Dear Old Macalester

This is the first in what will likely be a three-post thread (the second is here).

Context: Macalester is a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was a Mac freshman in 1967, and graduated with the class of 1982.

Anyone from the Mac community who stumbles upon this essay is encouraged correct or enhance it in the comments. Thanks.

A Vastly Oversimplified History of Macalester College

Every campus has a narrative, and that narrative shapes the college culture. These stories may emphasize unimportant details; they ignore entire decades. Macalester’s, like most, begins with a founder, has a key figure who shaped the college, skips lightly through the decades, mentions some key teachers and graduates, describes a major crisis, and looks brightly to the future. To the best of my ability, here’s the Macalester story.

If anyone’s done a similar narrative for another school, I’d be grateful for a pointer. Thanks.

Edward Duffield Neill & Charles Macalester

Edward Duffield Neill founded Macalester College in 1874, served as its first president, and taught classes for many years. The minister to St. Paul’s First Presbyterian Church, Neill had been Minnesota’s Superintendent of Public Education and Chancellor of the State University (The U‘s ancestor, apparently). He’d subsequently had positions in the Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Grant administrations. Banker/financier Charles Macalester, now famous mostly for owning a fancy house overlooking the Delaware, made a real estate contribution to the young school, but plays no other role in this tale. Since Neill and Macalester were both Philadelphia natives, prominent Presbyterians, and politically active, albeit from different generations, I presume they were acquainted.

James Wallace

James Wallace, who joined the faculty in 1887 and taught until 1939, is the most important single individual in the school’s history. Dr. Wallace was Macalester’s president from 1894 through 1906; his presidential term both stabilized the college finances and established the college culture. One of the dorms is named after President Wallace, and the Fine Arts Center bears his wife’s name.

Among Dr. Wallace’s legacies to his college was his son….

DeWitt Wallace

If you’ve spent a few days on the campus, you’ve likely heard a Readers Digest joke. All Mac students and alumni recognize a heavy debt to the magazine; that recognition generally expresses itself as irony.

DeWitt Wallace began his student career at Mac about the time Dr. Wallace surrendered his presidency and returned to teaching. The younger Wallace made his fortune as the founder/editor of Readers Digest. While he did not graduate from Macalester, his affection for the school ensured the school’s financial stability for much of the twentieth century.

There’s more about Wallace down the page, but we’ll skip to the end for now: DeWitt Wallace passed away on March 30, 1981. (Concert Choir, of which I was a member, sang at his memorial service.) It soon became clear that his will provided a substantial endowment for the college, though the gift had significant emcumbrances.

The school’s library, built in the mid-eighties, bears DeWitt Wallace’s name.

Macalester students are told a story involving DeWitt Wallace, a cow, a stairway, and Old Main. Kagin’s book James Wallace of Macalester credits the prank to an earlier, and unnamed, student.

Charles Turck

Dr. Turck was President of Macalester College from 1939 through 1958. The school has a decidedly international focus; this is a Turck legacy.

Digression: Hubie & Others

Hubert Humphrey taught at Macalester during World War II; he returned to the school after his Vice-Presidency. The Humphrey anecdote at Mac describes a class session which continued for hours, adjourned for supper, and resumed in the evening.

Macalester’s most generally famous current faculty members appear to be Diane Glancy and Wang Ping; former choral director Dale Warland also has some fame, as does one-time Newton’s Apple host Jan Serie. As you’d anticipate, many current and former faculty members are well-known within their academic disciplines. David White, Mary Gwen Owen, Ted Mitau, Dave McCurdy, Hildegard Johnson, Chuck Green–these fine teachers, famous within Macalester’s community memory, had less public impact beyond the campus.

Walter and Joan Mondale are Macalester alumni. Kofi Annan graduated from Mac. More recent alums include Tim O’Brien (the writer, not the singer), Bob Mould, Charles Baxter, Dorothy Benham, Jeremy & JJ Allaire, Stephen Paulus, Pete Fenn, and Peter Berg. (Someone please mention more women I should include on this list. Miji Reoch seems to be the best I can manage, and it’s likely you’ve never heard of her.)

The two preceding paragraphs are necessarily time and interest bound. Another author would certainly name different names, though I’d anticipate some overlaps.

Alex Haley spent a lot of time on campus, though he wasn’t part of the faculty. Apparently he wrote Roots (or was it Malcolm X’s autobiography?) in what used to be International House but is now the President’s Residence.

Then there’s the football thing.


Macalester sought to raise its academic profile during the sixties. This campaign had several components; these included a building spree, several new faculty hires, and a fair bit of curricular experimentation. The key component, to all appearances, was a decision to enlist better students. Ten percent of my freshman classmates were National Merit Scholarship finalists. Other schools recruit football players; Mac recruited–and still recruits–bright kids. The school also went out of its way to encourage the enrollment of international and minority students, with interesting effects on the campus culture.

At my first Macalester convocation, someone (I think it was the provost) compared Mac to Stanford, and talked about creating “Pinnacles of Excellence” within the college community. Rich Greenwood turned this image into a parody of the Up with People theme song: “Up, Up, with Steeples! You meet ’em wherever you go. Up, Up, with Steeples! They’re the best kind of profs, you know. If more people met more steeples, more steeples everywhere, there’d be a lot more people to worry about, and a lot less people who cared.”

Simultaneous with the change in the student makeup was a political shift; late-sixties Macalester was considerably left-of-center, even after you allow for the national and local political landscapes. This was an engagement politics: One fifth of the student body was active in the 1968 election (I know this because I helped coordinate that effort), and I’m one of scores who remained active in the Democratic Party.

There’s some evidence that the college overhaul was built on a risky financial foundation.

The Financial Crisis

The campus changes evidently didn’t sit well with our benefactor, as Mr. Wallace severely reduced his commitment to the school around 1970. This reduction nearly undid the college, as the school’s relationship with Wallace approached dependency. After a couple difficult years, the trustees appointed a new president and reached an accommodation with the Wallace family. A decade of retrenchment followed, during which maintenance was neglected, school fundraising was diversified, and (according to student memory) the college wandered from its educational mission.


DeWitt Wallace’s will created several foundations, one of which became the basis for securing the Macalester endowment. This gift made the college Famously Rich, and permitted the school to recover its educational mission. While there’ve been a few setbacks along the way, the school remains well-to-do.

Except that tuition and board have gotten ridiculously expensive, the school prospers. We all look forward to Good Things.

Remember the headline, atop this discourse: An oversimplified history. This little essay’s largely factual, but it’s a myth.

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One Response to Dear Old Macalester

  1. joel says:

    I just finished Jeanne Halgren Kilde’s history of the college, Nature and Revelation. Her account, while far more detailed, doesn’t really contradict mine, though it emphasizes different things. Reading her book reminds me of a few things:

    The Pinnacles of Excellence speech was made by Lucius Garvin, the school’s vice president for academic affairs (provost, indeed, but retitled). Kilde likes the speech better than I did.

    Marlene Johnson belongs on the list of accomplished graduates. I knew Marlene slightly in school, and was aware of her subsequent career; she simply slipped my mind. My apologies.

    I neglected to mention the Expanded Educational Opportunities program, known on campus as the EEO. EEO was a program to bring disadvantaged minority students to the school. Many folks blamed the 1970 economic disaster on the EEO, though most everyone at least officially/formally calls the program a good thing for the college and the students. Kilde concludes that EEO was indeed expensive, that it did good albeit controversial work, and that it was not more than a contributing cause of the schools’ financial problems. She attributes the crash largely do earmarked funds and disagreements about the school’s direction, aggravated by accounting and reporting failures.

    I plan to write a more complete review of Kilde’s book in a couple days. I’ll say here that I heartily recommend it.

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