The Oberlin Stories Project

On the ethos of Oberlin

Stewart Kohl ’77

“What made Oberlin outstanding then is still its magic - the students who want to learn, the faculty who want to teach, and the intense tradition of intellectual curiosity.”

Stewart's Oberlin College ID card, expiration date June 1974. Stewart has very long hair.

For my story, I take you to Leonia, New Jersey in 1973. For context, picture Watergate and Wounded Knee, the departure of the last US soldiers from South Vietnam, and the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

My parents left the decision of where to go to college to this then 18 year old. Hovercrafts had been recently invented, but not hover parents.

It’s remarkable in retrospect what a great choice I made, given the paucity of information available and the lack of rigor in my process. It would be a decade before Moses came down from the mountain with the first US News college ranking. There was of course no internet and no social media. In those days, to surf you needed a bathing suit and a board. So my research was limited to a stack of brochures sent by the schools.

Growing up in a middle class family in New Jersey in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, one of the few “for sures” was that you were going to go somewhere else to college. It was New Jersey’s number one export. And Ohio, with its wealth of good schools, was a likely destination.

So why Oberlin? There were at least three reasons. First, having started an alternative high school within my public school system, I was drawn to Oberlin’s rich progressive tradition. Second, I was aware of Oberlin’s outstanding academic reputation coupled with its lack of distribution requirements. And third, the fact that Oberlin enrolled more women than men - not typical in those days - increased my odds for a date on Saturday night.

I came to visit Oberlin College one cold and snowy Friday in February of 1973. The college seemed strangely set in the middle of cornfields. I was told to “look up Marty in East Hall” for a place to crash. I found him and his friend “the Prince” playing hockey in the dormitory hallway - the puck being a stale donut from Gibson’s Bakery. And while I remember very little else about that weekend, it was love at first sight -- by the end I was a confirmed Obie.

What made Oberlin outstanding then is still its magic - the students who want to learn, the faculty who want to teach, and the intense tradition of intellectual curiosity. If we could charge by the use of the word “why,” we’d have endless financial resources.

My involvement in the student cooperatives became an important part of my life at Oberlin. Ultimately I served as President of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, the student owned and run organization responsible for housing 175 and feeding 600 students. For the next 10 years of my life I worked in the cooperative movement until in 1987 I was bitten by the bug to try something new and maybe make some money.

Once again Oberlin figured prominently as my Oberlin classmate Bela Szigethy introduced me to Oberlin alum Jim Petras, who hired me at Citicorp where I was trained in the ways of private equity. Five years later Bela and I became business partners in his enterprise called The Riverside Company. Along the way we hired Bela Schwartz, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, to be our CFO. We have made some beautiful music together since then and, imperfections and all, I’m proud to say that Riverside has been my rewarding “day job” for the past 16 years. Importantly, it has provided me a splendid platform from which I’ve been privileged to be able to give back to Oberlin.

Many of my skills to learn and reason, my values, my happiest memories and my best friends date back to those four years in the cornfields of Ohio. My time as a volunteer in service to Oberlin, especially my six years as a Trustee, have given me a keen appreciation that the school is both better and more needed in the world than ever before. My life is different - and dare I say much better - because of that serendipitous choice I made in 1973.