You’ve never understood the word “somber” until you’ve heard the last echoes of Louis Vierne’s “Final” fade from the rafters of Finney Chapel.
That thunderous piece — along with measures of Bach, Beethoven, and even a New Orleans-style jazz procession — was part of Oberlin College’s memorial ceremony Friday for former president Nancy Schrom Dye.
The selections were appropriate. Some were among her favorite. Others paid homage to Dye’s expansion of the college’s jazz program and abiding love for concert music.
Hundreds filled the chapel’s oak pews to say final goodbyes to Dye, who died Oct. 28 at age 68 after a long illness.
Current president Marvin Krislov said he found it fitting that a woman who loved history also made history by becoming Oberlin’s first woman president.
“She did more than serve. She excelled,” he said.
There was no shortage of speakers who professed the many ways Dye served the college and city:
• Anuradha Needham, Donald R. Longman Professor of English, heard the news of Dye’s death while on the other side of the world and was struck by the regret of not having said farewell before departing for the Far East.
A love of travel was at Dye’s core, she recalled, speaking of how her cosmopolitan friend was instrumental in shaping the Asian University of Women in Bangladesh and establishing a college for women at the United Arab Emirates University.
The two became friends through their shared interests in South Asia and the roles of women there.
Needham also spoke on how Dye made Oberlin College a hospitable place for her and many others, drawing her into its social life in new ways.
• Clayton Koppes, professor of history, worked with Dye nine years.
He recalled her calm and immediate action during a meeting on Sept. 11, 2001, as faculty learned first of one plane striking the World Trade Center and then another — and two more bound for Washington, D.C.
“Instinctively, coolly, Nancy set aside the agenda” and shifted into crisis mode, providing a sense of order and direction, Koppes said.
She feared casualties among alumni and students’ families and immediately organized a memorial service in the wake of the national tragedy. Dye knew exactly what was needed for the community to come together.
“She had a remarkable capacity for empathy,” Koppes said.
• Caroline Jackson Smith, professor of theater and Africana studies, remembers Dye as having “an open door, an open heart, an open mind.”
“Think one person can change the world? Well, Nancy Dye believed that and she did that,” Smith said.
Dye embraced the complex nature of Oberlin, both college and town; she also believed in frank discussion of issues whether or not it resulted in answers.
Smith said it’s easy to remember Dye’s big laugh and hospitality, but most importantly her ability to face big problems. That stemmed from often engaging people with heating and opposite opinions.
• Jan Miyake, associate professor of music theory, was the student speaker at Dye’s inauguration. That opportunity was daunting but Dye put all her anxieties to rest.
The former president was a mentor to Miyake for more than 20 years, showing up at her junior recital, welcoming her back to Oberlin as a visiting faculty member, even honored the birth of her first child in 2006 with a note.
On coming to Oberlin, she found herself surrounded by Dye and other leaders who were women. While it did not occur to her at the time, today Miyake said it stands out more starkly.
• Diana Roose, secretary of the College Emerita, was Dye’s assistant.
She listed observations perhaps not readily known by the public — Dye wrote all her own speeches. As an anti-war protester in the 1960s, she respected student sit-ins and protests as valuable expressions of citizenship. She was a voracious reader who kept an entire set of Nancy Drew mystery novels from her childhood. Worried about the graduation rate of black students, Dye instituted a study that found community service is a huge factor in collegiate success, and worked to give more opportunities to students of all backgrounds.
Dye often noted the college and town were founded in the same year and that there are no fences between the two. She loved living here and knew many residents by name.
“She always said she was ‘thrilled beyond measure’ to be Oberlin’s president,” Roose said.
• Robert Lemle, former board chair and honorary trustee, said he saw firsthand Dye’s dedication and tireless resolve.
He noted the drastic cultural changes that swept the United States during Dye’s 13 years as president, including the effects of terrorism and a technological revolution.
During that time, she championed diversity in all forms — not just ethnicity but in regard to points of view, internationalism, and other ways of looking at the world.
Sometimes Dye’s decisions made her extremely unpopular. Yet she was always guided by what she believed was best for Oberlin, Lemle said.
Under her leadership, Oberlin College made great strides. The graduation rate dramatically increased; financial aid was expanded; OC was positioned as “a true world college” with strong ties to other continents; brick and mortar buildings were restored; town-gown relations improved; applications to the college rose steeply to the point where acceptance became highly competitive; and millions of dollars were raised.
“She left Oberlin a much stronger institution than she found it,” Lemle said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Oberlin News-Tribune A jazz procession for former Oberlin College president Nancy Dye slowly marches down the aisle at Finney Chapel as Oberlin College dignitaries say goodbye. Dye championed the OC jazz program during her tenure.