Ron Dorr '62

  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: My name is Ron Dorr, full name Ronald Fred Dorr. I currently live in Lansing, Michigan. I’m a member of the Grinnell College class of 1962.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: I suspect the most memorable thing that I could say about Grinnell College is that I met my wife in Bogota, Colombia, in 1965. I was spending the third year of my experiences in South America. I’d gone overseas in 1962, 1963 with the Grinnell Travel Service Scholarship and had returned to graduate school for a year in 1963, 64, but it was such a terrible year. I lost my roommate to cancer, for instance, and Kennedy was assassinated. Then I got another job and went back to Colombia.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: And in the second year of that second stay, Barbara Cooper got the third Grinnell Travel Service scholarship to the Colegio Mayor de Cundinamarca in Bogota. I was a good friend of Jack Spence, whom she was replacing, and he had to leave early so he asked me to meet her at the airport, and I met her at the airport, and told her that there was an opening in the pensión that I was staying at and if she wanted to stay there until she could find a place of her own that would be fine. She never left the pensión.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: Perhaps the coincidence in that particular situation is that all three of us, Jack Spence, whom my wife Barbara replaced, and Barbara and I shared the same birthday. And so, we wanted to say to the next person who was coming down to replace Barbara, you have one requirement: you have to be born on March 11th.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: I came to Grinnell College in 1958 and was given very poor advice by the counselor then. He had heard that I- when he asked me “What did you expect about Grinnell College?” I said, “You know, I’ve often been impressed by the scriptural passage that says that Jesus increased in stature and in wisdom and in favor with God and man,” and I said, “I’d like to grow intellectually, socially or psychologically, and spiritually.” And so he put me in a class of Greek because I had done very poorly on my Spanish exam. I had had one year of Spanish. He put- because I passed, had qualified out of the religion requirement, he put me in a junior-senior level philosophy course.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: Both of those were over my head and I soon discovered that, and after one day of Greek, left that and went into Spanish. And that turned out to be a remarkable decision because in those two years, I came to really love Spanish and that’s in part why I went to Colombia later. I became a history major and had the benefit of being here when the history department was incredibly outstanding. Joe Wall, whom you’ve probably heard of here, was my advisor, but I was given lots of attention by other professors here.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: It would be hard for me to tell you what books were important because I probably was too conscientious a student, and read everything that was assigned. But, to this day I think I can still remember a quotation from, let’s say, the first forty pages of my American history text, when the authors, Samuel Elliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager, were talking about Elizabethans and their discovery of the New World, and one of the statements they said was, “The Elizabethans know what most of us in the United States have forgotten today: That life without religion is empty. That the tree of knowledge is rooted in love, and that learning purchased at the expense of living is a sorry bargain.” I never forgot those words.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: I came to Grinnell, I think, expecting to get that kind of insight and that wisdom, and what I would say to people about the education I got: It was very good, in the sense of, it provided me lots of information and lots of knowledge, but I did not get as much wisdom and insight as I thought that I was going to get, and maybe that was an unfair thing to ask.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: But, I can remember other books, sometimes often not particularly the thing that the professor wanted. You’ve read The Great Gatsby? Some people consider it the greatest novel written by an American, and what I found that was illuminating about that is that toward the end, the narrator talks about two characters, Daisy and Tom, Buchanan and says something to this effect: “They’re careless people. They mess up other people’s lives, and they run away and they leave other people to fix the damage.”
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: Another book that I can remember, in some ways an imperfect book, because probably one of the best papers that I wrote – I did not write very many good papers, maybe only two at Grinnell – but I was so upset at the ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I thought that that book ended in such an- an improbable way. Those guys continuing to go down south to wherever they would like, they’re gonna be caught, that- that Twain didn’t know how to end the book, and it just left me very deflated.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: One of the ironies about Grinnell, especially in the light of my life that I ended up largely teaching writing, literature, some history, being a history major, was I didn’t take many English courses here. And one of the shortcomings of Grinnell, I thought, was I didn’t get very much writing instruction. I don’t know if that’s different now in this sense, but my freshman English teacher here said, “If you’ve got a question about grammar look it up in the Harbrace handbook.” I didn’t have a single session in that class in which we talked about principles of good writing, or here are the patterns of errors that people make and here is how you can write.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: And we’ve changed a lot in that teaching because you really have to emphasize revision. You become better as a writer, I think, not only by writing and writing but rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and reading good things and talking about writing. And I didn’t get that. I can only think of one person who ever commented extensively on my writing on a paper.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: The most substantive thing that I did at Grinnell was in my senior year. The Board of Religion sponsored a series of Vespers Meditations- one hour meditations in which Ken Hart played music and then you spoke for a while and then Ken Hart played some more music and it was over, and what we decided to do was to give an invitation to people in the community. "If you’re a senior and would like to reflect on what Grinnell has meant to you, how you’d evaluate, assess your college education and do it at Vespers Meditation, we invite you to come and do that." I accepted that invitation, and I was very hard on Grinnell at that point. And again, who was I at 22 to be saying this?
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: But I said something to this effect, that I thought that Grinnell was an intellectual GPA factory and the measure of your success at Grinnell was whether you got to graduate school. I said that I didn’t think that Grinnell really emphasized as much as it should the deepening relationships between friends and between students and professors. And finally, I said I didn’t think that Grinnell really asked the big, fundamental questions in life.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: In the second half of my talk, I contradicted myself because I said in that part of the talk. I said I want- I really wanted to raise two questions: what does it mean to be a student at Grinnell? And that led to the question, and I put it in a sexist way: what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be human?
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: And I answered that question, and the answers came largely out of both my previous life with my parents and family who had shaped me greatly and my Church, and- I had a- not a very good high school education but two of the teachers were good, and then, what my reading and what my experiences had provided here, and the answer I provided at that time was: To be human was to live a life of love, intensely, with integrity and gratitude. And I could- and I quoted a number of the books that had meant something. One that I didn’t quote to you here before was Thoreau’s Walden- just had a tremendous impact on me. I tried to live in a Thoreauvian way when I went overseas.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: I was also an athlete in high school and I tried to be in college, and wasn’t a very good one. I would come back in cross country and I might finish, let’s say, third on the time trial, which was the first workout of the season, under Coach Young. And by the end of the season I was running seventh, or eighth, or ninth on the team. So, while everybody else was improving, I was going down.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: And yet, that Coach was one of the most important teachers that I had at Grinnell College, because he taught me some techniques, especially about running, so that I continue to run. I just ran my latest 5K race two weeks ago. Ran around a corner- Do you know the Komen Race for helping research against cancer? So, there’s all these women surrounding me, running with me, somebody says at the corner, “Way to go ladies! And one gentleman.”
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: But it’s because of Coach Young that, I’d never been a Cross Country runner, I’d always been a Football player, that I learned how to pace myself. I learned how to do long distances. I ran eleven marathons in my life and I’ve been lucky enough to escape injury, and I’ll be forever grateful for what he did.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: I didn’t mention earlier that I would say that Helena Percas Ponseti and Beth Noble, who were my teachers in Spanish, introduced me to the world of Spanish literature and culture. One other professor I would mention is Andrew Debicki, who also was in the Spanish department but taught a course in Latin American history. I wrote a paper for him that he suggested that I submit it for publication. Instead I read it at an undergraduate conference on international relations.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: It was a paper that criticized Theodore Roosevelt’s taking of Panama, which was a part of Colombia in 1903, in helping Panama declare its independence. It was a theft. It was stealing part of Colombia from Colombia. And Colombians, when I taught overseas, when I said to a group of adults I was teaching once, this would be the first subject that we’ll talk about is, what happened in 1903. One of my students said to me, “My grandpa was President of Colombia then. Do you want to teach that particular item?” because she knew the story. And I said, “I do,” because they didn’t know that I had studied it as well and that I was really critical of that kind of diplomacy.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: Can we stop for just a minute?
  • Tamara Grbusic & Ron Dorr
    Tamara: Yeah.Ron: It’ll take maybe two minutes, so...Tamara: Okay
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: When my wife and I were driving here to Grinnell for the reunion, I asked her, because she was a graduate of 1965, Barbara Cooper Dorr, what Grinnell had meant to her, or what Grinnell had done for her. And she was very quick to point out that Grinnell had given her an academic voice. Grinnell had helped her establish her independence and finally she said Grinnell, in its Travel Service program, sent her overseas.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: And the answers that I gave to her, I’ve already told you one of those answers, that it filled me with a lot of knowledge and learning, but not as much wisdom as I wanted. The most important thing I think, that Grinnell did for me was welcomed me into the chambers of the humanities, and that has been my vocational calling. I’ve always been interested in literature, in history, in religion, in drama, and that’s what I teach. What I’ve added to that as I’ve gotten over is how to help students learn how to write better, to speak better, to think better, to read better, and... the life- to practice the life of the mind.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: I teach at a residential college, at James Madison College at Michigan State University and we focus on a liberal arts education in a great, big university. And I can’t dethrone King Football and Queen Basketball at a Big Ten University, but I can help students there learn what it’s like to take the liberal arts seriously. And though I could not articulate that for you when I was here, I could articulate that now and that’s the note that I’ll end on because this is what Grinnell gave me.
  • Ron Dorr
    Ron: I think Grinnell taught me that a liberal education is the cultivation of the habits of the mind, the habits of the heart, the habits of the soul that are worthy of free people. And for me, that means you’re free from certain kinds of provincial thoughts and practices and behavior in places. It means you’re given a lot of free choices.
  • Ron Dorr & Tamara Grbusic
    Ron: You have genuine alternatives. You have to choose the subject of your paper. You have to choose the words that you’re gonna use. You find the evidence that you’re going to use. It isn’t, “What would the professor like me to say?" it's, “What do I have to say?” and that’s a matter of freedom of choice. And finally, it’s a kind of freeing for responsible citizenship, for productive lives, for loving and interdependent brotherhood. And I learned those elements of liberal education here at Grinnell.Tamara: Thank you very much.
Alumni oral history interview with Ron Dorr '62. Recorded June 3, 2012.
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