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Home > News and views > ‘My year at Wellingborough transformed my life’

‘My year at Wellingborough transformed my life’

Lowell Dodge is an ESU US alumnus who came over to the UK from on an ESU scholarship in 1958-9. A retired public interest attorney and environmentalist, he now, with his wife Diane, runs a small family grant-making foundation supporting early childhood education.

When did you first hear about the ESU?
I first learned of ESU in 1957 when I was a senior at Hotchkiss, a private school in Connecticut. We were fortunate that ESU had placed an exchange student from Britain at Hotchkiss that year, Rodney Harry Rackstraw Downes. We knew him as Rodney, but he now goes by Rackstraw Downes, in keeping with his stature as a highly regarded artist in New York City. Everyone in our class was taken by Rodney. He often spoke about the ESU program and encouraged us to apply.  Six of us did, and all six of us were accepted. We spent the 1958-1959 school year at various public schools in Britain. I attended the Wellingborough School in Northamptonshire.

What appealed to you about the programme?
My friends and I were keen to travel outside the US to experience life in another country, to have a ‘gap year’ immersed in the unique culture of a British public school before plunging into higher education back home, and of course to explore Great Britain and the Continent.

What do you remember most?
Most vivid was the somewhat jarring experience of looking at my country from the outside. I learned more about the US at Wellingborough than I had in my entire life up to then. I opened my eyes and ears to the opinions of critical observers of the US targeting, among other things, the shallowness and materialism of US culture, the naïveté of US foreign policy, and its inability as a nation to come to grips with the ongoing aftermath of slavery and the divisions in society reflected in the Civil War that remain to this day.

So many other memories come to mind, too: playing wing in rugby (I was blessed not to be put in the scrum); the integrity of the headmaster of my school (he required that I abandon my sacred duty to keep the grass tennis courts green, citing the seriousness of a drought occurring at the time); the institution of privilege at the school (for me, sitting at the head table at meals and being served cheddar cheese denied to those not at the head table); being totally unable to understand the rules of cricket, and the long holidays allowing me and my counterpart ESU friends time to explore continental Europe.

I also remember Tony White who was the go-to man for all US ESU students when we came to London. He was tall and dapper, had a wry sense of humour, and was determined to make our stays in London enjoyable and enlightening. He took us everywhere to see London’s famous sights, locations with historical significance and noteworthy buildings. He once asked us, ‘why don’t Americans know how to walk?’ and proceeded to give us lessons… stand upright, take long strides, walk briskly etc. Most significantly, he arranged for us to attend two musicals, My Fair Lady and West Side Story, both eventually becoming among the most popular musicals of their era.

What did you get out of the experience?
My year at Wellingborough transformed my life. It replaced the care-free activities of my youth – sports, girls, and popular music – with the joy of reading (including the writings of the great philosophers), a curiosity for international affairs, and an interest in US foreign policy. I began to think seriously about a career as a diplomat.

Tell us about your career after the exchange
Looking back, I see that I bounced around taking advantage of opportunities that promised new challenges and avoiding anything that would limit me to a single path through life. Disillusioned about a diplomatic career while in Burkina Faso with New York-based Operation Crossroads Africa, I turned to domestic civil rights issues, initially running programmes that trained college students to tutor low-income kids in low-income areas near their campuses.  Then came the Vietnam War. I was opposed and succeeded in avoiding military service by ducking into law school. I then went to work with consumer advocate Ralph Nader for five years on auto safety (getting airbags into cars).  From there I became Editor-in-Chief of the Environmental Law Reporter, then on to a stint in the US Congress on an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, and then served as Executive Assistant to the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

After Ronald Reagan was elected President, I ducked into the US Government Accountability Office and stayed there for 16 years, where, among other assignments, I ran the agency’s affirmative action program. I left the GAO to build homes for low-income families with Habitat for Humanity.

Finally I established a nonprofit called First Time Computers, training black kids off the street to refurbish donated computers that we gave to low-income families in low-income areas of Washington DC. We refurbished 10,000 PCs over 11 years. Five of the kids we trained now have tech jobs.

Soon after retirement I moved to the peace, quiet, and beauty of Colorado where I set about improving habitats for wildlife on our 40 acres. With my wife Diane I also run a small family grant-making foundation supporting early childhood education.

How did your family fund come about?
In the 1970s and early 80s Diane had written a curriculum for early childhood programs. It became The Creative Curriculum and was adopted widely. To facilitate distribution of the Curriculum and other guides, she launched a company in 1988 called Teaching Strategies. The company grew to the point where, not to her liking, she had to spend more and more time on administration. She brought on a CEO and the company went through several stages of growth until it was sold in 2013. With proceeds from the sale, she and I started the Dodge Family Fund and began grantmaking in 2015. Our priorities included improving the status of the early childhood workforce, placing mental health professionals in early childhood programs, making it possible for children’s museums to subsidise admissions fees for low-income families, and supporting mini-farms and farm-to-table programmes in schools.

Tell us more about your environmental work
Working with a consulting ecologist, we have planted hundreds of native shrubs and trees, and tackled invasive non-native trees, shrubs, grasses, and noxious weeds. We set aside a stand of trees for wildlife only, no humans allowed. A trail camera caught a mountain lion and her cub in this stand over several days last April, hunting and consuming prey, mostly racoons. To offset global warming, we have expanded areas where fast-growing tree species grow, unleashing many more of them to take in and store carbon. For this work we recently received our County’s Environmental Stewardship Award.

Whom do you admire?

  • John F. Kennedy who inspired me and many others to go into a life of public service
  • Martin Luther King
  • recently deceased Congressman John ‘Good Trouble’ Lewis whose towering integrity and courage made him a leader in the work to ensure full voting rights for all
  • recently deceased environmental leaders Harvard professor John O. Wilson (famous for coming to a deep understanding of nature through his studies of ants), and Tom Lovejoy, who coined the term ‘biological diversity’

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
This is a tough one!

1st Having a wonderful family. 

2nd Receiving Boulder County’s Environmental Stewardship Award – 2021, and continuing the work that won the award.

3rd After making a contribution to Save the Redwoods League, a California advocacy group, we were able to set aside a grove of redwoods in our our family’s name in Northern California. It is an opportunity to pass on on to our five grandchildren an appreciation of nature and a love of trees in particular.

4th Over the years, launching and developing programs for six non-profits in the anti-poverty and environmental realms, in particular First Time Computers, described above: 

  • The Western Student Movement (tutoring in Los Angeles, co-founder),  1964
  • Youth Educational Services (started 26 tutoring programs in North Carolina – co-founder), 1965
  • The Center for Auto Safety (DC), 1970
  • Trees for the Planet (investigating premature tree death caused by acid rain in the eastern US and advocating for roadless areas in forests), 1995  
  • GreenHOME (an offshoot of DC Habitat for Humanity to green up Habitat homes nationally – co-founder), 1997
  • First Time Computers, 2003

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Come from a loving soul
Tap into the restorative powers of nature
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Nurture your mind (read) and body (give up red meat)
Protect what’s left of the health of the planet
Listen regularly John Lennon’s lyrics in Imagine


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