Typical of many legacy families, the Whitakers' Oberlin roots
go back several generations.
Oberlin's legacy tradition proves once and for
all that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Oberlin alumnus J. Austin Kerr '96 remembers
exactly when he stumbled upon the marks of his family's Oberlin
legacy. "It was Halloween night, and some friends and I decided
to check out the cemetery in the Arb," he says. To his amazement,
he saw several gravestones bearing his own name--Austin--and other
family names: Kerr, Bedortha, and McClennon. "At first I thought,
'Oh look, here's a gravestone with my name on it.' But then I saw
more and more. It was cool, but creepy."
The founder of Kerr's Oberlin dynasty was Mary Jane
Bedortha, who graduated in 1861 and married an Austin.
Modest in size, the Bedorthas embodied several traits shared by
early Oberlinians. "The family was typical Massachusetts stock,"
says K. Austin Kerr '59, J. Austin's father. "They arrived
in the New World in the 1640s and joined the migration to the Western
Reserve." Forebear Luther Bedortha headed west with his wife
and 10 children in 1824. Nine of them attended Oberlin.
Oberlin was among the many 19th-century liberal arts
colleges seeded in the Midwest by the reform-minded Christian ethics
that swept the nation 30 years before the Civil War. Oberlin's founding
principles of manual labor, plain living, and moral service, along
with its pioneering of interracial education and coeducation, are
a source of legendary pride. Oberlin graduated its first women in
1841; Mary Jane Bedortha earned her degree just 20 years later.
Today, young J. Austin Kerr says judiciously, "Nepotism is
not something you want to advertise at Oberlin. But I'm proud that
if I have Oberlin family, it began with a woman."
His father says that the beliefs that sparked his
ancestors' support of social gospel and the abolitionist movement
still run in his family. "A real dislike of oppression and
racism is in my children and me, and I know it was in my father,"
says K. Austin. "There's a very real commitment across generations.
It was an outgrowth of evangelical Protestantism preached in all
the mainstream churches of the day, which was Oberlin: the sense
that we're responsible for what happens on the planet Earth."
His phrasing illustrates that even in its early years,
Oberlin's sense of moral purpose was linked with a connection to
the Earth. There was another pressing and practical reason that
Luther joined the westward migration, says his descendant Sarah
McClennon Kerr '61. In the 1820s, a volcano erupted in the northeastern
United States, blanketing the region in a sort of nuclear winter.
"Summer never came," she says. "Crops
did not grow. People were starving." Luther struck west to
survive, to save his family. Once there, his Oberlin offspring acquired
a doctrine of social responsibility. It's no coincidence that J.
Austin today works at an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco
as a technical assistant monitoring air quality and noise pollution.
Elsewhere in the Oberlin ranks stands an even fuller
family tree. At least one member of the Hopkins-Whitaker-Bent-McCord
family has been enrolled for about 130 of Oberlin's 170 years. The
family's designated historian, James Whitaker '60, claims "from
1917 through 1985, there were only seven calendar years in which
no family member was at Oberlin."
Genealogy reveals how this alumni tree quickly branched
out. The Whitakers are the fortuitous outcome of two tragic deaths
in the families of their earliest-known Oberlinian ancestors, brothers-in-law
Richard Harrison and Joel Hopkins. Harrison took sick, and his wife,
Sarah, called on his sister to help nurse him. But the sister herself
fell ill, and both siblings died. The widowed spouses, Sarah Harrison
and Joel Hopkins, eventually found solace in each other, ultimately adding to the four-family legacy.
For several of their generations, kinfolk were Oberlin and Oberlin
was kin--one big, extended clan.
"The families lived within 20 miles of each other,"
says James Whitaker. "From the 1890s to 1953, they had big
Thanksgiving celebrations at which 60 to 100 people would gather."
His cousin, George R. Bent '52, says the group still holds family
reunions every five years. Bent is an Oberlin College trustee of
30 years; his nephew, Michael Plank, is an Oberlin sophomore.
"All of the children in our family grew up hearing
about nothing but Oberlin," Bent says. "It was tattooed
on them that the College had to at least be one of their options.
My son went to Oberlin. My brother had four children; two went to
Oberlin. My sister had three children; one went to Oberlin."
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of Family Tree, Oberlin Roots