Alumni and others whose lives were touched share their memories and thoughts.
John Doble, AS71, 75M
I was Jim Soles' first teaching assistant, but I met him in his class on the presidency. And that meeting forever changed my life. Let me explain.
I was a terrible student in high school, graduating in the bottom half of my class. When I enrolled at UD, I met a guidance counselor who said that based on my high school record, the University fully expected me to flunk out. In fact, he said, the only reason I was admitted was because of my SAT scores. And he wasn’t far off. In my freshman year, I nearly did flunk out, earning a whopping 1.61 GPA in my second semester.
I come from a modest background, the first in my family to go to college—in fact, only the second in my extended family, which included 13 cousins and nine aunts and uncles, to go to college. I was a commuter. About the only friends I had on campus were a few pals from high school who, like me, barely got into UD. And so each day, I’d eat lunch in my car, study in the Library and then go home. I knew few people and participated in no student activities.
But in the second semester of my sophomore year, I began to do well. And in my junior year, very well. That’s when I took Jim’s class on the presidency. He called himself the “senior student,” saying he’d learn as much from us as we would from him. (That is, by the way, the only untruth I ever heard him utter.) His class was wonderful. I still remember him telling us how Alexander Hamilton’s role was comparable to a prime minister’s, while Washington was often regarded, and often acted, more as king than president, and then asking whether our new government was really such a radical departure from Great Britain’s after all. As for me, I sat in the back of a class of about 75, never saying a word, partly because I knew no one and partly because I was unaccustomed to speaking up.
About midway through the semester, as I was packing up my books, Jim strolled back to my desk, leaned on it, and said, “Hey, John Doble, what are you going to do with your life?” And though I was shocked –professors didn’t do things like that, talk to students on a whim, let alone ask such personal questions—that was a life-changing moment. I told him I had no idea, and he invited me to come see him, which I did. He became my adviser, guided me through the rest of my undergraduate years and served as the principal adviser on my senior thesis, which enabled me to graduate with honors in spite of my terrible start. I then enrolled in graduate school and became Jim’s TA.
My story is important not for its own sake but because, over the years that I worked with him, I saw Jim do the same thing for other students again and again and again and again and again. Usually, those he reached out to were from places like Dagsboro or Selbyville, or students like me from modest backgrounds, or those who got off to a rocky start—students who had three things in common: They were smart, hard-working, and they did not know their rear ends from the proverbial hole in the ground. And when he did reach out, those students and he became lifelong friends. So that by the end of his days, he and hundreds of UD students were dear friends, and those students, and others, were forever changed for the better because of Jim’s teaching, friendship, guidance, warmth and wisdom.
I have two other stories I’d like to share. When I was in school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it felt like the world was coming apart. Assassinations, the Vietnam War, urban riots and Watergate were just some of what tore at our country, dividing us in ways that echo today. I remember asking Jim what his life’s goal was; he said that he saw progress as a wall that human beings have to climb. To get over it, he said, people climb onto the bones of those who’ve tried to scale it before but died in the process. He said that when he passed away, he hoped that his bones would be piled up onto the wall so that the next person would find it a little easier to get over. I didn’t say this at the time, but I vividly remember thinking that his goal was both pretty damn morbid and pretty damn puny. My friends and I wanted to knock down walls, not climb over them. But as I’ve aged, I realized that Jim’s goal has gradually become my own. And someday, I hope that when others take stock of my life, they’ll find my bones, or at least some of them, piled up against that wall.
One final story: After graduation, my roommate and lifelong friend, Kevin Freel, and I invited Jim and Ada Leigh to dinner at our apartment in Town Court. Neither Kevin nor I could cook very well and so we served them burnt pork chops, Minute Rice and canned green beans. Not exactly a gourmet’s delight, huh? (In our defense, however, I’m sure we had a great dessert, purchased no doubt from Bing’s.) After dinner, we talked about marriage. Both Kevin and I were single and working and earning some money for the first time. And I casually remarked that I would probably never marry. Ada Leigh looked at me and in a quiet voice said, “Oh, John, that is so sa-add.” (Two syllables; both Jim and Ada Leigh often added a syllable, especially to one-syllable words.) And I looked at them, and thought about how happy they were, and about their two wonderful little girls, Nancy Beth and Catherine Winter, and about how Jim talked about Ada Leigh when she wasn’t there—as if marrying her was the greatest accomplishment of his life, something beyond his wildest dreams, as if she were a goddess. And in that moment, my life changed again. It was as if I had a paradigm shift. I vowed that if I ever I loved anyone as much as he did her, I would not hesitate. I’m happy to say I did just that, and that my wife, Elizabeth Rounds-Doble, and I have been happily married since 1974. And on our wedding day, I felt the way Jim must have felt when he and Ada Leigh walked down the aisle—as if I’d won the Lotto.
Elizabeth and I moved to New York City in 1977 and only infrequently saw Jim and Ada Leigh over the years. But our physical separation did not keep us apart in any meaningful sense. Though I rarely saw them, Jim and Ada Leigh remained two of my closest and dearest friends. I loved them both with all my heart. Not only for their friendship and what they did for me, but also because of their life’s work and what they stood for.
I’m not a religious man, not at all, but I do believe in eternal life. I believe that Jim and Ada Leigh will live forever. I believe that for two reasons: first, because of their wonderful family, their children and grandchildren; and second, because of their profound, life-changing impact on so many others, because those of us fortunate enough to be touched by them were bettered forever, and, as a result have, and will I’m sure, positively affect others ourselves.