• U.S.

Education: Spaeth to Kansas City

4 minute read

In Kansas City, Mo. last week one of the oldest working educators in the U. S. cast a pair of undimmed eyes over a vast stone mansion, a remodeled greenhouse, two new French Renaissance buildings. Together with 38 teachers, 535 students, these edifices constituted a university no smaller than the Princeton at which big J. (for John) Duncan Ernst Spaeth had arrived 31 years before. Now Princeton’s longtime English professor, still as shaggy and vital as an airedale, J. Duncan Spaeth had traveled 1,000 miles westward to dedicate a library, his first official act as president-elect of fledgling University of Kansas City. At his Kansas City audience-Professor Spaeth boomed the savory part of a remark which had endeared him to whole classes of Princetonians: “When two men love the same woman it doesn’t make for friendship. But when they love the same book there is a magnificent bond between them.”

“A new church,” runs the clerical proverb, “means a dead parson.” No fragile parson is J. Duncan Spaeth, who, at 67, has a voice so thundering that it routs other professors from adjoining classrooms when Dr. Spaeth chooses to pull out his vocal stops, impersonate Shylock or Othello in the grand manner. Last October the trustees of three-year-old University of Kansas City reached him by long-distance telephone, reminded him that his age would automatically retire him from Princeton soon, coaxed him to become their University’s first president (TIME, Oct. 14). J. Duncan Spaeth roared, spluttered, accepted.

In Kansas City last week with his son John Jr., a senior in Cornell’s School of Architecture, President-elect Spaeth shook hands with the trustees, showed he felt quite at home in the open spaces by pulling off his coat, settling down to talk about his new job. Acutely aware of itself as a burgeoning cultural centre, Kansas City chafed for 20 years at the fact that it was the biggest U. S. city without a university of its own. After a number of false starts, a non-municipal, non-sectarian university was chartered in 1928. Three years ago the University of Kansas City opened its doors. Not until next autumn, however, will it be officially equipped with a president.

After surveying his domain last week President-elect Spaeth hurried off to start putting the University of Kansas City on the educational map. At Kansas State College at Manhattan, he extemporized on “Science and Humanism in Higher Education.” At Excelsior Springs, Mo. he told the Central States Bankers Association that “Happiness has nothing to do with prosperity. . . . The Depression may-have been a blessing in disguise for some, because they found the bypaths and mountain trails to happiness.”

This autumn Princetonians will miss J. Duncan Spaeth’s genial boasting about the talents of his halfbrother, “Tune Detective” Sigmund Spaeth, the professional abilities of his wife. Painter Marie Haughton Spaeth, the age of his Princeton house, built during the French & Indian Wars. Oarsmen will miss his stout figure perched in the bow of a motorboat, whizzing up & down Lake Carnegie at crew practice.

Princeton’s crews, which he coached from 1910 to 1925, as well as Princeton’s English Department, knew the full flavor of J. Duncan Spaeth. Part of the University’s legend is the tale of Coach Spaeth’s sober exhortation to a crew he had taken to Cambridge to row against Harvard. “You will doubtless be beaten. But winning doesn’t mean anything. I don’t care whether you win or not. I just want you to behave like true sportsmen and true Princeton gentlemen.” The Princeton crew managed to outrow the Harvard crew. Returning with great dignity to the boathouse, the Princetonians were abashed to see their mentor hopping up & down on the dock, screaming: “We beat the _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _s! We beat the _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _s!”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com