University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The History of the University of Rochester Libraries--120 Years, Chp. 14

Volume XXV · Spring 1970 · Number 3
Portrait of Rush Rhees, the President

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Rush RheesWith the dedication of the magnificent addition to the Rush Rhees library, it is appropriate that we should look back to examine the career of the man whose name it bears, and to try to explain his extraordinary success. Rush Rhees became President of the University of Rochester in the year 1900. At that time the annual budget of the University (and the word University was stretching things a bit), was $48,000; its productive assets amounted to $738,000; the faculty consisted of seventeen fulltime teachers; the institution had no real librarian, merely a rather pathetic alumnus in charge of books; the library possessed only 36,876 books; the University had, of course, no dormitories; and it had only 243 students. Its early history had been limited by sectarianism; and although David Jayne Hill, President from 1889 to 1896, had sought to broaden its religious base, he had met with stout opposition from the local community. Putting the matter bluntly, the University of Rochester was still an obscure institution, which provided an opportunity for a college education to members of the local community. It was housed, one might add, in three buildings, Anderson Hall, which was built in 1861; the Sibley Library, which had been erected in 1873, and the Reynolds Memorial Laboratory, which was completed in 1887. 

What was the situation when Rush Rhees retired from the Presidency in 1935? The operating expenses of the arts college had risen to nearly a million; the endowment of the University as a whole was now over $54,000,000; the faculty numbered 113 and included some persons of national reputation; the number of students in the arts college had grown impressively (though the college clientele was still predominantly local); the old campus contained not three buildings, but five, as well as a small dormitory; to it had been added a new campus at Oak Hill with the substantial library building, an impressive quadrangle, and a great auditorium, to mention only the more significant developments. In addition to all this, the University now nourished one of the great medical schools of the nation, a school of music of equal eminence, each equipped with great new buildings, an art gallery on the way to distinction; the University now held a position in the learned world of substantial quality as well as the resources for further growth and development. There are not many stories like this in the history of higher education in America. What William Rainey Harper did at Chicago, what Daniel Coit Gilman did at Johns Hopkins come to mind. Other institutions there were which grew rapidly from modest beginnings. Few, if any, owed more to the wisdom, the foresight, and the ability of a single man. 

Life is a fortuitous matter at best, and when the Trustees of the University selected Dr. Rhees as their president in 1900 they could hardly have known how wise the selection was to be, unless by a process of divination. Dr. Rhees was a Baptist minister by profession; he had been teaching for some years at the Newton Theological Seminary; he had shown evidence of disciplined scholarship; but there was not the slightest assurance of the administrative qualities that were to transform the University of Rochester from a small college to an institution on the way to eminence. Nor was he selected on the basis of a broad search for the new head of the college; the choice, it appears, was largely a matter of personal contact, resulting from the fact that the wife of an influential member of the Board of Trustees met Dr. Rhees somewhat casually, and was impressed by his personal qualities. The Presidency had, as a matter of fact, gone begging; for a period of four years it had been impossible to find a successor to Dr. Hill; and the Board itself was a purely local body without wide experience in education. 

How did it come about that this man was to build so well, and contribute so vitally to the development of a great university? 

It is not to be supposed that Dr. Rhees had not analyzed his problem before coming to Rochester. He knew, of course, that he was entering a growing and prosperous community; and from the very outset he identified himself with that community. He responded graciously and warmly to every call for service; he steadily enlarged his circle of friends; and in the course of time he found in Kodak founder George Eastman an ally and collaborator on a grand scale. George Eastman, by 1900, was already the master of a growing business. He had not had a college education; and in the first years of the twentieth century his interest in higher learning was very far from acute. In the course of the thirty years of association with the new President he was drawn from indifference into enthusiastic and whole-hearted support of the University of Rochester. At the beginning of the Rhees Presidency no great step was taken to win Eastman's support; indeed Rhees's method was to create a warmer and warmer personal relationship with the Kodak magnate rather than to besiege him with requests for assistance. He approached him for the first time in 1903, and on this occasion he asked him for only $10,000 to be used in the construction of a science building on the campus. In 1904 he approached him again; this time he mustered up his courage to ask for the full cost of the building. He got no immediate reply, though from the tone of the interview, as described by the President himself, the attitude was sympathetic. In the upshot, he received a check for $60,000. Still later, when the cost of the building, in accordance with all the precedents, was found to be more than this sum, another $15,000 was added. With this last gift, however, there went a statement from Eastman that this was his last gift, and a statement that he was "not interested in education." 

That in these first years Dr. Rhees was able to do so well is eloquent testimony to his tact and persuasiveness. But the long time record is nothing less than imposing. The science laboratory might well fall within the special interests of the Kodak magnate; but in the course of the next quarter century Eastman completely changed his point of view as stated in 1904. He was--and of this more later--the principal architect of the School of Music; he contributed liberally to the various drives of the University for general purposes, he was much interested in the development of the medical school. How revolutionary was the change that was wrought in his view was a story which Dr. Rhees told to this writer, (no doubt also to many others). "If I had a boy I'd want him to have a college education," the capitalist said to the President after their association had ripened. Dr. Rhees responded with some general observations as to the value of an education in the business world. "I didn't mean that," was the reply, "I mean, what do you do with yourself after you've made your pile?" What a tribute this is to the man to whom this reply was addressed! But let us look at the development of the University in broader terms. By what steps did the struggling institution of 1900 attain the stature which it possessed in 1935? How far did the personal attributes of the college executive contribute to the result? 

The answer is, to a very substantial degree, Rush Rhees. The Eastman Science building was the first of a series of developments in which confidence in the President and the natural breadth of his mind played a great part. For Rush Rhees was a cultivated man. His interest in the arts was keen. Early in his career he encouraged the teaching of art as a part of the curriculum, and his interest bore fruit in the magnificent gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Sibley Watson in 1912 in the form of the Memorial Art Gallery. Interest in music, too, he had in large treasure. For years he played a prominent part in the musical activities of Rochester. And he obviously excited a similar interest in Mr. Eastman. It is to be doubted whether the Kodak magnate's zeal for music ran very deep, though the concerts at Eastman House had already been going on for some time when the writer of this brief memoir came to Rochester in 1915. But nonetheless it was Eastman who surprised the President in 1919 by saying to him in a somewhat casual way, "Why don't we have a music school?" And out of this remark grew the great institution in which all Rochesterians take pride today. 

The Eastman School of Music had its origins in 1919. Following on the establishment of the Music School came the founding of the School of Medicine. Here again we must give great weight to the influence of Dr. Rhees. By 1920 he was well known to the members of the General Education Board, the agency through which the Rockefeller gifts were channeled. His competence as an administrator was now widely recognized. Abraham Flexner, who played a key role in the development of American medicine, whose monumental report in 1910 on medical education in America is a landmark in the history of the subject, was looking for an opportunity to develop with Rockefeller funds a new medical school. He believed that it was better to start anew than to provide new funds for one of the existing schools in New York State. He appreciated Dr. Rhees's capacities in the management of the University. He was well aware of the possibility of assistance from George Eastman. So it came about that a definite proposal was placed before the President from the General Education Board, (in which Rhees had many friends), if matching funds could be secured locally. There followed interesting negotiations with the Kodak magnate, in which Flexner succeeded in raising the ante from Eastman from two and a half million to five million, (including one million for a dental dispensary). The next step was to find a dean for the school. Dr. Rhees knew what he wanted to do. He approached (by letter) George H. Whipple, then professor of research medicine and director of the Hooper Laboratory for Medical Research at the University of California. Dr. Whipple's reply was negative. Nothing daunted, the President took the train for Berkeley, and in a personal interview persuaded this eminent medical man to change his mind. It is superfluous to comment on what this reconsideration meant to the future of the Medical School. Dr. Whipple assembled a distinguished faculty and made the school one of the great medical schools of the nation. 

With the Medical School and the Music School in the hands of administrators of the first order, Dr. Rhees maintained his interest in the work of the arts college. The faculty grew substantially; when I first came to Rochester we met in the President's office; there were forty of us; in 1935 there were as I have said, 113. Qualitatively, the standard was high, I think; and there was a degree of harmony which was extraordinary. In matters legitimately within their ken the President allowed large latitude to the professors; and I never knew a really heated faculty meeting in the twenty years that I served under this President. Partly the reason lay in the fact that in so small a college Rhees could be in constant and close contact; part of the reason lay in his unfailing tact and consideration; part of it, I suppose, lay in the fact that in those happy days professors had not yet reached that stage of authority where they considered themselves equally qualified to discuss their specialty and other matters of which they were no better informed than many others. At any rate, the situation was fortunate and the college was a gracious place. Everything in the United States today gets bigger. And everything gets more specialized. The humane view of life, the warmth of fellowship, the university as more than a training school, is worth cherishing. In the midst of growth, in the midst of knowledge that compels us all to specialize, in the midst of professional pre-occupations, we may still see in the Rhees view of things values not wholly to be lost, or if lost to be recaptured. 

In his attitude toward the arts college Dr. Rhees was, beyond all question, a conservative. He never envisaged--he might well not have approved--the expansion that has taken place since his resignation, and most of which has come in the course of the period since World War II. Before we explain his attitude in some detail, we should however at least take account of the fact that the move to Oak Hill came during his administration, that the library in whose expansion we take pride, was also part of his project, and that careful husbanding of resources made possible a later ambitious expansion. 

But it would not be right--it would not be in accord with his own wishes to depreciate his point of view or to fail to understand it. He was himself the graduate of a small college. He believed very deeply in warm personal relations between teacher and student. He thought of education not in terms that depreciated the value of learning, but also in terms of a moral exercise. With regard to the education of women, some attention must be paid to his background. Co-education was by no means the rule in the East in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Harvard and Radcliffe (as I can well testify, having taught at Radcliffe in 1912-13) were as far from one another as Harvard was from New Haven. It was not good form to know students of female persuasion. Moreover, Dr. Rhees's wife was the daughter of the President of Smith, Laurenus Seely, and Rhees probably imbibed from him or consolidated through him a prejudice against coeducation. He had not brought the women to Rochester, and he was glad of a device to separate them from the men. In this matter, he ran counter to the spirit of the years ahead. 

The formal description of a man leaves something lacking, so far as the understanding of his personality is concerned. I cannot conclude this brief commentary without at least an attempt to portray this monumental figure in more human terms. 

I will begin with my own relationship. From my arrival in the University I found in him a friend. My letters to him when I was absent from Rochester (letters which I have recently examined), show with what warmth I regarded him, and how much I felt at ease in dealing with him. People thought of Dr. Rhees as a formal person. I never felt that way about him. He was to me very human indeed. 

In 1923 I received an offer--my first--to leave the University of Rochester and enter an institution in the Middle West. When I made my decision to stay here in Rochester, I met the President in Boston, on his way to his summer home in Islesford, at the Hotel Touraine. He stood up to greet me. I told him I would stay. There were tears in his eyes. How could I fail to appreciate this affection? 

I have two other stories. In my first year in Rochester, I was giving a lecture on the relationship of religion and science in the nineteenth century. I stated that science had altered our view of things; "for example," I said, "we no longer pray for rain; we leave that to the meteorologists." A student in my class was much upset by this heterodoxy. She told her father, and in due course my words got back to Dr. Rhees. He did nothing so foolish as to call me in and rebuke me. But when I was in his office one day, he alluded to the incident. "Say anything you like," he said, but "remember it may have consequences." On another occasion when talking to him, I made a rather critical remark about one of my colleagues. "Yes," said he, "that isn't one of his aptitudes." Both these anecdotes reveal something fundamental. There have been many strong and successful men who lacked tact or delicacy. But surely this is a valuable quality, something that cannot be measured, that proceeds from a kind of inner poise, and consideration for the feelings of others. I think much of Dr. Rhees' success sprang from this quality. I never knew him to lose his "cool," or his urbanity. 

Dr. Rhees was a religious man. As I have said, his training was in the Baptist ministry, yet I cannot help feeling that his interest in religion was far more ethical than theological. Forty years ago the Unitarian Church, to which I belonged, was regarded by the religious right with some suspicion. Yet Dr. Rhees occupied the pulpit there. 

Even more interesting to me was his reaction to a sermon which I preached in chapel. In this effort I said that the language of the Bible was filled with Oriental exaggeration. Take, for example, I said, the command to love one's neighbor as thyself. This is beyond the human capacity. But it is an ideal to strive for. Dr. Rhees was in the congregation. He came up to me after the service, and told me that I had hit the nail on the head. I found out later that he had written an essay on this very subject. 

When we came to Rochester we had compulsory chapel. There was, for me, an element of absurdity in compelling people to attend a religious service. And shortly after World War I, I was appointed chairman of a committee to consider the matter. We recommended abolition of the requirement. Not one word of comment or criticism was heard from the President of the University. 

Required chapel attendance reminds me of an amusing aspect of the matter. During the period of compulsory chapel, Dr. Rhees always ended with a prayer, beginning with "who taught us to pray, saying" after which we recited the Lord's Prayer. One never knew how we would arrive at this ending. He would be off picking posies in an entirely different part of the religious landscape, when it seemed impossible to get back to the essential phrase. But he always did. 

Finally, in the way of personal reminiscence, I was associated with Dr. Rhees in the Pundit Club, a venerable institution founded in 1854, and with a continuous existence since that time. The papers which he gave there give some idea of the breadth of his mind. To give examples, there were the History of Religious Liberty in Maryland, Trying to Revise a Constitution, John Masefield, Medical Education and the College of Liberal Arts, Some Abuses of the Historical Imagination. 

Those who knew Dr. Rhees best knew that he was a kind man. When I first came to Rochester, George Herdle, father of Gertrude Herdle Moore, was director of the Memorial Art Gallery. Just after the war he was laid low with a painful and fatal disease. For many months Rhees visited him every Saturday afternoon, until his death. 

One of the most delightful members of the faculty in the second decade of the century was Ewald Eiserhardt. During the World War a clamor arose against him as a German reservist and he felt compelled to resign. Dr. Rhees kept track of him and when the hysteria had ebbed, called him back to the University 

He also was notable for his kindness to students. As an example, John W. Remington, our eminent fellow citizen, told me of the President's gift of binoculars when he (Remington) enlisted in the Navy. There were many other cases of this kind. The President's manner may have been austere, but his heart was warm. 

There was never any "side" to Dr. Rhees. Indeed, for a man who had accomplished so much, he was exceptionally modest. And so long as he lived in the house provided him at the corner of University Avenue and Prince Street, he lived very modestly. By the terms of Mr. Eastman's will, however, the President of the University was obliged to live in Eastman House for a period of ten years after Eastman's death. Dr. Rhees did not like it. He expressed his distaste to Howard Hanson, as follows, "There is no place to keep my shoe polish." 

I never saw the President lose his dignity but once. This was when his hat blew off as he was crossing the Campus. I lived then in the dormitory, Kendrick Hall. The stalking of that hat, I must admit, made a somewhat ludicrous sight. 

But I must not close on a note of triviality. Here was a man who, starting from modest beginnings, proceeded with massive patience to build a University. Here was a man as unbiased as a man is likely to be. Here was a man in command of himself, and able to deal effectively with others. As we observe the marvelous addition to the library which bears his name, we may bow our heads in tribute to a wise administrator, a kind guide, and a true friend of the life of the mind. 

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