As a teenager in a mining community in northwest Illinois, James Wright didn’t envision a future that included college, let alone becoming president of an Ivy League school.
“I assumed that after I graduated from high school, I would probably go to work in the mines or the Kraft Foods cheese plant nearby or the John Deere Dubuque Works in Iowa, across the river,” he told Dartmouth Alumni magazine in 2009.
Instead he joined the Marine Corps, and while reading voraciously during his military service, “I started thinking about college.”
Following a singular path that led him from working with explosives in mines to becoming a historian and a professor, Dr. Wright served for 11 years as president of Dartmouth College. He was 83 and had been undergoing treatment for cancer when he died Oct. 10 in his Hanover, N.H., home.
“Jim was just a phenomenal person,” said Susan Dentzer, a Dartmouth trustee emerita who was on the search committee that picked Dr. Wright to be the college’s 16th president. “He was really a champion of change over the course of many years.”
In roles such as a history professor, dean of faculty, provost, and president, Dr. Wright helped increase diversity on campus, including pushing for the creation of the school’s Native American Studies Program.
His experience as an Ivy League outlier informed those efforts.
“I’m the only Marine that ever served as president of an Ivy League school,” he said in a 2021 Dartmouth News interview that the college posted online.
Even more uncommonly, he said, “I’m the only miner who set dynamite charges underground who ever served as president of an Ivy League school.”
He added that he “was always interested in making sure that Dartmouth was accessible and available to students who were the first generation of their family to go to college. I was that.”
With an unassuming manner that hearkened to his blue-collar background and a voice that would have been at home in broadcast news, Dr. Wright cut an unusual figure.
“Whatever the stereotype of an Ivy League professor is, Jim Wright was not that,” said CNN news anchor Jake Tapper, who as a Dartmouth freshman took a history class from Dr. Wright that turned him into a history major.
“He was exactly the kind of professor you dream of having, one who not only teaches you but encourages you through your entire life,” said Tapper, for whom Dr. Wright became a lifelong mentor.
Dr. Wright was finishing his doctoral degree when Dartmouth College hired him as a history professor in 1969. He served as president from 1998 to 2009, and he had remained involved with the school in the years since.
Partway through his presidency, he started visiting wounded veterans and encouraging them to consider college as a post-service path, as he had years ago. That work continued after Dr. Wright stepped down, as he used his stature as a retired Ivy League president to raise money for veterans’ education, advocate for increased efforts nationally, and encourage partnerships between colleges and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I have made multiple visits to military hospitals to talk to wounded veterans about their experiences and hopes,” he wrote in a 2007 Globe essay about encouraging them to pursue college.
“The education and rehabilitation programs provided by the government to enable veterans to make that transition need to be enhanced significantly,” he added. “It is time for a new GI Bill.”
James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general and a former US defense secretary, met Dr. Wright during his efforts to help veterans and praised his compassion and humility.
“He was an admirable human being all the way through,” said Mattis, who later was a visiting lecturer at Dartmouth, where he was impressed by the ease with which Dr. Wright engaged with all he encountered, even the wait staff at a local coffee shop.
“He was a warm, engaging guy,” Mattis recalled. “Here he was, the president emeritus of Dartmouth, but he dealt with people as equals.”
James E. Wright was born in 1939 and grew up in Galena, Ill., a small community that took its name from the lead ore that had been the basis for its early economic vitality.
He went to college after serving in the Marines, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“He financed his education as a bartender, janitor, and night watchman, which might explain his reverence for learning,” wrote David M. Shribman, a former Washington bureau chief for the Globe and former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in a syndicated column about Dr. Wright — his longtime friend, who had been Shribman’s history teacher at Dartmouth.
“Jim was the quintessential teacher, in and beyond the classroom,” wrote Shribman, who, while serving as a Dartmouth trustee, voted to appoint Dr. Wright as president.
Among Dr. Wright’s major moves as president was initiating the Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience. Raising more than $1.3 billion, the project helped fund financial aid, additional faculty, and the construction or improvement of several buildings, efforts that changed the Dartmouth experience for students and alumni, faculty, and staff.
“One of the amazing capacities of Jim’s was to take the perspective of a historian to almost everything he did,” said Dentzer, who was first woman to chair the Dartmouth Board of Trustees.
“Of course, a really great historian looks at all aspects of the experience of the times through the eyes of the different people who experienced it,” she said. “Jim had the ability to understand and appreciate the perspectives of all of the people who made up Dartmouth.”
Among the books Dr. Wright wrote were “The Galena Lead District: Federal Policy and Practices, 1824-1847,” “The West of the American People,” and “The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado.”
In 1984, he married Susan DeBevoise. A former assistant dean at Dartmouth, she also has served as the adviser to international students, and directed the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Wright’s survivors include two sons, Jimmy of Berwyn, Pa., and Michael of Marietta, Ga.; a daughter, Ann of Portland, Maine; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 26 in Dartmouth College’s Alumni Hall.
Dr. Wright “commanded such respect, and people thought of him as someone with not only great intellect, but great empathy,” Tapper said. “He was just a very kind person.”
As president, Dr. Wright relished taking time to have lunch with students each week.
And while on his watch, “we built some buildings, we expanded the campus,” he said in the Dartmouth News interview. “I was committed to diversity, to trying to make this community even more diverse and rich.”
Diversity, he added, was a part of education that students also needed to pursue on their own.
“I always used to tell students that there’s nothing wrong with seeking out friends and students who are most like you,” Dr. Wright recalled.
“But I said you’re seldom going to learn anything if you’re hanging out just with people who are like you and who think like you,” he said. “Seek out those from different backgrounds and different experiences. Seek out those who will say to you, ‘Why do you think that? Why do you believe that? Why do you like that music? Why don’t you read this book? Why don’t you try this food? Why don’t you, why don’t you. That’s what education is about. That’s what learning is about.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.