Sophomore Emma Dorst discovers surprising truths about her family’s Oberlin lineage.
Alumni Association Executive Director Laura Gobbi ’91 often says that an Oberlin legacy family is the closest thing to Oberlin royalty.
If that’s the case, then sophomore Emma Dorst should be crowned queen.
An inquisitive and socially conscious 19-year-old, Emma arrived on campus in 2006 only partially aware of her long and prevailing Oberlin lineage. Her parents had graduated from Oberlin, as had her grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on.
What Emma didn’t know, however, was that her Oberlin family tree reached back 170 years to the College’s earliest classes of students. Five straight generations of husbands and wives had earned Oberlin degrees.
But the real "wow" moment came when Emma discovered the name Caroline Mary Rudd, Class of 1841, among her early ancestors—one of the three first women at Oberlin—and in the country—to earn a college bachelor’s degree.
Caroline Mary Rudd (who actually preferred the first name Mary) and three other women enrolled in Oberlin’s collegiate course—formerly reserved for men—in 1837, marking the beginnings of coeducation nationwide. Three of the four women earned their bachelor’s degrees, and thus a place in U.S. history (see sidebar).
"I thought it was really incredible," says Emma, whose early ancestors were among Oberlin’s most prominent academic families. "I really like the idea of attending a school where I have such strong family ties."
Caroline Mary married a classmate, George Nelson Allen, Class of 1838, an accomplished young violinist and pianist from Massachusetts. As a student, George founded the Oberlin Musical Association (known today as the Musical Union), the second-oldest choral musical society in the U.S. Among the 25 first graduates of Oberlin, George remained at the College as a professor of both sacred music and natural science, helping to lay the base for the future Conservatory of Music and teaching groundbreaking courses such as Harmony of Science and Religion.
George had a sister, Susan Allen, who also attended Oberlin, graduating in 1843. She, too, married an Oberlin classmate, William Wheeler Wright. When Oberlin abandoned its agricultural endeavor, it was William who bought up most of the land and opened a nursery, supplying the town with fruit and ornamental trees. After the Civil War, he opened the land for residential development along a new street, aptly named Forest Street, where he planted rows of Scotch pine.
William had a son—Albert Allen—who shared his family’s passion for the natural sciences. A lifelong Oberlinian, Albert Allen Wright graduated from the College and went on to become a professor of geology for 31 years; he was actually the first member of the faculty to be born in town.
Influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin on the theory of evolution, Albert would later be described by Oberlin historians as the "first modern scientific mind on the faculty." He was the first on campus to promote the use of a scientific laboratory for students, and he was adamant about collecting natural history specimens for the growing College museum. After his death in 1905, the newly launched Oberlin Alumni Magazine devoted 17 pages to describing his Christian faith and his contributions to the College, including his two years as acting president.
Albert was married for just three years when his wife died. Fourteen years later, he married again. His second wife, Mary Pamela Benton Hill, who had graduated from Oberlin’s literary course in 1879, was paving her own successful career at the College. She was assistant registrar from 1889 to 1891 and curator of the Olney Art Collection, the Oberlin College Art Museum, and finally, the Allen Memorial Art Museum. The couple had one son, Norman.
The Wright family lived at 123 Forest Street—property originally owned by Albert’s father—in a house built for Albert. The home, A.A. Wright House, remains today. Situated across the street from Afrikan Heritage House, the house was memorialized by the late Emeritus Professor of History Geoffrey Blodgett in his 1985 book, Oberlin Architecture, College and Town: A Guide to its Social History. Blodgett recounts an anecdote concerning Norman, who, as a boy, watched as indoor plumbing was installed in his home.
Blodgett wrote: "Norman later recalled this being the point in his life when he learned from the contractor’s son ‘certain much-used parts of the [English] language that my mother had somehow neglected to teach me."
Norman Wright, who graduated from Oberlin in 1918, was Emma’s great-grandfather. "He was a strict, religious man who was active in the Presbyterian Church and knowledgeable about world issues," says his daughter, Angela Wright Combes ’49. In 1929 Norman and his wife, Katryn Brown Wright ’23, moved from Oberlin to Cranbury, New Jersey, a hot, damp community that was a prime place to grow things. There, he established Wright’s Roses of Cranbury, which later became one of the foremost rose and chrysanthemum-growing businesses in the state.
Angela (Emma’s grandmother) says she attended Oberlin for much of the same reason family members before her had: "It just didn’t occur to me that there was any other place to go. My father expected his children to attend college, particularly Oberlin, where he had lived until early adulthood."
As a student in the 1940s, Angela sang with the Oberlin choir, studied English literature, and met her future husband, Richard Combes ’47, who would become a doctor at Allen Memorial Hospital.
In 1952, Angela gave birth to Holly, yet another future Oberlin graduate. "We lived across the street from the high school," says Holly Combes Dorst ’74 of her childhood home on Walnut Street. "I would watch football games from my bedroom window."
Holly was 4 when the Combes family moved to the Cleveland area, Richard taking a job as an anesthesiologist. Fifteen years later, they moved to western Illinois, where Angela worked with Stephen Ministries and served as an advocate for the GLBT community in its efforts to be welcomed into the church. She also volunteered endless hours in hospitals and nursing homes.
Holly, meanwhile, finished high school in Illinois in 1970 and enrolled at Augustana College. Two years later, realizing it wasn’t the best fit, she transferred to Oberlin, where, like so many of her ancestors, she majored in biology, and also Classics. The campus was comfortable and familiar. She found the spirit of activism inspiring and saw the College as place she could thrive.
"I always knew we were an Oberlin family; we’ve always talked about it," Holly says. "My grandfather, Norman, also studied Greek at Oberlin, and he was constantly dismayed at my never getting a better grasp on it than I did. He enjoyed talking about his years in Oberlin—his housemother and how men and women had to walk on different sides of the street."
Caroline Mary was the niece of Sally Rudd, a housekeeper in the home of Oberlin’s first president, Asa Mahan. Oberlin had just begun to offer courses for women, so Sally urged her young niece to come take advantage of the educational opportunity. With permission from her father, Caroline left her home in Huntington, Connecticut, in 1836 and enrolled in Oberlin’s Female Department, along with three other women: Mary Hosford, Mary Fletcher Kellogg, and Elizabeth Prall.
But the four women desired more than Oberlin’s special course for women, so they requested admission to the full college course leading to a baccalaureate degree. Modeled after Yale, the college course was open only to men; in fact it often was referred to as the "gentlemen’s course." Unlike the women’s course, the college course required Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and higher mathematics—courses considered inappropriate and too rigorous for women’s "delicate" minds.
Despite some debate and misapprehension, the faculty approved the women’s applications, and in 1837 they joined 30 young men as freshmen in the college course. Coeducation in the United States had begun.
The first two years were filled with "perplexities and discouragements" for the four young women; they were on trial and they knew it. Three of the four women—Caroline Mary, Elizabeth, and Mary Hosford—graduated with their class four years later. No fanfare or headline marked the event, but the women knew what they had accomplished.
All four of the women were engaged (or nearly so) at the time of graduation. Caroline Mary married alumnus George Nelson Allen, Class of 1838, a professor of music and natural science. The couple raised five children, each of whom attended Oberlin at one point and remained in town to raise their own families.
With a collection of letters and other materials in the College Archives, Emma Dorst ’10 and her mom, Holly Combes Dorst ’74, are poised to learn more about their great-great grandaunt. Records show that Caroline belonged to the Oberlin Female Moral Reform Society and the Association of Alumni of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute. She remained in Oberlin until her death in 1892.
Caroline Mary and George, along with the Dorsts’ other early Oberlin ancestors—Susan and William Wright, and Albert and Mary Wright, are buried in nearby plots in Oberlin’s Westwood Cemetery, each marked with stately headstones.
"I’m continually amazed by how lucky I am to feel so at home in Oberlin and to know that so many of my ancestors felt the same," says Emma. "I’m honored to have such an incredible lineage and proud to be related to so many influential people; my parents most of all."
As a student, Holly met the woman then living in her grandfather’s childhood home on Forest Street. The woman showed Holly marks on the wall that served as a record of his height and age. It was an amazing experience, she says. At Oberlin, Holly also met her future husband, John Dorst ’74. John was an English major, and he and Holly had lived in Johnson House.
Holly and John graduated and married in 1974. They lived in Boston, Berkeley, and Philadelphia—both earning doctoral degrees—before settling down in Laramie, Wyoming, where John is a professor of American studies at the University of Wyoming. Holly, a crisis mental health counselor in Albany County, works with the SAFE project (a shelter for battered women) and the Albany County Democrats. Their son, Jesse, broke ranks and followed his dream to Macalester College to learn the life of a stage actor. Emma, now 21, continues the Oberlin legacy.
Born and raised in Wyoming, Emma Dorst wasn’t ready to settle into the discipline of academia and dorm living right after high school. "I wanted to do something different."
In 2005, she joined the American Field Service program and spent six months in Belgium. Living outside of Brussels with her host family, she volunteered in a federal reception center for asylum seekers that served 130 children and adults from Africa and Eastern Europe. "They all lived in the center, and I moved in there, too, about halfway through my time in Belgium," Emma says. "I volunteered in the animations department that kept the 60 children occupied and out of their parents hair, but we all lived in one big building. It was the most stressful and rewarding experience of my life."
By the spring of 2006, Emma felt settled and ready for college. She had always felt the tug of Oberlin, but sent applications to Beloit, Colby, and Wesleyan colleges as well.
"We just wanted the right school for her," says her mother, Holly. "I thought Oberlin would be the right fit, but she had to come to that conclusion herself."
Accepted into three of the four colleges, Emma chose Oberlin. "It was among the most prestigious of the liberal arts colleges that I applied to, and it seemed to have the most challenging curriculum," she says. "You read a lot of college brochures that ‘talk’ about community service, but when you get there, you’re disappointed because it’s not really happening. I wanted to be involved."
Eager to learn more about her new home, Emma began to peruse Oberlin’s web site, eventually landing on the College’s archives pages. It was there that she discovered her family’s distinguished Oberlin lineage.
"I looked up my great-granddad because I knew he went to Oberlin, but I didn’t know our family connection went as far back as Caroline Mary!" she says.
Now in her second year at Oberlin, Emma is double majoring in politics and Russian/East European studies: "Yes, I broke with tradition by not majoring in science," she laughs. She’d like to study abroad for a year, ideally in Poland, Germany, or Turkey through a Europe in Transition program offered (still) by Antioch College, and then in Russia. Active in the co-op system, she lives in Harkness and is the operations manager for OSCA.
"Those six months Emma worked in the refugee camp opened her eyes to the world," says Emma’s mother, Holly. "That kind of experience plays out well at Oberlin. The social consciousness of our family, I think, caused Emma to give Oberlin serious consideration."
Emma’s grandmother, Angela, who now lives in Rutland, Vermont, is happy that Emma will keep the legacy alive. "Oberlin is a special kind of place with an emphasis on social justice," she says. "It’s a major part of who I am, and I think it is the perfect place for my granddaughter."
John Dorst, Emma’s dad, is somewhat blown away by the realization that he married into such a distinguished Oberlin family. He’s now exploring the pages of last year’s Christmas present, the book by Geoffrey Blodgett, Oberlin Architecture. His wife and daughter also plan to delve more fully into their rich lineage.
"Oberlin has been such a big part of our family," says Holly. "For each successive generation that goes there, it opens new doors to get what you need."
Marsha Lynn Bragg is a freelance writer and editor in Cleveland.
Special thanks to the Oberlin College Archives, the Oberlin Heritage Center, and the Dorst and Combes families for their assistance.