James E. Pohlman ’54
Oberlin College Trustee
Late in the afternoon of my first day in the office, I received an unexpected visit from the College’s counsel, who told me that my presence was required at 8:00 the next morning in the chambers of a federal district judge in Cleveland. It turned out that the College was the defendant in a lengthy lawsuit involving the College’s art museum. Not surprisingly, this was the first I had heard of it. Not only was I expected to produce myself, but also the director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum and an “influential trustee of the College,” because the judge wanted to reach a settlement in this case, once and for all. Our lawyer suggested that I call Jim Pohlman to serve as the “influential trustee.” Then he gave me directions about how to get to the courthouse.
I did call Jim, and because I did not yet know him, I was astonished by his immediate willingness to rearrange his schedule, get up before dawn to make the drive from Columbus to Cleveland, and to commit himself on a moment’s notice to spending a day in court. With one phone call I learned that Jim was an extraordinarily gracious and generous man.
Come 8 a.m., Jim was there. The judge entered, congratulated me upon being Oberlin’s new president, and asked me how long I had been on the job. When I told him “one day,” he said: “You will just have to do the best you can.”
Thanks to Jim, we all did the best that we could. And we ended up with a highly successful mediation of a complicated and acrimonious dispute.
I learned a lot about Jim that day. He was serious but easy-going, with a wonderful good nature. He was a masterful and dedicated lawyer. He combined extraordinary intellectual talent and achievement with personal modesty, warmth, and gentleness. He valued reason, evidence, logic, and knowledge. And he loved Oberlin College.
Jim was not simply an “influential trustee;” he embodied every quality of mind and heart that stewards of charitable institutions should have. He understood the importance of liberal education. He understood the importance of our conservatory. He understood the complicated institutions of human behavior, and he knew a lot about how to move a complicated institution forward. He was always extraordinarily generous with his counsel. He could see Oberlin within the context of American higher education, and he also dedicated himself to the work of the Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges.
In his many years on Oberlin’s Board, Jim chaired and served on virtually every trustee committee. He did especially important work for the College as the chair of our investment, audit, and development committees.
Jim also loved sports, and was himself a talented athlete. Throughout his years as an Oberlin student in the early 1950s, there was rarely a week in which the sports pages of the student newspaper did not include his picture or a reference to his achievements on the football field, the basketball court, or in a tennis match. Jim was a student during the College’s golden age of sports. (I feel compelled to add that Jim was also an excellent student.) Jim was always the most constructive, steady, and effective leader of our efforts to strengthen athletics at Oberlin.
As an Oberlin trustee, Jim also understood that the health of the College is bound up with the health of the small town of Oberlin, Ohio. Like many small towns in our state, and especially in Lorain County, Oberlin has for some decades been down on its luck. The College has partnered with the community to reinvigorate it, and the greatest achievement of this partnership has been saving our local hospital, which five years ago was on the brink of shutting its doors. Oberlin today would not have a hospital if it were not for Jim Pohlman. Jim worked tirelessly over nearly two years to use his knowledge, expertise, and his formidable powers of persuasion to find ways to ensure that Oberlin would be able to keep a viable hospital.
Why, we might ask, would a man—busy with family, distinguished career, and his own local community—invest 20 years of service to his college and its local community?
I think that Jim understood instinctively the critical importance of independent institutions and organizations to the well-being of American society. Like de Tocqueville, he knew that public voluntary associations, governed independently by free and dedicated citizens, are America’s greatest resource.
More personally, Jim understood personal commitment. His commitment to and great love for his wife, Patty, his children, and grandchildren were always clear and wonderful to see. His commitment to his church was manifest. And his commitment to the law was always manifest, too. When he committed himself to coming to my assistance so many years ago, he didn’t simply commit himself to driving to Cleveland. He committed himself to offering to Oberlin and me all of his many and great gifts.
Oberlin College and I personally miss him very much.