A Peterson pipe from Ireland dozes on his desk next to a pouch of tobacco.
Five bookshelves sardined into his tiny Millett Hall office bulge with the likes of Boston’s Immigrants, The Peace Reform in American History, Women and Temperance, and Steelworkers in America.
The occupant—professor Jacob Dorn—began teaching history at Wright State shortly after the university was born in the 1960s. Over the years, he touched the lives of countless students, directed the Honors Program, pushed to expand Black History studies and served on the Dayton Peace Prize committee.
Now, Dorn is packing up his books, cleaning out the office and preparing to turn off the lights for the last time. At age 72, Dorn is retiring.
“I never imagined that Wright State would become this large,” Dorn said during a recent interview.
Dorn, who obtained his Ph.D. at age 25, was living in Columbus in 1965 and drove over to Allyn Hall—the only existing building at what was then the Dayton campus of The Ohio State and Miami universities—for a job interview. He was hired as a history teacher and began teaching introduction to U.S. history and later specialized in 20th century American history.
During the 1960s, the civil-rights movement touched off an explosion of interest in black history. Dorn and two other assistant professors petitioned President Brage Golding to hire someone to teach black history, saying the field was mature.
“Ever since then we’ve had an African-American historian,” he said.
Dorn was the first director of Wright State’s Honors Program, something in which he takes a great deal of pride.
“It gave to students smaller classes in which there could be lots of student initiative and participation and much more intensive reading of papers,” he said. “I never thought an honors class should be accelerated in the sense of getting farther, but rather should be enhanced or enriched, going deeper.”
Dorn is also proud of designing the Honors scholarship program, which survived after his 15-year tenure as director and now has more scholarships and students. It flourished at a time when there was egalitarianism in the air and antagonism to the idea of honors programs.
“It’s remarkable that this program never came under attack whatsoever. We saw to it that students had input,” Dorn said.
During his teaching career, Dorn had some memorable students. One was Walter Rice, a federal judge in Dayton nominated by President Jimmy Carter.
Rice, then a young assistant prosecuting attorney, took a night course from Dorn. Rice had attended Northwestern University, studied under Woodrow Wilson scholar Arthur Link and wrote a paper that Dorn still has on the Progressive Movement of 1924.
“The textbook I had adopted for this class was written by Arthur Link, so Walter scared the daylights out of me,” Dorn recalled. “I was about a chapter ahead of him.”
Dorn’s 47-year journey with Wright State was not always perfectly smooth. He was sometimes worn down by the bureaucracy, did not always agree with budget priorities and still worries that the emphasis on science and technology is coming at the expense of liberal arts.
“We can train people to do technical things,” Dorn said. “But if they don’t have humane learning, if they don’t understand the complexity of society, they’re ill fitted to do the complete job they could do for the country.”
As a specialist on American religion and social issues, Dorn authored and edited books and published numerous articles and book reviews in scholarly journals. He was twice elected president of the Ohio Academy of History, which is composed of professional historians and is the oldest organization of its kind in the country.
Since the mid-1970s, Dorn has been on the board of the Dayton Council on World Affairs almost without interruption.
The council originated after World War II and was led by people who wanted to prevent the United States from becoming isolationist. Over the years, the group brought in speakers ranging from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
For a number of years, Dorn was in charge of the council’s Great Decisions program, which spawned discussion groups that met in schools, churches and neighborhood venues. The groups helped provide citizen input to congressional foreign relations committees.
Dorn was also on the Dayton Peace Prize committee and met South African activist Bishop Desmond Tutu when he came to Ohio.
In addition, Dorn served eight years on the board of the American Baptist Historical Society, chairing its committee on research and publication in the field of Baptist history. And he also served eight years with the Ohio Board for United Ministries in Higher Education, which represented seven Protestant denominations for ecumenical ministry centers at Ohio’s 14 public universities.
Dorn’s kids have followed in their father’s history footsteps.
Jonathan obtained his Ph.D. in American history from Harvard. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Boulder, Colo.-based Backpacker Magazine and vice president of the corporation responsible for a half dozen other outdoor magazines. Betsy got her Ph.D. in Japanese history and is an associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. Dorn’s wife, Carole, retired after a 33-year career as an elementary school teacher.
After retiring in July, Dorn plans to spend his time reading, writing and traveling.
Donations for the Jacob H. Dorn Graduate History Scholarship can be made through the Wright State University Foundation.