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Why we celebrate Founder's Day

As Ohio Northern University celebrates Founder's Day, we look at the man who put Northern on the map.

by Dr. John Lomax
Professor of History

There’s this guy, Rick Steves, who does travel shows on PBS. It seems that he, as a person who likes to travel and doesn’t seem to care about getting home very often or anytime soon, has the best job in the world. Steves has yet to meet a stranger, no matter how strange the setting or the people, or at least that’s how it appears on TV. In a recent interview, he was asked, “What is the first thing to do before traveling to a new place?” He responded, to study the history of the place and its people.

I am an historian, and so naturally Steves’ response resonated with me, but I think that his advice would have made sense to Henry Solomon Lehr as well. Dr. Lehr’s approach to education was intensely practical. He wanted to send into the world graduates who were prepared to engage successfully with the people and problems that they encountered. You might imagine – falsely – that such a pragmatic outlook would lend itself to a tight emphasis on the acquisition of readily applicable skills, the sort of emphasis with which we are all familiar. After all, what else do the online and shopping mall colleges and universities have to offer their students except the promise of immediate and lucrative employment?  And what’s wrong with that, anyway? The world is a hard place, a fact with which Lehr was intimately familiar, and it does not treat kindly those who have nothing to offer to the market.

We see Lehr’s consciousness of this non-negotiable imperative in his ongoing stress on what he called practical education. We would call it professional education. Northern started as a normal college, a training school for teachers. Lehr quickly added other professional programs in engineering, law, and pharmacy. The university has since added programs in business, technology, criminal justice, public relations, laboratory sciences, graphic arts, forensic biology, and nursing. Soon we may have a program in public health and who knows what else? All of these professional programs are in keeping with our founder’s determination that the graduates of his university be equipped with practical skills to offer the marketplace when they left his care. And all of them require “book learning.” We are not born knowing how to write a brief, evaluate drug interactions, design a publicity campaign, operate a production facility at maximum efficiency or plan a sewage system. We need education – lots of it – to perform such tasks.

However, it was Lehr’s genius that he also understood the importance of context. None of these professions operates in a vacuum. All of them function within a cultural setting. Look at the Keystone Pipeline. At a certain level, it is simply a technological problem, one that engineers are trained to solve. It is also an issue, however, in the original sense of the term:  a point of controversy. To engage successfully in such controversies, it is necessary to take into account the natural setting, to be sure, but also the social, economic and political landscape. Energy production and distribution work within a human context.

Dr. Lehr was deeply conscious of the absolute necessity of training his students not just in practical skills but also in the classics, or what we would call the liberal arts. To know how to do something useful was not enough. You have to be able to read and respond effectively to the lay of the land in order to practice your professional skills. As a practical matter, you need the liberal arts. While the capacity to learn these arts may be inborn, to learn humane letters requires formal education as surely as it is required to develop professional skills.

The liberal arts are, as Lehr knew full well, the liberating arts, the skills that we as free persons need in order to negotiate the landscape of life successfully. Without a clear sense of the human dimensions of every issue, we cannot participate actively in the decisions that shape outcomes. We fail to see the fuller context within which people make decisions. We read opposition as stupidity, which is almost always a mistake.

During the construction of the Dicke College of Business Administration, the village closed University Avenue between Main Street and Gilbert Street. The university put in a sidewalk on what functions as the main east-west axis of the campus. At the intersection of that sidewalk and the sidewalk that runs in front of Dukes, Lehr, Hill, and Dicke, it built a round flower garden, I suppose to break up the visual lines and provide a place to push snow in the winter. In about 2005 I began to see a statue of Henry Solomon Lehr in that flower garden. Lehr and his vision for the university had been percolating around in my mind for a number of years, and it occurred to me that we needed a concrete – or, more accurately, bronze – expression of that vision in the form of an image of our founder. I approached Dr. Baker, who agreed. He found the money to pay for it and appointed a committee to make it happen. That committee consisted of Bill Robinson, Toby Baker, Brit Rowe, Jim Kennedy and myself.

We hired a talented sculptor, Tad McKillop, to realize in bronze the image of our founder. In October 2007, at Homecoming, the statue of Henry Solomon Lehr was dedicated to the music of a brass band under the direction of Charles Bates, which played Civil War era tunes, and a salute from a color guard that wore the same blue suit that Dr. Lehr carried so proudly from 1861 to 1865. The statue stands at the very head of the university that Lehr founded on principals that are as true now as they were then.

The Lehr statue serves as the focal point for the front of campus. More important, it is visible – even tactile – reminder of the vision of Dr. Lehr, of a university that tends to the difficult, yet critical, business of turning out graduates who are ready to work or to pursue further education, equipped not just with technical skills but also clothed in the arts that allow us to negotiate the human landscape within which we must all operate. To have the one without the other would be, at best, half an education.

For Lehr, the road to Ada led through the apocalyptic horrors of northern Virginia and central Tennessee, the bitter fruits of an intractable conflict that could not and cannot be understood solely in objective terms. Henry Solomon Lehr founded a school to educate educators, and ultimately every student who would benefit from his insistence on an education that prepared them for a complex and unforgiving world, in which what you know must include not only what you can do, but also how well you understand the human factors that shape and limit everything that we do. Fortunately, Dr. Lehr understood full well that our inborn ignorance is a condition that education can cure, education in the fullest, most practical sense, an education that acknowledges and addresses the whole problem. I think that all of us as children of Ohio Northern University would agree, with Dr. Lehr, that anything less would be stupid.