectionist spirit and Pastor Oberlin’s determined idealism still shape contemporary Oberlin life. While Oberlin is officially a secular institution, it welcomes people of all faiths. It remains dedicated to providing access to an excellent education in the liberal arts, sciences and music to students of every race, creed, color, and economic background. Like our founders and J.F. Oberlin, we believe our   commitment to academic and artistic excellence, to innovation, creativity and leadership, and to hard work and social justice makes the world better for all humankind.

Gary J. Kornblith

Professor of History, Oberlin College

Central to Oberlin’s history is a bold commitment to racial egalitarianism made by the founding generation but still not fully realized in the twenty-first century. Oberlin’s population has been approximately one-fifth African American since the 1850s. Yet our community — like the nation at large — suffers from troubling racial divisions and racism in the present day. Blacks and whites tend to live in different parts of town, attend different churches, belong to different community organizations, and enjoy different levels of material comfort. According to the 2000 federal census, the median income of white households is nearly one-third higher than the median income of black households while the poverty rate among black households is almost four times greater than that among white households. This year's events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858 will provide members of our community with an opportunity to reflect on our antislavery heritage, to renew our commitment to social justice and human rights, and to open a fresh dialogue about how better to put progressive ideals into practice on a daily basis.