Home / Table of Contents

IT'S A TRIBUTE TO EVAN DOBELLE'S POWER of conviction, and the strength of his personality, that when he says to you, "It's not complicated," you believe him. No matter that the president of Trinity College is talking about urban renewal, an area of social engineering that has proved so feckless, so hopelessly complicated, over the last fifty years that the very term itself has come to mean its opposite. The confidence and conviction behind his assertion is buttressed by the fact that, at this very moment, a transformation of the decaying neighborhoods around Trinity College, initiated by the school and some of its institutional neighbors, is underway. What The Hartford Courant less than two years ago called an "elusive vision" of safer streets, more comfortable homes, good schools, and a generally more prosperous community is well on its way to becoming a reality, and Dobelle, a UMass alumnus several times over, is a prime agent in its realization.

Listen carefully as you stand in the Trinity Chapel cloister, and you can hear the grind, snort, and beeps of heavy equipment toiling just beyond the wrought-iron fence that borders the eastern edge of campus. That's the sound of mammoth earthmovers and oversized off-road dump trucks removing the toxic traces of the gas station and city bus garage that once occupied this nine-acre, L-shaped lot.

In its next life, the site will be the "Learning Corridor," with a Montessori elementary school, a middle school, and a high school program with a math, science, and technology orientation and numerous enrichments. Already up and running are a job-training center and a police substation; in the works are a family resource center, a Boys and Girls Club, and 150 new housing units. Mortgage assistance is already being offered to residents and businesspeople who kept the faith for years as drug dealers, gangs, and slumlords did their best to drive them out. Parts of the project are even ahead of schedule: the Boys and Girls Club, originally scheduled to open in September, will open in June.

Altogether, the initiative will invest $175 million in private and public funding. The package was put together by an alliance that includes Trinity, the Connecticut Children's Medical Center, Hartford Hospital, the Institute of Living and Connecticut Public Broadcasting. While a project of this magnitude always involves many individuals and organizations, it seems universally recognized that it couldn't have happened without Dobelle. He drove the planning, talked it up, raised money for it, generally revved its engine. A New York Times article described the Trinity president as "a force of nature;" in it, former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros is quoted as saying, "Dobelle understands the stakes better and is doing it better than anyone."

Dobelle hasn't let the acclaim go to his head. "One article referred to what we're doing as the `new urbanism,'" he says impatiently. "All I'm doing is recreating what I had when I was growing up." Born in Washington, Dobelle spent his early years in Pittsfield; when his father, an orthopedic surgeon, got a job with NASA, the family moved to Florida, near Cape Canaveral. (John Glenn was a frequent visitor to the Dobelle home.) As a child, he recalls walking "to the playground, to school, to church, to the stores they were all in the neighborhood."

Dobelle's vision for the Frog Hollow and Barry Square sections of Hartford took shape even before he became president of Trinity two years ago, during an unofficial visit to the campus and its environs. (He was the only finalist to visit before his interview.) According to a search committee member quoted in the Courant, Dobelle told them, "This is what Trinity must do, and I'm the man to do it."

A bit brash for an academic prospect? The committee and the trustees were disposed to listen. Applications for admission were down, with Trinity losing out to colleges of comparable status, like Williams and Amherst, in more idyllic surroundings. Parents were understandably reluctant to spend $27,000 a year to send their children to a school only blocks from the scene of a drive-by shooting. Some students, faculty, and staff were nervous about venturing off campus.

Since Dobelle took office, things are looking up. The number of applications, for instance, up thirty-four percent. Dobelle ascribes the rise in part to the changes off-campus, as well as on-campus. (As part of its capital campaign Trinity is currently building a performing arts center and a studio arts building, rehabbing dorms, expanding the library.)

Dobelle also points to the increased numbers of Trinity students performing community service. While Trinity has a Rome campus and is considering opening others in Istanbul, Cape Town, and Beijing, Dobelle wonders about the dangers of raising a generation of college-educated people "more comfortable in Europe than in the neighborhoods of a city." Excited by the fact that forty-six percent of Trinity students are at present involved in local good works, Dobelle claims he hasn't "seen this kind of idealism since the early sixties."

In the early sixties, Dobelle's own idealism was fired by the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., and by his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. In his inaugural address at Trinity, Dobelle remembered being one of the thousands gathered in Washington on August 28, 1963: "Those of us who stood there that day, transfixed by his words and uplifted on the tide of his calling, believed that we all truly could affect the destiny of this country."

The political and social traumas of subsequent years war, assassinations, Watergate may have "taken away some idealism" from his generation, says Dobelle. Today's undergraduates are freer to be idealists, he feels: "Among the students I teach now, not one kids was born when Jimmy Carter was President."

The Carter presidency has special significance for Dobelle. At age thirty-one, having served as mayor of Pittsfield and commissioner of environmental management in the Dukakis administration and emerged as an early and vigorous supporter of the Carter campaign, he was appointed U.S. chief of protocol in the Carter White House. After two years he moved to the Democratic National Committee, as chief financial officer, before returning to Massachusetts after Carter's defeat in 1980.

Not everyone rises so fast; Dobelle's ascent in public life was the more remarkable for being without benefit of traditional credentials. An early interest in the military had led him to enroll as a freshman at the Citadel in South Carolina. An injury when he was a sophomore put an end to military aspirations and prompted him, as a Courant article puts it, to "drop out of school for awhile for a taste of real life, a course of action not particularly rare or alarming in those days. Somewhat more unusually, his taste lasted almost twenty years."

NOT QUITE TWENTY: Dobelle had in fact already earned a master's degree, without the bachelor's, from the UMass School of Education in 1970. When he returned a decade later, he could have gone straight for his doctorate, but insisted on getting a B.A. first. "I did it because I was tired of explaining to people about my collegiate career," he says. "Mario" Mario Fantini, then-dean of the School of Ed "said, `You're crazy to do this.' I said, "For you, it's crazy. For me, it's real."

Dobelle has high praise for UMass. "The faculty were approachable, nurturing, always for me. When I left, they wrote to me. When I came back last fall for the Chancellor's Award....I had a very powerful feeling again, I felt a rush of wonderful memories." Still, this educational interlude of "six long years," during which he worked part-time as an investment banker on Wall Street and earned a second master's at Harvard, was hard for Dobelle.

"I had come from having some pretty heavy responsibilities to being in class with juniors and seniors and not being in front of the room."

Even at the graduation ceremony in which he received his Ed.D, he was aware of his nontraditional status: "I was standing on the field with Kit, Harry was in my arms, and a very earnest young woman came over to me and said, `The faculty line is over there.'"

"Kit" is Edith "Kit" Dobelle `72, also a School of Ed graduate, with her own list of distinctions: chief of staff to Rosalynn Carter; U.S. Chief of Protocol (she succeeded her husband); member of the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars. It's no accident that in photographs of Dobelle with the Pope, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin, Kit is there too; Dobelle calls her his "best friend" and "center of gravity." The baby in his arms at graduation was son Harry, who, at eleven, probably finds reference to his infancy embarrassing. These days, he is taking dancing lessons, and he went with his father to Istanbul and the Middle East last fall. The family lives in the President's House, a sprawling contemporary structure right on campus.

Although Dobelle's predecessor Tom Gerety preferred Hartford's West End (and eventually, Amherst College, where he is now president) it seems no great hardship to be on the Trinity campus. Surveying the grounds from the large, leaded window in Dobelle's office, you could be, as he points out, "on the campus of Bennington." A vast lawn extends to the Gothic brownstone library and is bordered on one side by the "Long Walk," a beautiful row of brownstone buildings with slanting slate roofs, peaked towers, and Victorian detailing. Seabury Hall, Jarvis Hall, Mather Hall even their names have the ring of monied privilege. The Trinity campus is among the earliest examples of "Collegiate Gothic," designed to invoke the quads of Oxford and Cambridge. The Chapel could be in a English engraving; in fact, the imposing, lustrous limestone structure, with its belltower, cloister, rose window, and sunken knot-garden, dates from 1932, and was designed by the architect of the National Cathedral. The maturity of the plantings around the Chapelholly, yew, and boxwood of enormous proportions signify as well as any physical aspect of the campus the origins of the college, founded by eminent Episcopalians, as an elite institution.

The neighborhoods which border this beautiful campus, of course, are far from elite. "Legitimate self-interest," says Dobelle, is a motive behind the college's efforts to help revitalize surrounding areas. But he believes as well in a higher calling for higher education, in "an obligation to assert moral authority, to provide moral leadership to young people, to set a standard for them to look to."

Towards setting that standard personally, Dobelle spends a lot of time in church basements, fostering "a spiritual relationship" with the many faiths active in the community among them Pentecostal, Jewish, and Islamic as well as secular groups for whom the churches serve as meeting places. He is aware that some of the people he talks to "almost don't want their expectations raised again, they have been raised, and disappointed, so many times before." But he has also witnessed, and felt, "the enormous rush" that comes "when we embrace our differences," rather than allowing our sense of those differences to keep us apart. "Ignorance fuels the fear," he says.

FROM EARLY ON, DOBELLE KNEW that he wanted to be a college president. He has been one three times over, having first been president of Middlesex Community College, then chancellor and president of the City College System of San Francisco, where he oversaw an institution with more faculty than Trinity has students.

What Dobelle has to say about institutions of higher education may not win him friends in academe not that he seems worried about that. Higher education is "over-managed and underled," he states. Leadership, by his definition, is "accepting accountability, having vision, and being relentless." At the educational conferences he attends, he says, the discourse seems limited to two subjects: "They complain about unions, they complain about faculties." His complaint: the institutions of higher education are "sitting on $100 billion in endowed funds, they pay no taxes, have no responsibilities, and yet they tell the government they need help."

On a less serious note, Dobelle marvels that "every college wants to be something else. Amherst wants to be Williams, Williams wants to be Duke, Duke wants to be Stanford, Stanford wants to be Yale, Yale wants to be Harvard, Harvard wants to be Oxford, Oxford wants to be Cambridge." On a recent visit visit to England, he says, he noticed that Cambridge University didn't seem to want to be any other school. And Dobelle doesn't want Trinity to be anything other than Trinity. "Let Trinity be Trinity," he exclaims. "Be happy with who you are."