University of Minnesota
President O. Meredith Wilson at the end of the academic processional in 1961.
Photo: courtesy University Archives
Of presidents and inaugurations
Historian shares tales of U presidents past
By Rick Moore
Things have changed a bit on campus since William Watts Folwell (later nicknamed “Uncle Billy”) became the first president of the University of Minnesota shortly after the Civil War. For starters, there’s more than one building. And there are a heck of a lot more than 18 students.
But despite more than a century and a half of spectacular growth and change, we find ourselves on the eve of President Eric Kaler’s inauguration struck by how few times we’ve had a new president at the state’s flagship university. In 160 years, Kaler is just the 16th.
So, now seems to be a good time to take a brief look at some presidents—and inaugurations—from the first century or so of the U. And who better to consult than Ann Pflaum, the University historian who has been around campus since her grad school days in the mid-1960s.
The early years
One of the University’s more prominent figures was Folwell, who became president in 1869 at age 36.
Credit Folwell with creating an early template of the U’s business card.
“He had visited Europe before the Civil War and had gotten the idea of the German research university,” says Pflaum. “That was in his mind as he envisioned a research university [at the U]. There were hardly any in the world, so his vision was an amazingly insightful thing, although it was very controversial with faculty who would have preferred a small liberal arts college.”
Folwell stepped down to become professor of political science and a librarian, and spent many years putting together a four-volume history of Minnesota. “Considering that he did not have a Ph.D., it is one of the most wonderfully documented histories of the state, and every serious scholar has a copy of all four volumes of Folwell,” Pflaum says. “He was an amazing person to set the stamp on the University and the history of our state.”
The second president, Cyrus Northrop, came from Yale University. One of his points of pride, Pflaum says, was that “Northrop personally knew every U.S. president from James Buchanan to Woodrow Wilson (except for James Garfield) and he had William Howard Taft as a student at Yale.
“He was very popular, the move toward the research University continued, and it didn’t seem to strike the waves it did under Folwell,” says.
Another notable figure was Lotus Coffman—like Bob Bruininks, a dean of the College of Education. During Coffman’s tenure, two signature structures were built: Memorial Stadium and Northrop Auditorium.
“He was also a strong supporter of students, and Coffman Union was appropriately named in his honor,” Pflaum says. Coffman died in office in 1938.
James L. Morrill assumed the presidency at the end of World War II.
“One of the most interesting things about his administration was that it began with a conference on how America could help rebuild the post-war world,” Pflaum notes. “Presidents of very prestigious universities contributed, and I think it shows the maturity of the university of Minnesota that it was chosen for this role.”
President O. Meredith Wilson oversaw the building of the West Bank campus to accommodate the huge population influx of Baby Boomers. He was also first president to live in Eastcliff, the official residence of all presidents since. Wilson and his wife had six children, and Pflaum recalls an anecdote from a story describing life at the house: “The phone often rang at Eastcliff but it was never for the president.”
From chicken pie to missing speeches
What about presidential inaugurations, these events we’ve only experienced about a dozen times at the University of Minnesota?
“They take place up to a year after the person has assumed office, and there’s no particular tradition as to what date they have to be [held by],” Pflaum says.
One took place in the third floor of Old Main, the original campus building that burned to the ground in the early 20th century. Two inaugurations—for Northrop and Vincent—were held at the Armory. From Morrill through Bruininks they were held in Northrop Auditorium.
Three presidents didn’t even have inaugurations. In two cases that was because of world wars drawing attention away from such ceremonies; also there was no inaugurations when Guy Stanton Ford assumed office after Coffman’s death.
The most elaborate inauguration from eras past was likely the one for George E. Vincent in 1911. It included a torchlight parade (with 6,000-8,000 students and alumni torchbearers) and fireworks. The post-inauguration dinner, held at the farm campus, offered 1,400 guests a menu of “fruit on the table, fruit cocktail, chicken pie, baked potatoes, combination salad, minced pie, pumpkin pie, and coffee,” notes Pflaum.
President Magrath strode to the podium in 1974 to give his inauguration speech, only to find that the necessary paperwork—the speech itself—wasn’t there. Apparently Governor Wendell Anderson had picked up Magrath’s speech by mistake.
That’s enough to make any new president sweat through his gown.
“The president came to the podium and could find no speech,” Pflaum says. Finally, Governor Anderson returned to the podium with the speech and is believed to have whispered, "I just wanted to shorten the ceremony.”
So beware, President Kaler.
For more information on Kaler’s inauguration activities, visit the Inauguration page on the President’s website.
In conjunction with the inauguration, there is a special photography exhibit in the gallery adjacent to Coffman Theater. The collection features all 16 U presidents, including President Kaler, as well as some inauguration scenes.This exhibit is brought to you by University Archives, University Relations, and Student Unions & Activities.