Born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, John Sloan Dickey completed his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth in 1929 and later graduated from Harvard Law School. He had a varied career as a partner at a major Boston law firm, special assistant to the assistant secretary of state and later to the secretary of state, a member of the Office of Inter-American Affairs and the division of World Trade Intelligence, and director of the State Department's Office of Public Affairs. In 1945, he became president of Dartmouth College. Even as a college president, he was a principal actor in public policy, serving on President Truman's 1947 Committee on Civil Rights, the United Nations Collective Measures Committee in 1951, and as consultant to Secretary of State Acheson on disarmament.
During his 25-year tenure as President (1945-1970), Dickey led two capital campaigns, doubled African-American student enrollment, reinvigorated the Dartmouth Medical School, built the Hopkins Center for the Arts and instituted continuing education for alumni. Consistent with his concern for awareness of and involvement in the great movements of the time, he saw the emerging importance of computers—a field then in its infancy—and built the Kiewit Computer Center in 1966. After stepping down as president, he continued his affiliation with the College by teaching Canadian-American relations as the Bicentennial Professor of Public Affairs.
President Dickey's commitment to the liberal arts, or, as he termed them, "the liberating arts," was perhaps best expressed in his Great Issues course, designed to introduce seniors to the problems of national and international relations they would face as citizens. He sought to expand the horizons of Dartmouth beyond Hanover and introduced the Northern Studies program, a Russian Civilization department, and foreign studies and social action programs, as well as opening the William Jewett Tucker Foundation.