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Typical of many legacy families, the Whitakers' Oberlin roots go back several generations.

Family Tree, Oberlin Roots
Oberlin's legacy tradition proves once and for all that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

by Allison Tracy '66

Oberlin alumnus J. Austin Kerr '96 remembers exactly when he stumbled upon the marks of his family's Oberlin legacy. "It was Halloween night, and some friends and I decided to check out the cemetery in the Arb," he says. To his amazement, he saw several gravestones bearing his own name--Austin--and other family names: Kerr, Bedortha, and McClennon. "At first I thought, 'Oh look, here's a gravestone with my name on it.' But then I saw more and more. It was cool, but creepy."

The founder of Kerr's Oberlin dynasty was Mary Jane Bedortha, who graduated in 1861 and married an Austin. Modest in size, the Bedorthas embodied several traits shared by early Oberlinians. "The family was typical Massachusetts stock," says K. Austin Kerr '59, J. Austin's father. "They arrived in the New World in the 1640s and joined the migration to the Western Reserve." Forebear Luther Bedortha headed west with his wife and 10 children in 1824. Nine of them attended Oberlin.

Oberlin was among the many 19th-century liberal arts colleges seeded in the Midwest by the reform-minded Christian ethics that swept the nation 30 years before the Civil War. Oberlin's founding principles of manual labor, plain living, and moral service, along with its pioneering of interracial education and coeducation, are a source of legendary pride. Oberlin graduated its first women in 1841; Mary Jane Bedortha earned her degree just 20 years later. Today, young J. Austin Kerr says judiciously, "Nepotism is not something you want to advertise at Oberlin. But I'm proud that if I have Oberlin family, it began with a woman."

His father says that the beliefs that sparked his ancestors' support of social gospel and the abolitionist movement still run in his family. "A real dislike of oppression and racism is in my children and me, and I know it was in my father," says K. Austin. "There's a very real commitment across generations. It was an outgrowth of evangelical Protestantism preached in all the mainstream churches of the day, which was Oberlin: the sense that we're responsible for what happens on the planet Earth."

His phrasing illustrates that even in its early years, Oberlin's sense of moral purpose was linked with a connection to the Earth. There was another pressing and practical reason that Luther joined the westward migration, says his descendant Sarah McClennon Kerr '61. In the 1820s, a volcano erupted in the northeastern United States, blanketing the region in a sort of nuclear winter.

"Summer never came," she says. "Crops did not grow. People were starving." Luther struck west to survive, to save his family. Once there, his Oberlin offspring acquired a doctrine of social responsibility. It's no coincidence that J. Austin today works at an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco as a technical assistant monitoring air quality and noise pollution.

Rooted in Romance

Elsewhere in the Oberlin ranks stands an even fuller family tree. At least one member of the Hopkins-Whitaker-Bent-McCord family has been enrolled for about 130 of Oberlin's 170 years. The family's designated historian, James Whitaker '60, claims "from 1917 through 1985, there were only seven calendar years in which no family member was at Oberlin."

Genealogy reveals how this alumni tree quickly branched out. The Whitakers are the fortuitous outcome of two tragic deaths in the families of their earliest-known Oberlinian ancestors, brothers-in-law Richard Harrison and Joel Hopkins. Harrison took sick, and his wife, Sarah, called on his sister to help nurse him. But the sister herself fell ill, and both siblings died. The widowed spouses, Sarah Harrison and Joel Hopkins, eventually found solace in each other, ultimately adding to the four-family legacy. For several of their generations, kinfolk were Oberlin and Oberlin was kin--one big, extended clan.

"The families lived within 20 miles of each other," says James Whitaker. "From the 1890s to 1953, they had big Thanksgiving celebrations at which 60 to 100 people would gather." His cousin, George R. Bent '52, says the group still holds family reunions every five years. Bent is an Oberlin College trustee of 30 years; his nephew, Michael Plank, is an Oberlin sophomore.

"All of the children in our family grew up hearing about nothing but Oberlin," Bent says. "It was tattooed on them that the College had to at least be one of their options. My son went to Oberlin. My brother had four children; two went to Oberlin. My sister had three children; one went to Oberlin."


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