• Stetson Whitcher ’40 and Dartmouth Alumni College: A Love Story in Forty Chapters

    Thursday, August 10, 2006
    News Type

Stetson Whitcher '40 and classmates in the early days of his 40-year Alumni College career.Stet logged somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 hours in the classroom. You're never too old to learn the basics of computer science. Through Alumni College, Stet took courses from 33 departments at Dartmouth. Stet and Joe Burnett '40, another of the Alumni College faithful. Hanging out after class.

“I tell people, you're never too old to learn,” says Stetson Whitcher '40, sitting in an armchair in the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding in Baker Library. “There's an awful lot going on in the world that you don't know about.”

At age 87, Whitcher has traveled from his home in Boston to attend the Global Local Health Symposium of Dartmouth Alumni College, August 3-5.

The first time Whitcher took a seat in a classroom at Alumni College, anti-Vietnam War leaflets were being dropped onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, NBC had just become the first full-color broadcast network, and the Super Bowl didn't exist. The year was 1966.

Since then, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the USSR has dissolved, the Internet has been invented, and other tumults have shaken and stirred the world.

One thing has not changed: Stet Whitcher's taking a seat in a classroom at Dartmouth Alumni College. He's enrolled forty times, making him the record holder in Alumni College attendance.

This year is his last, he says as he's toasted by a gang of friends, including David Spalding '76, vice president for alumni relations, and Roberta Moore, director of continuing education and travel. “Alumni College has been a wonderful experience. I feel I have a lot of friends.”

He certainly does. Emily Schaller '02 took the red-eye from California to surprise him today in honor of his longtime devotion to the Dartmouth figure skating team, for which she was a star skater. She's accompanied by Coach Loren McGean '92 and her father, Mike McGean '49, who was a co-founder of Alumni College.

“I've been so happy to come back out to Dartmouth every year,” says Whitcher. “But Class of 1940, forty years -- it's a good round number to end on.”

What inspires such dedication?

“One reason, it's Hanover,” says Whitcher. “It's the most wonderful setting you could have. You can say good morning to anybody, and they respond to you. Two, it's the lecturers. They're all tops. And you can talk to them face to face. Three, it's the people who attend. They come from all walks—teachers, lawyers, doctors, all kinds of people, so you get a good range of perspectives.”

The first year, Whitcher got his freshman class roommate, Joe Burnett '40 to come to Alumni College with him, and Burnett, who was unable to attend this year, has since also logged many sessions. It was through Burnett that Whitcher met Martha Siccardi, sitting in the chair next to him, a Harvard alumna who's attended Dartmouth Alumni College for 20 years.

“I remember one session,” says Whitcher, recalling memorable moments, “we were all asked to read and discuss articles in the New York Times, but two of the speakers said they didn't read the Times. It was heresy!”

“I wouldn't read it, either,” says Siccardi.

“The first year I went,” recalls Whitcher with a still amazed laugh, “Roger Brown, from the Class of '02—that's 1902, not 2002—wanted to know about everyone in the discussion group. I remember he was reading the financial section of the paper across the table from me, and he looked up and said, ‘Why is your bank stock dropping?' I didn't know what to say—I was just starting out in the banking business. We sent each other Christmas cards for years after.”

By Moore's calculations, Whitcher has attended courses from 33 departments at Dartmouth. He's taken classes with 248 faculty. He's read 263 textbooks as well as a big chunk of the Bible. And he's logged somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 hours in the classroom.

Among the many Alumni College courses Stet has attended are “Preparing for Life in the Seventies,” “Law: Who Needs It?”, “Facing Mecca,” “Watching the Earth: Global Perspectives for the 21st Century,” “Split Decision,” “The Gilded Age in Northern New England,” and “Where Have All the Heroes Gone?”

He is, he says, “interested less in theory than in past events and how they're affecting today.”

This year, Whitcher tackled a 500-page textbook for the Global Local Health Symposium. “I read it, but I can't say I understood everything.”

“It fell on my nose when I was trying to read it in bed,” says Siccardi.

“Well, we'll go and hear what they have to say,” says Whitcher. “I always learn something.”