hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

June 7, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: From college president to talk host

Tom Vartabedian

He served 20 years as president of Northern Essex Community College, created a new campus in a neighboring city, has two buildings named in his honor and remains a consummate educator.

Today, you'll find Dr. John Dimitry on the Haverhill campus of Northern Essex, but in a much different capacity. Gone are the spacious offices and the extreme public exposure. In their place is a long rectangular table inside a corner room of the school library, where he is joined by 20 senior conversationalists.

Over the past seven years, Dimitry has facilitated a popular Life Long Learning program called "Let's Talk Current Events."

It meets every Monday morning and is packed to the gills with knowledge. You may or may not know Dimitry, depending upon your ties with NECC. He served as the school's second president, from 1975 to 1996 following Dr. Harold Bentley, before giving way to Dr. David Hartleb, who retired this year.

In a nutshell, here's the syllabus: "A weekly and lively current events discussion group which chooses a topic for round-table debate, utilizing materials from current magazines, newspapers, books, radio and television. No advance preparation is needed."

On this day, attendance was five over capacity and extra chairs were added. Included in the gathering was Dan Beauregard, a former NECC trustee. Most were retired teachers and business professionals bent on exercising their minds with an active tongue. Copies of Business Life and Fortune magazine were strewn on a table with an atlas.

A guy named Ed opened the discussion with an in-depth account of global warming, followed by talks on the benefits of on-line education, school dress codes, children obsessed with their electronic gadgets, and escalating health care costs.

People were sitting on the edge of their seats like space shuttles ready for launch. Dimitry's role as moderator was being challenged.

Whom would he recognize next?

"Dress codes are important in maintaining proper discipline," one speaker noted. "Teachers have to set an example, but it starts with the home."

"I had a grandchild texting me at the dinner table," another interjected. "He found it more appropriate than an actual conversation."

The two-hour session didn't end without some personal reflections of my own, namely that inferno which scorched Armenia over the weekend, sending 150 concert attendees to various hospitals around the capital city of Yerevan. I figured it was current events.

It appeared quite obvious from the group intellect that the most widespread form of education is experience. And age didn't appear a factor.

On this, the school's 50th anniversary, those who laid the very foundation for this college are back for more. They cannot severe their ties with this institution, only help it flourish. Dimitry's presence in an unconventional role complements the experience.

"I like to draw people out, get them to express an opinion and share ideas," says the 83-year-old. "My role as a moderator is to stimulate discussion while remaining subdued. Seeing this campus the way it's become is certainly an impressive sight, knowing I may have played a role in it."

Significant is more like it. One of the more provocative decisions Dimitry made during his tenure was moving some of the premiere programs like health, paralegal and criminal justice to Lawrence.

Though it may have been a controversial decision at the time, it did insure that the Lawrence campus would not become a second-rate facility. Over that period, there was a 70 percent increase in enrollment to an all-time high of 10,000 students, with more than 80 certificate and degree programs being offered.

Dimitry formed partnerships between labor and education to provide training and assistance to people out of work. He established programs for linguistic minorities, created magnet programs for the deaf and hard of hearing and formed a partnership with Gallaudet University.

The list of credits reads like a Who's Who. It's safe to say this college would never have received such acclaim had it not been for Dimitry's astute vision and assertiveness. Given the limelight, he would have preferred more of a low-key presence.

Now, here it was, listening to a good talk while adding some choice opinions of his own. Soon, he would join his wife, Audrey, for lunch, then perhaps tend to matters inside his West Newbury community with the historical and conservation committees.

Buildings at Northern Essex and Macomb County Community College in Michigan, where he previously presided, are named in his honor. He served in the military and received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Yankee Clipper Council Boy Scouts.

"I've been a part of development all my educated life," he tells you. "Buildings. Campuses. Curriculums. What impresses me the most on this campus has been the human side of development."

Mind over matter?

"It all leads to a better informed society," he confirms.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.