A Most Uncommon Man

Ben James

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

From his days as a student to his years as a teacher, dean, coach and mentor, Benjamin D. James ’34 epitomized the spirit of his alma mater. Although he earned national recognition for his professional endeavors, it was his 85 years of devotion and service to the college and the countless lives he changed that made this extraordinary man a beloved Dickinsonian. As fellow professor of psychology Stephen Coslett noted in 1977, the year that James retired from the college as the Richard V.C. Watkins Professor of Psychology and Education, “I know his emotional love of the college and his tenure in its finest sense will continue on. Ben is a most uncommon man in his loyalty and his dedication to the college.” Honors bestowed on him include the Distinguished Alumni Award; honorary degrees from the Dickinson School of Law, Dickinson College and Harrisburg Area Community College; and the Alexis de Tocqueville Humanitarian Award. In 2014, President Nancy A. Roseman and the Board of Trustees named him Honorary President for a Day. And when James died July 4, just shy of his 103rd birthday, the same community he nurtured responded in force, with heartfelt notes of condolence and tribute.

What a remarkable 100-yard run! A guy, who is both a scholar and athlete, who devotes his life to one academic institution doing tough jobs — and ends up beloved by everyone who came into contact with him. I didn’t know Ben very well, but he had a profound effect on my life. In the fall of 1952, I interviewed for the class of 1957 with the dean of admissions (i.e., Ben). Having a rather mediocre high school academic athletic career, I was a teensy bit nervous. Twothirds of the way through, Ben looked up at me from scanning my transcript. He asked, “What is this ‘C’ in physics?” I responded meekly, “I was playing varsity basketball.” I  don’t know if this actually happened, or if it is apocryphal, but my brain remembers it as him studying me, and then smiling and saying, “You’re in.” Since I didn’t want to let him down for taking a chance on me, I stayed in touch with him through his lifetime. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
—Ira Glick ’57

Ben James always remembered everyone’s name, even if you had met him only once. He never forgot to call you by name every time after that, when he saw you on campus or off. There were approximately 900 students in the student body in 1952, and he knew every one, earning him the well-deserved title, “All Names James.” He had a truly remarkable talent, and he was a truly remarkable man.
—Eleanor Shepherd Sheppard ’56

Ben was head of admissions when I interviewed in 1962. My dad, Herbert Baron ’31, had played basketball with Ben at Dickinson, and they stayed in touch all of Dad’s life. Ben was a mentor and confidant that made my years at Dickinson a wonderful experience. I last saw Ben in 2012, with my daughter and son-in-law. I wanted them to see Dickinson and meet Ben, and, of course, he regaled them with stories of my father. When my son visited Dickinson in 2002, Ben made the effort to come to the admissions office to speak with Noah and encourage him to apply. I sent Ben a sculpture made in honor of his 100th birthday. Words alone cannot  express how much knowing him shaped my college years and life.
—Jeffrey Baron ’67

Dr. James impressed me as being truly dedicated to his professorial role (including his thoughtful and benevolent interactions with us students) and the field of psychology. His noted dedication and imparting of his knowledge helped me decide to pursue a graduate degree in psychology (after my service in Vietnam), sidetracking my original intent to seek a law degree (later reactivated in 1980 after having practiced psychology at the master’s level for about seven years). I have been the Arkansas State Board of Psychology’s part-time ethics investigator for almost 22 years, while practicing law full time for 31 years. Possibly, my dedication to the advancement of the psychology profession through the policing of its practice by our licensees is, at least in part, due to my exposure to Dr. James.
—James Ammel ’68

As a member of Raven’s Claw, I had the distinct opportunity and pleasure to know and interact with Ben James since my arrival on campus in 1984. However, it was not until I became the society’s advisor, when I returned to Dickinson to coach men’s lacrosse in 2001, that I fully appreciated his impact. Some people make an impact with one significant act or on one momentous occasion. Ben’s was cumulative, in the way he made each individual feel special. Ben also had the gift of storytelling. Most of his stories were about young people at Dickinson, and somehow he was able to bridge a gap between his current audience and that of his subject. Like many great storytellers, Ben’s greatest gift was his ability to listen; his memory and recall are legendary. It was with these simple traits and qualities that Ben made his impact: He listened, he shared, and he inspired.
—Dave Webster ’88

Wednesdays at noon: If you were a Raven’s Claw, this was the sacred time when you attended the most important class you would take throughout your four years behind the limestone walls—lunch with Dr.  Benjamin James. For decades, he faithfully came to campus once a week to mentor the seven members of Raven’s Claw. These were treasured moments when we wanted time to stand still. Some days we would discuss campus activities or hear his legendary tale about the 1931 football team’s victory over Penn State. Other days we would discuss the virtues of life. All days we would leave in awe of a man who lived a life worth living—a life rooted in principle, tolerance, acceptance and love. He consistently walked his three-point roadmap for living: Love everyone, don’t be controlled by money, and serve others. Dr. James was born with the skills to be a great leader, and he perfected his craft to become the greatest mentor in Dickinson’s history. He may not be a household name, but he was an American treasure.
—Luke Bernstein ’01

I had the honor of opening the doors of Old West at the 2008 Commencement ceremony. The doors are ceremonially opened by the president of the class from the previous graduation year, and I did not know I would share this responsibility with perhaps the most recognizable Dickinsonian of the past century. A few years later, I saw Dr. James at Biddle Field for his 100th birthday celebration. The first thing he said when he saw me was, “Hello, Mr. President from the class of 2007.”
—Michael Pennington ’07

Janet owes the start of her teaching career to Ben. She was slated to student-teach during the fall of 1972, at the Carlisle Middle School. Just a few days before school started, her classroom teacher withdrew from the district, leaving the students with no earth science teacher and Janet with no supervisor. The school called Ben for advice, and he persuaded them to hire Janet. Of course she had not yet earned her certification, and Janet still needed a combination of coursework and student teaching credit to graduate. Given the demands of her schedule, taking Dickinson courses during business hours was impossible. Ben met with her at home, in the evenings, on an independentstudy basis, so that she could graduate on time. We have never forgotten how considerate he was to do all this. It was way above and beyond the call of duty. Janet had a very productive teaching career for four years before she left teaching to start a family. She later served as a substitute teacher when we moved to New Jersey, and then taught for five years in Charlotte, N.C., and seven years in Kansas City, Mo. She has been back in the Charlotte district for 11 years now. Her current position is supervisor for all of the school libraries in the Charlotte district, which has I50-plus schools. We stayed in Carlisle until 1989, so we both had continuing contact with Ben at various college and alumni events. He was always gracious, and always encouraging. How I wish the world had more people who had such a positive effect on others.
—Raymond ’70 and Janet Whiffen Jones ’73

Read more from the fall 2015 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

Published November 13, 2015