Monthly Archives: December 2013

Presidents I have known

Each of us has individual experiences, hence different memories of the past. This is certainly true about memories of Monmouth College. Memories are falible, but I have been pleased by the number of omments suggestiing that I got this essay pretty much right. Readers can decide for themselves the degree they agree, and express their feelings on the comments site.


William Urban

When I heard that Mauri Ditzler was leaving for the lake-effect winters of Albion College, I once again reflected on the Monmouth college presidents I’ve known. Quite a diverse group.
I am in my forty-ninth year of college teaching, forty-eight at Monmouth College. I’ve served seven presidents, and I’ve interviewed Robert Gibson, who retired shortly before I came. I can’t comment directly on Gibson’s performance other than to note his retirement message saying that Monmouth College needed a different kind of leader to make the transition from a small Presbyterian school to one that could attract more students; however, I remember from my interview with him for the college history that he was a delightful person, and that he would have been a wonderful person to work for.
Of those presidents I knew, two were very good, two left unhappy, and the rest earned mixed reviews. I won’t say which is which, since all but Dick Stine are still living, but a stranger group could hardly have been collected. In a sense, one could say that until the hiring of Mauri Ditzler, the primary criterion for selecting each new president seemed to be that the new hire had to have little in common with the predecessor.
Most were comparatively young when hired, a reflection of the “ageism” involved in the process of selection — although nationally the average tenure of college presidents is only five years or so, no Monmouth College search committee seems to have seriously considered anyone older than fifty-five. (The one time I was on a search committee, in 1970, I liked an experienced applicant who was sixty, but everyone else wanted someone who would stay for two decades; I still think that if you can get Michael Jordan on your basketball team, you don’t ask how long he will stay.)
I should put the late Bill Amy into this list, because he was Acting President for a year. He did a good job and would have made a good college president, but he was persuaded to remain academic dean.
Of this group, Bill Amy may have looked and sounded most like a president, Dick Giese photographed best, and Bruce Haywood had the finest voice and was the best read. Duncan Wimpress was the most extroverted, playing impromptu sessions with student musicians and flying his own airplane with notorious abandon, Bruce Haywood was the most eager to escape the social spotlight, though he once performed an impressive piano duo. DeBow Freed was the most formal, Sue Huseman the least so. Dick Giese was the most knowledgeable about athletics, Duncan Wimpress the most willing to reach out to other cultures. Several were personally religious, but only DeBow Freed gave long prayers at faculty meetings. Whatever the college lacked in Freed’s days regarding salaries, benefits and student numbers, no one could say that Monmouth College didn’t have a prayer.
Two were very good orators: Duncan Wimpress and Bruce Haywood. Three were excellent in small groups: Dick Stine, DeBow Freed and Sue Huseman. Two were very witty in an understated way: DeBow Freed and Dick Giese. Freed brought his military skills at organization to bear, making very little go a long way and thereby restoring the college’s financial and moral foundations. Dick Giese had the golden touch with finances.
Dick Stine was the unluckiest, taking office when oil prices skyrocketed, the economy tanked, and the draft was ended. College enrollments across the country plummeted just as junior colleges sprang up all over the place, and students were responding to the Sixties by thinking that rules were suggestions for fuddy-duddies. Sue Huseman was the luckiest, holding office during the swiftest rise of the stock market in recent decades and through a period of political and social calm; in addition, she inherited Dick Valentine as admissions director.
Duncan Wimpress and Mauri Ditzler were the most determined to transform the college. Wimpress was successful because he rode a wave of first generation college students eager to get into any college anywhere, and he had to build dorms and classrooms for them. When he left — too early as it turned out — there was more debt than his successor could handle. It’s far too soon to judge the Ditzler legacy.
None of these individuals lacked talent or commitment and each contributed something important to the institution they served. Not surprisingly, some faculty members liked one more than another. Equally predictably, board members bonded better with some more than with others; and their gifts to the college (or their not-giving) reflected their preferences. But throughout the terms of these very different persons, the membership of the Board of Trustees remained amazing stable and their commitment to Monmouth College admirably consistent. The same can be said about the Monmouth community, alumni and friends.
I’ve not agreed with everything that every president has wanted to do, but I refused to sign faculty petitions to trustees to have two of them removed, thereby angering a few colleagues. I do think that there should be more interaction between faculty and trustees, and that the best way would be to have one evening a year in which trustees are scattered among small gatherings at faculty homes, with beer, wine and soft drinks, cushy chairs and a relaxed atmosphere, to talk about college life and the world in general.
It’s not likely. In the locale of my murder mysteries, Briarpatch College, the president gives trustees more information than they want and less than they need. That seems to be general in higher education.
One the whole it’s been a good run. There have been rough patches, but, hey, that’s life — no small college escapes national trends. But I’ve read the official histories of other colleges; where “onward and upward” was the only theme. But my experience hiking suggest that one cannot go up forever unless one starts very low. .Let’s say that there isn’t much of a sense of humor among those who have the final word on what to print in coffee table feel-good publications.
There are challenges ahead. I can guess what some of these may be — recruiting students in a competitive market, raising money in an era of slow growth and an uncertain stock market, and keeping the budget under control — but nothing is guaranteed. As is occasionally remarked, “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” That said, the view across the valley between the past and the future is promising.

Review-Atlas (December 6, 2013), 4.

Wyatt Earp: a Vigilante Life


By William Urban

Andrew Isenberg’s new biography is advertised as revisionist, and it is. But that has been true of every biography since it was proven that the 1931 classic by Stuart Lake, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, was more fiction than fact.
The first reaction to the debunking of Lake (who was an advisor for the “Frontier Marshal” TV show of 1956-61 with its catchy theme song) was to believe that Wyatt was essentially a criminal. After all, policemen and criminals tended to come from the same lower class, and Wyatt’s career had gone from horse thief to policeman to professional gambler to racing horses and fixing fights. It was even suggested that he held up a Wells Fargo stage, or planned to.
Later it became popular to portray Wyatt Earp as a gunslinger for capitalism. However, the laugh factor set in. Who, exactly were these capitalists he was working for? Wells Fargo? The miner owners in Tombstone? They don’t seem to have paid him well! At last it was discovered that he really hadn’t shot that many folks. His specialty in his law-enforcement careers in Kansas and Arizona was to knock drunken troublemakers over the head with his revolver. He was, in fact, a fairly respectable physical specimen, and few sober men would want to take him on. Or perhaps have a cause to.
When a reader of old Peoria papers discovered how many times Wyatt had been arrested there for consorting with prostitutes (most likely he was a bouncer), it did not take long to connect his first “wife” with the daughter of a local madam. Then later his “wife” in Wichita with a girl working in his sister-in-law’s whorehouse. (James, who had lost the use of an arm in the Civil War, married a woman working in the horizontal profession, then helped move her into a management position; as a bartender, he could direct customers her way.) His “wife” in Tombstone did not work in that city until Wyatt abandoned her for Sadie (whom he also never married); afterward she drifted back to Arizona, resumed her profession and died of a drug overdose.
Isenberg covers most of this very well. He was unfortunate in publishing too soon to get the real scoop on Sadie, who had persuaded everyone that her first visit to Arizona was as an actress performing in H.M.S. Pinafore. We now know that she was a fourteen-year-old prostitute who had run away from her family in San Francisco and at the time of the excitement in Tombstone was the live-in girlfriend of Sheriff Behan. She was, in fact, the reason that Behan’s wife divorced him, but unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, she did not seem to have been the reason for Behan hating Wyatt.
Isenberg gets Wyatt’s early life better than most previous biographers, but that is because he used my articles on Nicholas Earp in Monmouth and Iowa, most importantly the semi-legal judicial scam that Wyatt’s grandfather and father and one uncle pulled on citizens who had failed to pay their debts — arresting them, collecting the court costs, then confiscating property to pay the IOUs that they had bought at a discount.
Wyatt and his brothers were driven, Isenberg posits, by an Honor Code. That, not money or politics or personal advantage, is why the Earps and the cowboys faced off at the OK corral in late 1881. There is obviously something to this, but it seems that he rides this horse a bit too hard. The world is too complicated to fit into nice categories, even one as attractive as this one.
Moreover, even Isenberg’s Wyatt is not sufficiently one-dimensional to make it work. His description of Doc Holliday is such that Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid just might come after him — Doc was too short and too thin to be a fighter, and not much of a gunslinger, either. Why he hit it off with Wyatt has always been a mystery. Isenberg comes awfully close to suggesting that it was a romantic relationship. (I told you this was a revisionist book.)
Wyatt read at least one book in his old age. Owen Wister’s The Virginian inspired him to remake his past into a noble image of a defender of right and justice. This fit the bill for biographers, including Lake, who wanted a two-fisted tale that even respectable women could read, and were willing to believe that Wyatt’s private life was as pristine as the television show later portrayed him — no drinking, no interest in women or gambling. The not drinking part was correct, and after Wyatt met Sadie, he stopped running after other women. Or, maybe, he couldn’t afford them. (She was quite a spendthrift and a bad gambler.)
Isenberg tells us much about the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight, saying that the fix was in, and that Sharkey had been beaten to a pulp before Fitzsimmons struck his signature blow to the solar plexus that gave Wyatt an opportunity to rule it a low blow. This gave the match to Sharkey and the gamblers. There was a great public outcry, which Isenberg said was the critical moment in Wyatt’s concern over his reputation. Until then he had been forgotten, but once Tombstone residents began to say what scum he was and those who had lost bets on the fight spread it around that he had been crooked from the beginning, Wyatt decided to tell his side of the story his way. Previous biographers fingered Sadie for the cover-up; Isenberg blames Wyatt.
Wyatt left out the times he sold gold bricks to suckers who thought they could get stolen property cheap, or his managing saloons; and he exaggerated his family’s status in Monmouth society. The Earps who stayed in Monmouth were hard-working, honest, and religious. Wyatt’s family didn’t fit into any of those categories.
This said, one can still argue that there was something heroic about the Earps taking on the cowboy faction, and tragic in what it cost them. Isenberg doesn’t agree, which almost guarantees that the next Wyatt Earp biography will spend more time arguing with Isenberg than we really care about. Above all, Wyatt and his brothers, his parents and his wives, were not dull. They were, once biographers took their stories in hand and made them fit what the public wanted, the stuff of legend.

Review Atlas (Nov. 29, 2013), 4.