Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
Education in Utah and California
[p.31] Sterling, you’ve spent your life as a teacher, writer, philosopher, and as a leader of educational institutions. I’m interested in your own education. How did your educational experiences shape the perspective you’ve brought to your professional life?
Well, I must say that if the schools of today are actually as bad as their critics say they are, the schools I attended must have been far superior to them. You hear a lot about great innovations in today’s schools, but many of the so-called new things we read about were commonplace in my schools. I had some teachers who weren’t so good, but I can remember exceptionally talented teachers all the way from kindergarten through high school. I can’t recall a single class in which I didn’t learn a great deal.
Let’s see. You went from kindergarten through ninth grade in Ogden, Utah.
That’s right. Madison and Pingree elementary schools for kindergarten through sixth grade; then Lewis Junior High for grades seven, eight, and nine. Then my family moved to Los Angeles and I attended Manual Arts High School for three years.
You have influenced thousands of students as a philosophy professor, Sterling. Who were the teachers who influenced you?
That would be hard to say, but the best teachers I had were in junior high and high school. Miss Zelta Ballinger was my English teacher and home-room teacher for all three years of junior high. That meant English every school day of the year, writing as well as reading. She was tough and at times could be a little mean, but she saw to it that the kids learned something. The other teacher was Miss Edna Hardy, my music teacher in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. She pounded music into the kids. She would stand over those classes and make us listen to good music on a wind-up Victrola whether we liked it or not. That’s how I became acquainted with the great musicians of the time. Have you ever heard of Madame Schumann-Heink? or Galli-Curci?
[p.32] I can’t say I have.
No? In those days, their names were almost household words. I was, I think, in the third grade when my parents bought a wind-up Victrola with the old 78 rpm records and mechanical amplification. We woke up on Christmas morning to the sounds of Caruso singing “O Sole Mio.” That has stuck with me ever since. And we always had a great deal of good music at home. Miss Hardy would pour music into us in such a way that I doubt if there’s a kid who was in one of her classes who doesn’t remember it now, sixty-five years later. We had music coming out of our ears. She was a great teacher.
The music supervisor for the Ogden schools, Mark Robinson, was a family friend as well as an educator. About twice a year he would visit our music class and really lay down the law about music. He was great. It was like Maurice Abravanel visiting a grade school class. He was a forceful person; and when he got through with our class, we knew that music was something to pay attention to.
How old were these two women? How much teaching experience had they had?
Well, we thought they were ancient, used to call them “Old Lady Ballinger” and “Old Lady Hardy” behind their backs, but I suppose they were only in their twenties. Miss Ballinger was still at Ogden High School when I was U.S. Commissioner of Education thirty-some years later. I remember, because I sent a telegram that was delivered to her at her retirement banquet. She was then an administrator. That’s what they do with great teachers—promote them to something else.
Up the ladder and away from students.
I hold Miss Ballinger in such high esteem that I paid tribute to her in the preface of a book of philosophical essays, Religion, Reason, and Truth, as a teacher to whom I am greatly indebted.
Did her English class deal with philosophical matters? You’ve told me that much of your interest in philosophy stemmed from your association with your father.
Yes, but Miss Ballinger’s English classes spent considerable time on Greek history and mythology. Several times when I answered questions or recited, I remember her saying, “Your answer has a philosophical character.” I didn’t know quite what she meant …
But you took it as a compliment. Those are nice moments in the life of a school child. Did you also have some bad experiences in school?
Well, one. It’s just a little thing, really, but it was a terrible blow to me at the time. My seventh- or eighth-grade American history teacher, [p.33] Miss Frye, was a very good teacher. I liked her and liked history, too, so I read a lot outside of class. My father had a good library, not extensive, but we must have had six or eight books at home on American history, and I also got books from the Carnegie Free Library in Ogden. As a consequence, I often came up with stuff in class that wasn’t in the textbook. When Miss Frye discovered what was going on, she told me I should quit reading those other books, right in front of the class. I was scarred for life!
Hardly what we hope will happen in schools. You were sometimes late coming down from the mountains in the fall and you left early in the spring. Did that make school difficult? Did you have a lot of homework in elementary and junior high?
We certainly did. We had homework starting about the fourth grade, a great deal of it. And enormous amounts in high school. Going to school was not an easy proposition, but it was a pleasure. And yes, I was usually late entering school.
I recall doing one theme when I was just a little kid, fourth or fifth grade, on driftwood. I’d never seen a piece of driftwood. You must be near the ocean, I guess, to have first-hand knowledge of driftwood. But I read up on driftwood. When it burns, it produces various colors, and I wanted to write about its pretty colors. I spelled it “purdy,” and my teacher didn’t catch the error. I didn’t notice it until several years ago when I encountered the theme in some old papers.
Do you remember other homework assignments?
We did extensive research projects in junior high that involved a great deal of writing. We wrote constantly; and I suspect that the average junior high school student of my generation had more writing skills than many of the students I have had in the university. It was not easy going, but I never did feel that we were excessively burdened.
Could you say whether your elementary and junior high would have been considered progressive for the times?
Well, my understanding is that Utah schools during the 1920s were generally regarded as rather outstanding and progressive. My teachers in California would comment favorably on the reputation of Utah schools. The principal of the high school, Dr. Albert Wilson, showed a great deal of interest in the quality of leadership opportunities offered Mormon youth in church activities. He even used me as an exhibit of what the LDS church does for its kids.
Foreign languages are receiving a lot of emphasis again now. Did they hold [p.34] a prominent place in the curriculum in your school days?
I started Latin when I was in the ninth grade. We had a choice between Latin and Spanish, as I recall. My teacher, a fairly young woman, was extremely effective, really knew how to teach her subject. She taught nothing but Latin. Latin was certainly the best subject I ever had. Then, in Los Angeles I majored in Latin in high school, so I had four years of Latin and continued with it in college. I wish I had stayed with it even longer. Combined with English, it was extremely valuable.
So much is made today of parents’ involvement in schools, of the importance of supporting their children’s learning. How involved were your parents?
I think there was quite a bit of parental involvement, but it was probably informal and pretty invisible—not like classroom visits or, as far as I know, regular teacher-parent consultation. My father was a teacher at Ogden High and my mother had been an elementary school teacher, so they took considerable interest in our schooling, but I don’t recall them visiting our classrooms except for special parent programs. I think they probably knew some of my teachers. Ogden was a small town, after all. In Los Angeles I had a hassle with a teacher in the tenth grade. I had objected to his insulting a Japanese boy by telling the kid to go back to Japan where he belonged. This led to an encounter which resulted in my father going over to the school and having a little talk with the teacher.
You must have been proud of your father! Did your parents help you with assignments or check your themes or mathematics homework? Would that have been rare or a customary thing?
It wasn’t customary, but my father would usually read my themes. I remember he was interested enough in one large writing project that he showed it to our next-door neighbor in Ogden, who was superintendent of the Southern Pacific Railroad. My father wouldn’t usually comment on the content, but he’d point out problems with punctuation or grammar.
Getting back to your education, do you have any observations on the curriculum?
I think you could say quite accurately that it was a classical education. We studied Shakespeare’s plays. Miss Ballinger saw to it that we had a good grounding in Greek history and mythology. There was Latin. We didn’t discuss current issues much as students—certainly not like today’s students. I think that was a deficiency in my education. I was in high school in Los Angeles before I encountered the word “psychiatrist.” My Latin teacher in high school told me about a lecture by a famous [p.35] psychiatrist he thought I’d be interested in attending and—I’m embarrassed to say this—I recall asking him what a psychiatrist was. Today a first-grader would know the word.
What are your memories of high school in Los Angeles in the 1930s?
Well, Manual Arts High School was really a great institution, no question about it. It was important enough to receive considerable national attention. It was, I believe, the second high school to be created in the city of Los Angeles, very old, with a campus very much like a college’s separate buildings, beautiful arbors, and an excellent gymnasium. It was a very fine school, and I have the fondest memories of my experiences there. First-rate teachers. Some better than others, but generally highly competent.
It emphasized manual arts?
Well, the name is something of a misnomer. The school was very strong in the sciences and liberal and fine arts. It did have all kinds of shops—machine shops, even a foundry where the students would start with pig iron and manufacture things. I remember sheet metal shops, woodworking shops, all kinds of things. And when I was there, a group of students made an honest-to-goodness working airplane.
Sounds like a remarkably well-equipped vocational school.
Very well equipped. Everybody had to take a year of shop. I took machine shop, working with machine lathes and that sort of thing. But before the end of the first semester, the head of the shops department took me into his office as his assistant, so I got machine shop credit for running around town in the high school’s truck, picking up orders, and running errands. But that wasn’t the side of the school I was really involved with. You wouldn’t ordinarily think, for instance, that a person could major in Latin in a school with a name like that.
But you did.
Yes. I’m sure you could major in some manual art, but it was a high-grade liberal arts school. Students were majoring in physics, chemistry, and English. No Greek. Los Angeles High School taught Greek as well as Latin. One of my Latin teachers, Joe Hall, was a classics major at USC. Our high school wasn’t far from the University of Southern California campus. He was a brilliant teacher, a wonderful person, and he wanted me to learn Greek as well as Latin, so I made arrangements to be excused from study hall to work with Joe on Greek. He’d generously come to the school an hour before the Latin class every day to teach me Greek.
[p.36] Your academic development was well served by your schooling. What about your social development? What part did student government play in school?
Well, it was remarkably well organized, student self-government. That’s what attracted national attention. I was involved in a lot of activities—perhaps a little too much. But my grades were good. To belong to your school’s chapter of the California Scholarship Federation—which was the highest honor a student could receive—you had to make a certain grade-point average every semester. I recall working hard but never feeling anxious about whether I’d make it or not. Our high school had a scholarship president, elected by the whole student body from the members of the Scholarship Federation. This was different from the regular student body president and vice-president and other officers.
This sounds like something you might have done.
Yes, I ended up in the student cabinet as scholarship president, and that was a pleasant position to hold. The principal and vice-principal of the school tried to get me to run for student body president, but I didn’t have the slightest interest in doing it. For one thing, a very close friend of mine, Stan Smith, was going to run and I knew, without any question, that he would be elected.
So you had no interest and no hope.
Stan was a football star and a wonderful person, very popular. As a matter of fact, I suspect the principal and vice-principal tried to get me to run just so there would be some opposition to him, so he wouldn’t be elected by acclamation. It was the principle of the thing—not that they thought I was so well qualified or because they had anything against Stan. He was terrific. The last time I saw him, he was a professor at West Point.
The transition from junior high to high school is often a shock for kids, yet you went from Ogden to a big city high school with no apparent problems?
Yes, there were no deficiencies in my Utah schooling. I had to scramble a bit in Latin, because I went into second-year Latin and some of the stuff we had studied was quite different from what I ran into. I’ll tell you a tragic story. When I registered at UCLA, I told the head of my high school language department, Miss Bertha Rutledge, who had been my main Latin teacher, that I was signed up for a rather advanced course reading Cicero’s De Senectute and The Menaechmi of Plautus. Miss Ruffedge said, “Oh don’t bother to buy books. I have the books that you’ll need right here,” and she gave them to me.
Well, this was extremely kind of her; but in the course I noticed [p.37] that the other students seemed to be reading and translating with a lot less difficulty than I was having. I couldn’t figure it out until most of the way through the year. Then I discovered that the editions they were using had almost everything translated in the notes!
So Miss Rutledge had done you a different kind of favor than you thought.
Yes, I have nothing but praise for her and for the school. It was a great institution. When I was U.S. Commissioner of Education, the principal of Manual Arts High School was chairman of an organization of principals of Los Angeles High Schools and asked me to meet with them about some of the difficult racial problems they were having in the 1960s.
He knew you were a graduate?
Yes, or at least he knew that by the time we met. He arranged for me to have lunch with the faculty, and there were two or three people still there whom I knew as teachers. And they had me address the student body. Most of them were black. It was almost an Anglo-Saxon school when I was there—very few blacks and only a few Japanese students. On a visit a few years ago, I was aware that the faculty also were predominantly black. Did you know that this is where I did my first teaching?
Yes. You taught as a student, didn’t you? Seems incredible that a teacher would turn a classroom over to a student in that same class.
Not one, three! All at the same time, the tenth grade, the first year I was in Los Angeles. I don’t know how I found the time to do it. I was pretty good in geometry. In fact, I’ve often thought I should have stayed with mathematics. I might have amounted to something if I had. Everyone had to take some kind of a national test in geometry after the first year. Miss Farnum, the head of mathematics, called me in and told me I was the first person in Los Angeles to get a perfect score on this standardized test in geometry. Well, they had me teach during the second semester in tenth grade. It was kind of a tough class but small, largely students who were having difficulties with geometry.
So you taught during study hall?
Yes. It was very worthwhile because I got a little experience working with kids. And I also taught my English class that same semester.
How did that come about?
Well, my English teacher had a practice teacher—a student teacher from USC; and the two of them decided to do some experimenting. It consisted of turning the class over to one of the kids, and they sat in the [p.38] back of the room every day and simply observed.
Did a different student teach each day or so?
No, no. I had it for the whole semester. I simply replaced the teacher. We were studying English literature—Alexander Pope and the other major poets. We had a large poetry text. I loved his Essay on Man, memorized the first part. It seemed perfectly natural at the time. After the two women set things going the first day, I taught the class, made the assignments, and so on. They would have conferences with me, but I simply ran the class.
What about papers and exams?
I gave the examinations, but I don’t remember who graded the papers.
And the third class?
The biology teacher was named Mr. La Tourette. I forget his first name. He was kind of a mean cuss, to be frank with you; and I had trouble with him during the first semester over his insulting that Japanese-American kid, who was born and raised in Los Angeles. That wasn’t the only case of his being downright mean to some students. Well, during the second semester, still in the tenth grade, the class continued with the same students. La Tourette had some kind of assignment that took him away for about eight weeks. So they assigned me to teach the class while he was gone.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a sophomore.
Well, the problem was to keep ahead of the rest of the kids, and that wasn’t too difficult in biology. I just plugged ahead in the text. The school had fine laboratories, but the lab work was something of a problem for me.
I can imagine!
I wasn’t working after school and was accustomed to studying way into the night, but I still don’t know quite how I was able to handle so much at school.
Did you consult with your parents at home or were you doing this pretty much on your own?
On my own. I talked to my parents a lot about school work, but I didn’t ask them for help or advice. I functioned quite independently.
Did you keep on teaching as a junior or senior?
No, I guess they had had their fill of me as a teacher!
Now you were doing ROTC at the same time, weren’t you?
Yes, it was voluntary at high school but pretty badly handled [p.39] compared to Ogden’s unit, so I dropped out at the end of the year. If I had remained in Ogden, I would have been in the ROTC for four years.
And maybe transferred right into the university and carried on with it when you got here.
Probably would have. I was very enamored of it. I really might have ended up in a military career. I signed up again as a freshman at UCLA, because ROTC was required for two years; but as a freshman, I was beginning to feel a good deal of independence and had some hassles with the ROTC people. Nothing very serious, but that ended any ambition that I had for a military career. I did learn one very good thing in UCLA’s ROTC, though. Part of our drill consisted of racing across a field with rifles, running zigzag, the way you would when you’re under fire. That same year I was held up a couple of times in the service station where I worked at night. I was always alone. The first time, the guy was a real professional. He held a gun on me, took the money, and then told me exactly what to do. The service station was on the corner of Budlong and Santa Barbara. He told me to cross Budlong, then turn and walk across Santa Barbara, which was very wide with trees planted on the median. “Don’t you turn around,” he said. “If you turn around, I’ll shoot you.”
Los Angeles was a rough place even sixty years ago! What did you do?
I followed his instructions—walked across Budlong and then started across Santa Barbara, but I turned and looked back and he was out on the corner with his gun pointed right at me. If it had been a busy corner, he couldn’t have done it. I froze, and he said, “Don’t you turn again!”
Well, I went half way across Santa Barbara to where the trees and the streetcar tracks were and thought, “Surely the guy’s gone by now.” I turned again and he was still there! Well, that’s where my ROTC training came in. I thought he’d shoot me for sure, and I’ll tell you, I zigzagged just as hard as I could go.
Did he shoot?
No, when I started to run he apparently went the other way. But I’ve always felt that my ROTC training was worth something. I dashed across that street and into an apartment house. I knocked on somebody’s door and borrowed a nickel to phone the cops. The police recognized him from my description, said he was a real professional, had been in prison, and that I was lucky to be alive.
Not a comfortable feeling, walking away knowing there was a gun pointed at your back. What about the second holdup?
Two rank amateurs. They didn’t know what they were doing. In [p.40] the first hold-up, the fellow wasn’t nervous at all, completely cool. Both of these guys had guns on me and were as nervous as the devil. They began arguing with each other right while I was giving them the money out of the cash register and putting it in the black bag. The first man who had held me up had said, “No pennies,” so I asked these guys whether they wanted the pennies. They began to argue about it. I said (this sounds ridiculous), “Can I keep a nickel to call the cops? We only have a pay phone here.” And this guy said, “Yeah,” and then, “Oh, God, no.” Well, after that I always kept a nickel hidden.
Oh, they left without killing anybody and I borrowed a nickel and called the cops. They had taken all my change and emptied my pocketbook.
So two hold-ups in one year. Is that right?
Plus one burglary, when somebody broke in at night and stole the money.
Well, we’ve jumped ahead to your college experiences. Anything else you want to say about high school?
I have absolutely no complaints about high school. It was a great experience. I was treated well, and I worked like a dog. I don’t know where I found the time to do what I did. Dozens of nights I spent downtown in the main Los Angeles Public Library. It was a wonderful library.
And you received some scholarship awards when you graduated from high school?
I was made a member of the Ephebian Society and a life member of the California Scholarship Federation. These were the two highest high school honors. They put a gold seal on your diploma. I also received another award—only the boys were eligible for this one. The boy with the highest level of scholarship for his entire school career was given an award and scholarship by the Harvard Club of Los Angeles.
But nothing for the girls?
I think they read out her name or there was some kind of award. Mary Funk, a very close friend of mine, later the valedictorian at USC and a brilliant pianist, had the highest level of scholarship among the girls. But she got nothing and I got the Harvard Award. Not fair at all, but we didn’t think about things like that too much. I guess it was a man’s world.
[p.41] But you didn’t go to Harvard?
Well, the scholarship wasn’t enough to make it possible for me to go. It looked like a pretty good piece of money but not enough to swing the deal.
Did you get the money to spend at UCLA or did you forfeit it?
It was in the form of a tuition grant at Harvard, so I didn’t get anything. Except the honor, of course. The emblem of the award was a beautifully bound copy of The Adams Family by James Tinslow Adams. Very appropriate, considering the Adams family’s connection with Harvard. I’ve always greatly valued that volume. I still have it in our living room bookcase.
Were you a speaker at your high school graduation?
Oh yes, let me tell you about that! My commencement was really something. It was the spring of 1931. There were about 3,500 students in our school; and, for the first time in the history, of any high school in Los Angeles, this commencement was held off the campus. They scheduled the Shrine Civic Auditorium, which is adjacent to the campus of the University of Southern California.
I’ve seen the Shrine Auditorium.
A beautiful theater. Largest in the world—actually larger than the Music Hall in Rockefeller Center in New York. The stage is larger and the place seats more people. Before a basketball arena was built in Exposition Park, which is right next to the campus of the University of Southern California, the USC basketball games were held on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium with bleachers set up at both ends and in the back of the stage so that some people sat on the stage and others out in the auditorium, which accommodated more than six thousand people. For grand operas, they curtained off two-thirds of the stage.
Except for Aida with the live elephants?
Nope, live elephants and all, they still didn’t use the whole stage. It was too large. Elephants would have gotten lost! I attended Wagner’s Ring operas there—the whole thing, complete, with a company from Germany. I never missed an opera in those days. Anyway, the auditorium was an enormous, impressive, and very beautiful place.
So to hold a high school commencement there was certainly a major event. I understand you also had an impressive name for your class?
Yes. We had named ourselves “The Modernists,” and at no time did we ever give any thought about what “modernist” meant. I was on the committee that selected the name. We didn’t pay the slightest [p.42] attention to the connotation of the term. It simply sounded good. At any rate, the class commencement speakers were a boy and a girl, who had to try out in an extended speech contest and be selected by a faculty committee. I don’t know why I was foolish enough to enter the contest, but I did and was the commencement speaker for the boys. Mary Funk was on the program, playing a concerto with the school symphony. One of the top people from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted because he was so impressed with her great talents. Now the reason why I mention my speech, apart from the fact that it was something of an event for a kid to address such a vast audience, was that I still have a copy of that paper.
This I would like to read.
I’m not going to let you read it. It’s too flamboyant. This was the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city of Los Angeles and there were all kinds of celebrations around the city that year. It had been determined that these commencement addresses had to have some relevance to the city’s centennial. The reason I’m mentioning it is that my speech had to do with Los Angeles in the context of a philosophy of culture and history. The philosophy of history has always been one of my main pursuits. When I ran on to that paper just a few weeks ago, I was startled to find that interest showing up in me so early.
What was the thesis of your remarks?
It had to do with the movement of Occidental culture from Europe across America and the movement of Oriental culture across the Pacific to their meeting on the Pacific Coast. You know, it wasn’t a bad idea although the presentation was certainly overly dramatic. But there were these two main interests of mine—philosophy of culture and philosophy of history.
This seems like some pretty significant independent thought in high school?
It’s probably a bad sign when you’re impressed by the achievements of your own youth. But the fact of the matter is that although I studied very seriously and devoted a lot of time to school work, I still found time to launch out and do a good deal of writing on papers that had nothing to do with school assignments. For instance, I remember writing a long paper on the problems of morality when I was in the tenth grade. I was a puritan then and still am, thanks to the influence of my parents.
Then I wrote a long paper on the Monroe Doctrine. I don’t remember how I got interested in that topic, but I spent many evenings in the Los Angeles Public Library studying materials on the Monroe Doctrine. I also found recently a long paper that I had written when in [p.43] high school on the office of the U.S. president, especially the relation of the president to the Secretary of State. But what these papers have in common is that they were largely philosophical in character—
Rather than historical or religious or political?
That’s right. My interest in history and religion and politics always took a philosophical direction.
Now during the summer of 1931, between your high school graduation and entering UCLA, did you go back to the ranch?
Oh yes. I’d go back each summer to the ranch. Because of severe bronchial trouble in Los Angeles, I transferred to the University of Utah in the fall of 1933. My Grandfather Moss died that same autumn. I was very much attached to him; and after that I didn’t return to the ranch to work. I had a kind of emotional reaction. The place itself wasn’t that different. My uncle, Ralph Moss, was still in charge, but it just wasn’t the same for me. I would go for visits, and one or two of my brothers still worked there in the summers; but making my summer home there was over.
Let’s move on to college. These were the days of the Great Depression. How did you manage to finance your education?
It was a hard thing to find money anywhere. My father had had a good position as a probation supervisor for the State of California, but it was not a civil service position then. A new governor came in who had been mayor of San Francisco—a politician of the worst order, I might say. He simply threw everybody out of office who could be thrown out and brought in his friends and cronies.
This was during your last year in high school, when you were choosing a college?
Yes, but it was pretty clear all along that it was UCLA for me. My father took a position with Los Angeles County as a probation supervisor several months later. It was a civil service position, and he held it until his death in 1948 at age sixty-seven. But money was in rather short supply in our family during the opening months of my freshman year. That’s when I started working after school. My mother had some income from Deseret Live Stock Company stock.
But that was hardly a money-making time for cattle ranchers, either.
Not at all.
Why didn’t you consider USC, where you later made connections?
USC was an expensive school in those days, while UCLA was virtually free. If they had both had comparable tuition, I would have [p.44] probably gone to USC because we lived within walking distance of the campus. It took two hours or more for me to get to UCLA and back.
You took the streetcar?
No, but I could have. It was possible to get all over town on the streetcar and buses. But I rode with a friend of mine from high school, John Donley, who also attended UCLA. I want to tell you about John. He and I ran against each other as high school seniors for the position of scholarship president. I think Donley should have won instead of me, but we became intimate friends and he’s still my closest friend from my California days. Well, I learned about a $900 scholarship available from our high school; a woman whose name I can’t remember had endowed it. I applied for it, but when I learned that Donley hadn’t applied, I went to the vice-principal and told her of Donley’s situation. He was very brilliant with a high scholastic record; but his parents were separated— well, actually, his father had deserted the family—and John had to support his sister and mother. He worked in the Blue Goose Market at Crenshaw and Slawson in Los Angeles, and he really knew that business. I told the vice-principal that he should be considered for this scholarship, and she said, “You will probably get the scholarship. If you push for him, he becomes competition to you.”
How did you feel about that?
Well, you know I was idealistic in those days. I knew I needed it badly enough, but he needed it worse. So I pressed Donley to go in and sign up for the thing and he got it. He was pleased and I was pleased.
That must have forged a powerful bond between you two.
Yes, he had an old one-seater, and I paid him a little each week, but it covered his gas. I’d get up early—around six-thirty or seven, as I recall—and take a seven-cent streetcar ride out to Donley’s part of town, in Inglewood. We would meet at Crenshaw Boulevard and head out toward UCLA. It was a long way to go. Then we’d come back together, I’d take the streetcar back home, get into my white uniform, go over to the service station, and get grease all over it.
Your job was pretty important to you, then!
It certainly was. And it was a good job for the times, not too far from home. I had to start work at the service station by four in the afternoon. Then I worked ten hours on Saturday and all day Sunday.
What kind of money did you make there?
The job paid forty cents an hour, which was good money in those days, and I got five cents for every quart of oil that I sold. Now you’re [p.45] a young man and you don’t know how things were in those days, Jack, but Penzoil’s premium grade sold for thirty-five cents, Shell Oil for twenty-five cents, and a cheaper grade of Shell Oil for fifteen cents a quart. Regular gas was twelve and a half cents a gallon, and ethyl gas was seventeen and a half cents a gallon. I remember a gas war in which gas got down to five cents a gallon, if you can believe it. Large companies like Shell and Standard just put out a lower octane of gas so it could be sold cheaper, but most cars could still run on the stuff.
I also had a second job my freshman year. A woman who managed a nice apartment house, two stories with maybe ten apartments on each floor, liked the way I cleaned her windshield and checked the battery, so she offered me a job which paid ten dollars a month to come on Saturdays, vacuum the halls, put the papers down a chute into an incinerator, and light the incinerator. Not a complicated job at all, and my income was considerably augmented.
You were spared the worst of the Depression, then.
In personal terms, yes, but less so in terms of the national economy or the social impact. I matured very slowly in my social philosophy. I grew up in a kind, fair family and everybody worked hard, but we didn’t see poverty or suffering except the kind that you could quickly do something about as a neighbor. I knew bums on the railroad and factory people, but they were a lot like ranch hands. When I took a course in economics at UCLA, the professor sent us out to talk to the construction workers who were extending Sunset Boulevard—pick and shovel work cutting through the hill. When they knocked off to eat lunch, one guy said to me, “See that fellow over there eating by himself? All he has for lunch is potato peelings.” I’ll never forget the impact that made on me. I never had a nickel to throw away when I was a student, but I didn’t have to eat potato peelings for lunch.
What were your expenses at UCLA?
Believe it or not, the total expense not counting books was ten dollars a semester. This was called a matriculation fee. Physical education was required each semester, so when you registered in the fall, you paid a yearly five-dollar fee which supplied you with a clean gym suit, a sweat suit, and towels every time you went to gym.
Not bad! So the cost of going to UCLA was about twenty-five dollars for the year. And it wasn’t an easy place to get into even then.
It was highly selective, and representatives from both USC and UCLA had met with students when we were still in high school to tell us about the entrance requirements. That was no problem in my case. [p.46] Both schools selected their students from the top 12.5 percent of the graduating class, as they do today.
What was UCLA like in the 1930s?
It was a very attractive place. It had been founded as the Southern Branch of the University of California—that was its name—and it had a beautiful campus on North Vermont Avenue. The year before I entered as a freshman, it had moved to its present campus at Westwood, a very beautiful place, west of Beverly Hills, between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. It had built several magnificent buildings, particularly Josiah Royce Hall, which is, I think, the most impressive school building in America. And it had a library, a couple of science buildings, temporary gymnasiums, and a student union. Even during the Depression they were constructing magnificent new buildings.
What kind of a year did you have there?
A good year but a rough year. There was my work schedule, the ROTC business, and I also became very ill.
You mentioned earlier tangling with the ROTC as a freshman at UCLA. What really happened?
It really wasn’t anything very serious or even very noble. I was out of school for a couple of weeks with a light case of pneumonia; it triggered very severe bronchial asthma later. But anyway, I missed a couple of weeks and the ROTC required me to make it up—which was all right with me. Now the make-up usually consisted of cleaning machine-guns or some kind of work under the supervision of some army sergeant. They required that I make up my time late in the afternoon. Well, I worked every afternoon and evening in a service station near my home, and it seemed really unreasonable to me that they wouldn’t let me make up the work earlier in the afternoon while I was still on the campus. So I didn’t make up the time.
Now they didn’t cause a problem over it, but the dean of my college—Letters, Arts, and Sciences—was French and a professor of French civilization or something like that. He called me into his office and gave me a stiff lecture about the beauties of military life. He wanted me to know that he had been in the French army and that military service was the patriotic thing to do, that this was my duty, and so on. Well, I just listened to this guy, feeling more and more disgusted. When he got through, I simply told him that my name had been turned in because I hadn’t made up my ROTC time. I told him I was perfectly happy to make it up, but I had to work and there was no reason in the world why they couldn’t let me come there during a free period during the day to [p.47] make up that time. That kind of softened him up a little, and he laid off me.
Did all these conditions, including the ROTC matter, take a toll on your academic work?
Well, it didn’t make it any easier, I’ll say that! My grades weren’t bad but they weren’t too good.
But you left UCLA after your freshman year?
During the fall term of my freshman year, I had my first attack of bronchial asthma; and it actually knocked me out of school for two or three weeks.
Is that when you first learned you had asthma?
Yes. I’d never had a problem until after I’d had a mild case of pneumonia; but from then on, I had very severe bronchial asthma. I didn’t realize that it was something that stayed with a person. When I was up and around I thought that it was over with, because there was no history of it in my family and I’d had no experience with it. I’m not sure I’d ever even heard the word before.
Did it go away for a time?
It didn’t go away. I finished my freshman year, worked on the ranch that summer, then came back in the fall of 1932 to register for my sophomore year. I was standing in line in the fall of ’32 in Josiah Royce Hall and had such trouble breathing that I had to leave the line. And I just didn’t go back. I spent much of that year—what should have been my sophomore year—sitting up in bed, actually struggling to breathe. My uncle, W. D. Chipman, who was an M.D. in Los Angeles, sent me to specialists of all kinds. I took all kinds of tests, trying to figure out how to treat it. On a number of occasions in the middle of the night, the struggle for breath would get so acute that my mother and I would drive many miles, over to Pasadena and up to Altadena in the foothills below Mount Wilson, where I could breathe. More than once the doctors gave me morphine to enable me to breathe. Wonderful stuff—put me to sleep.
The asthma must have been very scary.
Oh, it was a major ordeal. I simply couldn’t manage, and the medicines which I was given were not very effective—much less so than the medicines we have now. That’s when my Grandfather Moss told me to get back to Utah where I belonged. So I went off again to the ranch and I was like a new person. Even the doctors didn’t make any connection between my condition and the region. But I could certainly [p.48] tell the difference; so in the fall of ’33, after I left the ranch, I registered at the University of Utah.
Now when you came to the University of Utah that fall, what was the place like?
Well, it had fewer than four thousand students. I well remember this because I was here full time for four years—received my B.A. degree in ’36 and a master’s degree in ’37. I remember the hoopla during the winter quarter of, I believe it was 1934-35, when the enrollment reached four thousand. The only buildings here then were those on the oval and adjacent to it.
The Presidents’ Circle?
Yes, although it wasn’t called that then. It received that name when David P. Gardner was president in the 1970s.
What was the spirit of the place compared with UCLA?
Well, I think they were comparable; but I’m going to confess to you that when I left UCLA and came here, I felt a little like I was going back to high school.
How so? Was it the academic or the social environment?
More the social side. I was living with an aunt and uncle, Dr. Ezra Waddoups and Ethel Moss Waddoups. Aunt Ethel was my mother’s oldest sister. They were gracious and hospitable in every way and had a beautiful home on Normandy Circle within walking distance of the university. My grandfather had arranged it. My uncle was in debt to my grandfather, which wasn’t unusual for my grandfather’s family, so my living with them was the way my grandfather chose for my uncle to cancel part of this debt and at the same time pay me for my summer’s work with him.
Your grandfather helped to finance your education, in effect. How did that work out?
I wasn’t sure that I liked the idea, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t; but my grandfather had spoken and that settled it. I had never been close to my aunt’s family because they lived in Utah while we lived in California; but they had two younger daughters at home, and in no time at all a lasting bond of affection developed among us. I looked for work at the university but nothing came of it, which was a real disappointment.
Tuition that year was about seventy-four dollars, according to Ralph Chamberlin’s history of the university.
That’s right. About twenty-five dollars a quarter for everything. [p.49] Because my aunt and uncle lived within walking distance of the university, I didn’t have any transportation costs. It was mostly vacant lots around the university then, though now, of course, it’s all built up. Most of my classes were in the L Building. L for liberal arts. When I was dean of the College of Letters and Science, I got the name changed to Mathematics Building. It’s now the LeRoy Cowles Building.
But you didn’t feel the same challenge here, as a student?
I have no criticism of the University of Utah, you understand. There was much more of a personal quality in the life here and in my relationships with the administration and the faculty. Everything was pleasant. UCLA was really quite impersonal, and I’m afraid the University of Utah has become more impersonal as it has become larger. But at that time a strong personal quality pervaded the relationships which students had, not just with other students but with members of the faculty. It was a very pleasant place from that standpoint. Professors Ephraim Ericksen in philosophy and Gail Plummer in the speech department, and Dean LeRoy Cowles and his secretary Georgia Harmer became my close friends by the end of the first quarter.
But after your first quarter here, you resolved to go home? You encountered some tough things in life that year.
I did. I was homesick and I didn’t want to stay here any longer. Grandfather Moss died during that quarter, and my Grandfather McMurrin had passed away the previous year, so I wanted to be with my family. I packed up my stuff for Christmas—everything I owned fit into two suitcases—and went home for Christmas, fully intending to go back to UCLA.
But I spent the whole vacation struggling to breathe and I had no alternative but to return to Utah. I had gone to Los Angeles by train, but I came back by bus—on Union Pacific Stages. It wasn’t a bad trip except for the dirt roads between Nephi and Barstow. There was no pavement on that route, except for a little section through Las Vegas, now the so-called Las Vegas Strip.
How about your academic work?
As preparation for the Foreign Service, I originally majored in political science, but I registered for only one course in political science. I did more work in philosophy, and I sensed right from the beginning that my interests were far stronger in philosophy. I had a course in history and a couple of courses in geology, some Latin, some economics.
Was this all at UCLA?
Yes. But I always liked geology and had several courses of geology [p.50] after I came here. My main work at the University of Utah was in philosophy, political science, and history.
Was the curriculum quite structured when you came here? Or did you have a lot of room to design your own course of study?
I recall having a lot of options. The curriculum was not, I think, any more prescribed than it is now. You were required to satisfy a stipulated number of hours in science, etc. There was one experience that I had at both places that I simply must describe. It involved freshman English. At UCLA this was called Subject A, Freshman Composition, and everyone entering UCLA, even before the school year began, was required to take a test in English grammar and composition.
Isn’t that interesting! The use of pre-tests in composition has been reinvented here and elsewhere in recent years.
Well, I think it’s a good thing. Now, Donley and I went out together and took the examination, and we left feeling confident that we had done very well. After all, we had done well in high school and we weren’t bad in grammar. But we both received notification that we had failed. This was a terrible blow—the required course fee was ten dollars and the class rendered no credit! He and I had both been made life members of the California Scholarship Federation, we were both candidates for the scholarship presidency of the student body, and now we had both failed that cussed examination! We were certain that we had been swindled. The plain fact was that we didn’t have the ten dollars to pay for the course, and we didn’t have time to take the course if we had had the money. We were both working.
What did you do?
We sought justice! This Subject A examination had its own staff, and they wouldn’t even talk to us. But we learned that the test came under the jurisdiction of the head of the English department. The semester was just starting—this was during registration—so we went to see the chair. She wouldn’t talk to us, either. So we sat there in her outer office until it was time for her to leave to go home. When she came out of her office and spotted us, she said, “Are you two still here?” We said, “We are, and we’re not going to leave until someone agrees to take another look at our examination papers.” So she called up the Subject A office—somebody was still there—and made arrangements to review our papers. We went over there and had a session with the man in charge. He laid out the papers for us and said, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these papers. They’re both very, very good, on both the grammar and composition.”
[p.51] I never found out what the problem was—whether it was somebody trying to raise money for Subject A or an honest mistake; but I felt good that we’d been so persistent.
That’s quite a story! But you said there was a connection with the University of Utah when you transferred?
Yes, when I came to the University of Utah, the dean of the Lower Division was what later became the dean of General Education.
The predecessor to my previous position as dean of Liberal Education, and the present dean of Undergraduate Studies! The tradition here is to dream up a new title every time the incumbent changes.
Right. And the dean of the Lower Division handled graduation requirements.
And there was a composition requirement?
Yes, there was no examination. Everyone was simply required to take a course in freshman English. Dean Cowles assured me that in view of the fact that I had passed the examination at UCLA and was not required to take freshman English there, I would not be required to take it here. Well, he was the law. But in the middle of my senior year, believe it or not, Professor Neff, who was head of the English department, sent for me. He had a very slow and genteel way of talking. He said, “Mr. McMurrin, we have discovered that you did not ever take a course in freshman English.” I said, “That’s right,” and explained what Dean Cowles had told me. He said, “Oh, but Mr. McMurrin, no one can graduate from this university without taking a course in our department”—just like that. This shows you how things have changed. A student today wouldn’t put up with being shoved around like that.
Oh they often do, unfortunately. What did you do?
I did what I was told, of course! He had it all figured out. “Now,” he said, “there’s no point in your taking a course in freshman English. We don’t want you to do that. We will put you in a course in advanced composition with Professor Louis Zucker.” Later on, when Dean Cowles discovered this, it made him as mad as the devil; and he said, “If you had told me about this, I would have stopped it.”
How did the course turn out? It must have been a great experience to study with Professor Zucker?
Yes, he was the leading figure in the state’s Jewish intellectual life, but also one of the leading figures in the intellectual life of the university. We became very good friends and remained close right up to the day of his death. I later proposed him for an honorary degree from the [p.52] university. He was in the hospital, but he learned about the degree before his death. I wrote and read the citation. Louis was a wonderful man.
Freshman English and how universities handle it has always rankled me. Testing procedures are so capricious. Now tell me a little more about Professor S. B. Neff. I know he is a legendary character.
Neff was an Easterner, as I recall; and when he retired from the University of Utah, he went back East—at least, that’s what most of us thought. But, perhaps ten years later, during the sixties, I received a letter from the president of a college in Texas who said, “The leading scholar on our faculty, who has his degree from Harvard, was once a professor at the University of Utah, S. B. Neff.” You know, I must confess that I didn’t know Neff was still living.
But the point of the letter was that Neff was retiring, the college was holding a major celebration in his honor, and Neff had asked that I speak at the faculty banquet honoring him.
Well, this was a great chance to tell that freshman English story on him. Did you?
No, I didn’t. I forgave Neff all of his sins and I went down to Texas and gave that eulogy. And you know that man didn’t look a day older than when I first met him.
Who had the greatest influence on you as your undergraduate years unfolded?
That’s a tough question. Even though I was only at UCLA one year, I had philosophy classes with two leading scholars—Hugh Miller in Greek philosophy and John Elof Boodin, a Swedish philosopher who had been a student of William James, in medieval and early modern philosophy. Boodin must have come to this country when he was very young, because James died in 1916. Perhaps he came as a student and then went back to Sweden for awhile, but his English was always so broken I was surprised that he had been in this country from an early age.
What was his specialty?
Boodin was an idealist who did considerable work in metaphysics. He called himself a realist. He was a great figure with an international reputation. I well remember one class at UCLA—a good-sized lecture class. He was planning to bring Albert Einstein, who was a friend of his, to class, because Einstein was in California doing something at Cal Tech. A couple of students were reading the Daily Bruin, the student newspaper, and Boodin got furious at the class. He pounded his pipe on the table and said by damn he wasn’t going to invite Einstein to a class like this, and he didn’t. So I missed meeting Einstein!
[p.53] Did you meet him later?
No. When I was spending quite a bit of time at Princeton in the early 1950s, I tried to make connections with him at the Institute for Advanced Study but missed him. Missed Jacques Maritain, too, the leading Catholic philosopher. He was teaching at Princeton University, and we exchanged letters; but when I went to his home, hoping to find him, his housekeeper said he was out of town. Well, later, when I was a graduate student at Southern California, I renewed my association with Professor Boodin, who was either still at UCLA or had just retired. When I was on the faculty at USC, the people in philosophy from that whole region would get together from time to time, usually at USC because of its central location. Boodin and Miller were both advanced in years by then, but it was a great pleasure for me to have that continued association with them.
Even from your first university classes, it was perfectly evident that your main interest was in philosophy, thought you were thinking of a career in government as a way of earning a living.
True. At the University of Utah, I registered my first quarter for a course in logic from E. E. Ericksen. He was the person who had the largest impact on me of any of the teachers that I had in college. Ericksen was not a great scholar, but he was a very great teacher. On my first exam in his logic class, I must have done well enough to impress Ericksen. After giving back the examinations, he invited me to meet with him. So I walked down to his office with him, and we talked. And we continued to talk for more than forty years.
Obviously, he was a man generous with his time.
Absolutely. I spent thousands of hours with Ericksen. He had a very great impact on me in inducing in me a rational, critical attitude toward problems—not only philosophical problems, but problems of any kind. I was fascinated by the consistency and integrity of his belief in the power of reason and his commitment to critical analysis. He had a mind which, in the best sense of the word, was thoroughly critical. It was from Ericksen, more than from any other person, that I imbibed the spirit of Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. That was what Ericksen was all about. He had remarkable influence on his students—and he was certainly a most important influence on me.
During my senior year and my graduate year, I shared Ericksen’s office as his assistant. Those old offices, you know, were pretty good sized. He had a desk, a swivel chair, and a book case put in there for me, and the university paid me twenty-five cents an hour.
[p.54] That’s when you were doing research on the history of the university?
Yes, and I worked hard. But my real pay was being with Ericksen every day. We talked about everything. I got acquainted with the faculty, I’ll tell you, through these conversations. My main undergraduate association was with members of the faculty, not other students.
Ericksen was an institution around here. I believe he created the philosophy department. What, if any, were his connections with the LDS church?
I think he came here just after the major controversy about academic freedom and due process in 1915. Of course, Ericksen had plenty of battles; but George Thomas, who became president in 1921, supported Ericksen right on through. Ericksen was a Mormon, thoroughly unorthodox but very devoted to the church, and a valuable church worker. He served on the general board of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association—the organization for teenage boys and young men. He’d been there in this volunteer position for many years and had a real interest in a progressive and liberal lesson curriculum, social activism, and so on. He wanted more than anything else to serve the church through his work with young people. But he had his enemies, as you well know, who were determined to get him off the general board and away from the youth program. Soon after I got acquainted with Ericksen, in 1933, he was bounced off the general board by a conservative faction led by John A. Widtsoe, who was then an apostle. He used to tell me in detail about this hassle. Arthur L. Beeley was also on the youth board. Now, you wouldn’t have known Beeley…
No, I didn’t.
Beeley was another institution. He was a British convert to Mormonism, and he cultivated his British personal qualities. He was head of sociology and creator of the university’s Graduate School of Social Work, of which he was dean, until his retirement in about 1955 or 1956. He retired at age sixty-five, after I became dean of Letters and Science. Not long after Beeley’s retirement, the Council of Academic Deans under President Ray Olpin raised the retirement age to sixty-eight for faculty, although it remained sixty-five for administrators. Beeley took that action quite personally. In his best British accent he told me, “You know, Olpin just waited until I was retired so that he could raise the retirement age to sixty-eight.”
Beeley had been an aspirant for the presidency when Olpin was made president; and though he was a highly cultivated professional, in every way a very gracious person, it was perfectly obvious to everyone that there was no love lost between him and Olpin.
[p.55] So the general board for the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association had two very distinguished faculty members from the University of Utah on it. Getting rid of them must have created a ruckus.
It was a little difficult for the church to fire them, as you can imagine. They were highly thought of in the community. Their contributions were very well known. So the way the church did it was to dissolve the board and reorganize it, leaving Ericksen and Beeley off. Actually, Ericksen told me that when Beeley discovered that they were going to fire them, he resigned first. I don’t know whether that was Beeley’s version, but that’s what Ericksen said. But Ericksen was determined to stay right there and make them kick him off.
Wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
Yes, and after the board was reorganized, everybody was back on it except Beeley and Ericksen. It wasn’t very subtle. Waldemer Read told me that George Thomas was giving an address somewhere in the university and, to get at some point he was making, called attention to the fact that the church had dissolved the YMMIA general board to drop Beeley and Ericksen: “They burned down the whole barn to get rid of a couple of rats,” was how he put it. Thomas was a kind of crusty character. Now I think that should be preserved; and if it isn’t preserved here, I don’t know where it will be.
Well, it is preserved here and now!
The reason I’m telling you this story, Jack, is that I want you to see that some of these leading figures in the university were really devoted to the LDS church.
Elder Boyd Packer and a few of his apostolic supporters are waging a more vicious campaign against scholars in the 1990s. I’m thinking, for example, of the excommunications of six prominent intellectuals in the fall of 1993. This sort of grudge against freedom of thought, and those who support it, seems to be a continuing characteristic of Mormon leaders, or at least an episodic one.
Yes, I’ve seen it happen over and over again. But it is clearly at its worst today.
Wasn’t Ericksen near retirement when you came? And wasn’t there a symbolic link between his professorship and yours?
His last year was 1947-48. He retired at sixty-five, creating the faculty vacancy to which I was appointed. He went to the University of Nevada at Reno and chaired its Department of Philosophy for several years. He and Edna kept their home here in Salt Lake while they were in Nevada, so after his second retirement they lived for many years on [p.56] University Avenue near the bottom of the campus, right across the street from the old library. Mrs. Ericksen died just a few years ago. He had died earlier. She was a beautiful woman, highly talented, with a distinguished career in civic affairs.
You’ve made the point that it was as a teacher that Ericksen had such great influence. What about his writing, his scholarship?
He produced one of the first real scholarly studies of Mormonism—the best thing he wrote, by far, in my opinion. It analyzes Mormon social, moral, and intellectual life.
That was his dissertation at the University of Chicago?
Yes, The Psychological and Ethical Aspects of Mormon Group Life. It was published in a limited edition by the University of Chicago Press and, as I think you know, the University of Utah Press republished it a few years ago.
I’ve read it. It’s excellent. You had something to do with getting it republished, didn’t you?
Yes. I felt very strongly that it should be republished. After Ericksen’s death, I talked to Mrs. Ericksen about it. She liked the idea and thought it would be a very nice thing; so I negotiated with the University of Utah Press and my colleagues in the philosophy department. Four of us had been students and friends of Ericksen: Waldemer Read, Obert Tanner, Charles Monson, and I. We got our heads together and decided that we should do much more than simply reproduce Ericksen’s doctoral dissertation. We wanted to make it the centerpiece of a volume in honor of Ericksen with several essays on his philosophy. It wasn’t to be a festschrift in the ordinary sense because it was to be a volume of Ericksen’s own stuff as well as essays on him and his philosophy. He had published another book, Social Ethics, in 1937. I worked with him on that book when I was a graduate student; and Waldemer Read, his former student and by then his colleague in the department, contributed importantly to that book. It’s a good book. It’s a textbook in ethics with a strong pragmatic flavor. It also has a chapter or two on religion—it’s not solely on ethics. We were going to include extensive passages from this book and other publications in our essays on Ericksen’s philosophy.
I’ve never seen this book. What were the essays about?
There’s a good reason why you’ve never seen it. It was never published! I’ll get to that in just a minute. The way we divided up the work, Monson was going to write on Ericksen’s political thought and, to some extent, his economic thought. That was a particular interest of Monson. Ericksen’s degree at Chicago was in economics and philosophy; [p.57] and he had produced a large manuscript on economic philosophy; but it was never published. As a matter of fact, it was somewhat outdated by the time he had finished it. Obert Tanner was to take Ericksen as a moral philosopher. I was doing his philosophy of religion, and Read wrote a biographical essay. Read had been Ericksen’s student and colleague since the late 1920s.
Well, to make a long story short—and it is a long story—Read did an extensive essay on Ericksen’s philosophical position and his involvement with the LDS church. He wrote that essay on the occasion of the establishment of the E. E. Ericksen Professorship in Philosophy, to which I was appointed. President James Fletcher and the vice-president, Jack Adamson, wanted to have a major event to inaugurate the professorship and asked me to give an inaugural address. It was on the philosophy of history and had nothing to do with Ericksen, but Read, at my urging, agreed to read a paper on Ericksen.
Seems like a good balance.
Well, he gave a terrific paper, it really was great. But it analyzed in considerable detail Ericksen’s problems with the Mormon church—or rather, its problems with him. We planned to use this essay in the book. Ericksen was still alive and attended the inaugural evening. I don’t know how he reacted to Read’s paper. He died before we became involved in doing the book.
In more ways than one. Mrs. Ericksen took exception to several things in Read’s essay and felt strongly that they should not be in the book. Read was determined that by damn they were going to be in there because if Eph—that’s what we always called him, short for Ephraim—were still living, he would want them in. Read just felt that it wouldn’t be true to the facts to omit those events, that it would distort the description of Ericksen’s personality and his intellectual struggles.
Was he right? And was this conflict the undoing of the book?
Oh, I’m sure he was. I felt the same way. One specific example was a kind of grilling by the local Mormon church authorities when they called Ericksen in and really put him on the spot about his beliefs. Ericksen always called that his “inquisition.” It wasn’t a formal trial for his membership, you understand, but a rather hostile questioning. Read included Ericksen’s own account of that. Mrs. Ericksen didn’t want it in the book, and the net result was that the book was never published. I think all of the essays were written with the possible exception of two, one by Jack Adamson and the other by Lowell Bennion. I have them [p.58] right here in the drawer; but the project was dropped, and I’ve always been sorry about that.
You decided it wasn’t worth creating difficulties with the family?
Yes, we didn’t want to do anything that would be offensive to Mrs. Ericksen. She was a very dear friend of all of us. A remarkable woman, a wonderful person; but Read wasn’t about to yield and neither would she. Monson, the junior partner, was the editor, so he dealt with Mrs. Ericksen. They were extremely close. I don’t know if someone else would have been more effective.
What has become of the collection of unpublished essays for the book, especially Waldemer Read’s essay?
I’ve got the whole set in my files at home, at least all those that were finished. I will donate them to the Marriott Library.
But at least you got the dissertation reprinted?
Yes, much to Mrs. Ericksen’s pleasure, I might say. The University Press did a very good job. Both Mrs. Ericksen and the director of the press, Norma Mikkelsen, asked me to write an introduction to the book, so I revamped the essay which I had written for the other volume. That dissertation was a fine piece of work. It deserved to be republished and has received a great deal of attention. Far more, I’m sure, than it received when it was first issued by the University of Chicago Press.
There’s no question that Eph Ericksen had a powerful and positive influence on your life as a student and later as a professor. Now what can you tell me about campus life in the 1930s. What was it like here?
Well, campus life here was quite simple in those days compared to what it is now, and the whole operation was much smaller.
I understand that one of the great satisfactions of President Thomas was winning a Phi Beta Kappa chapter for the University of Utah. It was established in 1935, when you were here. Do you remember the ceremonies?
Oh yes, very well. The ceremonies were held at Kingsbury Hall, really the only auditorium that we had in those days. And of course, the students attended things. Today if something like the establishment of Phi Beta Kappa were held, I’m sure they would hold it either in the president’s office or in a very small auditorium because you wouldn’t expect very many students to show up.
Most University of Utah students were living at home then, just as they are now, which is the reason we give to explain why they don’t turn out in large numbers for public events on campus today.
You’re quite right. I don’t know why except that I think there was [p.59] more of a sense in those days of being a part of the university, among not only students but faculty. My impression today is that many faculty, much less students, don’t see themselves as an integral part of the university. They’re off in their own corner. They see themselves as part of their own department—and some barely that. Even down into the 1950s, it seemed to me that the typical faculty man or woman had a strong sense of belonging to the whole institution. And the students felt the same way. The student body numbered less than four thousand in the thirties. You’d know everybody.
Well, I didn’t mean to distract you from your Phi Beta Kappa tale.
The granting of the charter is a simple ceremony; but the important thing is that it was the first chapter of Phi Beta Kappa to be established in Utah. BYU doesn’t have a chapter even now. Well, the national Phi Beta Kappa officer who presided at the ceremony was a celebrated figure in physics, Robert Milliken, who was then president of the California Institute of Technology and a Nobel Prize winner for his research on cosmic rays. He gave a formal address which made a very considerable impression on me—affected my whole approach to higher education.
What did he say about universities?
He talked about the fundamental importance of research, pointing out that practical applications of science depend on disinterested scholarship. He gave several examples of the general impact of basic research upon the development of technology and how technology, in turn, influences the social structure and the rise and decline of civilizations. If I were to try to examine the origins of my own views about higher education, I would certainly cite Milliken’s address as having influenced me.
Did you become involved in the Phi Beta Kappa chapter?
Some of the faculty members in those days were Phi Beta Kappa, but the first student members would have been elected from the graduating class in 1935. I was elected to membership in 1936, my senior year, with some other students. Of course, we already had a chapter here of the general honorary society, Phi Kappa Phi, and I was elected to it.
Do you have any other observations on the quality of intellectual life on the campus?
Well, partly because of the high level of participation by most of the students and faculty in all of the activities that were going on, I’d say that the quality was very high. Classroom performance by students was high. And the university was certainly fulfilling its role of being a window on the wider world by bringing in numerous outstanding [p.60] speakers and events. Departments and colleges didn’t do as much then as they do now, obviously. There wasn’t the money to bring people in, but the Extension Division, later Continuing Education, was responsible for some very outstanding things. Its “Masterminds and Artists” series was absolutely first-rate. It strikes me as being somewhat superior to the typical stuff that we have going on now. This series was open to the public as well as to the students, so every few weeks there’d be a program with topflight artists and lecturers, major intellectual figures of world recognition, and a very considerable number of artistic events during the year. Kingsbury Hall would be filled for these occasions.
How were such events funded?
In those days each student received a book of coupons when he or she paid the fees. It contained tickets for all of the athletic and dramatic events; and the tickets for the Masterminds and Artists series were right there, too. I found the same situation at UCLA when I was a freshman. And the very fact that students had these books of tickets encouraged their attendance.
Convenient for dates and group socials, I imagine.
Yes, and they were a sort of student identification. You showed the book when you bought streetcar tickets to get a discount. It cost ten cents to ride the streetcar in those days, but buying them as student books of tickets saved you about three cents a ride. Well, that was a significant saving for a student in those days.
So even though there wasn’t as much going on as there might be today, each event would draw broader participation?
That’s right. Of course, we have more advanced graduate work now. In those days the university offered only masters’ degrees. There was no formally organized graduate school—not until Olpin came two decades later—but there was a division of graduate work with a director of its own. As far as I could tell, it functioned very effectively and very smoothly.
According to Ralph Chamberlin’ s history, The University of Utah, this institution granted only fifty-five masters’ degrees and no doctorates in 1940, so the amount of graduate work was really quite small.
If I remember correctly, the first master’s degree was awarded about 1907.
What kinds of restrictions were placed on students here in your student days?
Well, let’s take smoking. This didn’t bother me because I’ve never smoked, but smoking was permitted only in certain areas of the univer-[p.61]sity—shaded areas, they were called. Maps of the university in the catalog and for visitors would show these shaded areas. It was a source of some amusement to the students and faculty. One of those shaded areas was out behind the Park Building.
So you couldn’t smoke in front, but you could slip out behind the barn, so to speak?
That’s it. Another shaded area was the steps on the east entrance to the Cowles Building. So between classes there would be a conclave of smokers puffing away. Now, you see, we’ve gone back to such restrictions and they don’t sound as silly as they did fifty years ago.
True, but their reasons were different then. What other rules of conduct were enforced for students?
Smoking didn’t bother me much, but one that affected all of the students was the segregation of the sexes. I don’t know what they did in gym classes because I never took one. But in the library reading room at the top of the stairs on the third floor of the Park Building, the men and women were not allowed to sit together. Now I don’t think it was for moral reasons; it was because they made too much noise visiting. There would be a librarian on patrol to make sure you stayed in your own area. The men had the north end and the women had the south end of the reading room. This sort of segregation was enforced even in the student union building.
Where or what was the center of campus life?
When I came to the university in ’33, Kingsbury Hall and Gardner Music Hall were new. Very handsome buildings. I think they still are. Gardner Hall was originally the student union building and it had a touch of real elegance, not only in its architectural quality but in its furnishings. Far superior in most respects, in my opinion, to the present Olpin Union Building. It had a beautiful ballroom on the main floor and lounges on the east and west ends.
Here’s where the segregation comes in.
Yes! The east lounge was the women’s lounge and the lounge at the west end was for the men. Both were beautifully furnished with grand pianos, elegant furnishings, and so forth. Incidentally, upstairs on the east end was another elegant lounge, the Auerbach Room, which was a gift to the university from the Auerbach family, a very handsome, beautifully furnished room. These rooms were large. They ran the whole width of the building. Then upstairs on the west end were some recreation rooms like billiards, and a little theater on the third floor and student offices. [p.62] Well, the men were not allowed in the women’s lounge and vice versa. Just weren’t allowed there.
But what about dances? No segregation there, but plenty of supervision?
Well, that was the exception. For dances, for which people dressed up, those two lounges were open and that’s when the men got to sniff around in the women’s lounge, walk in there with their partners and vice versa. It was a beautiful building and I can understand the desire to preserve it. Everything was kept in beautiful condition. In fact, it was kept in such good condition that they literally drove the students out of the building. There was just never anyone around.
So if you went into the lounge, you’d feel downright uncomfortable?
I’ll say! And if you want a sample of how uncomfortable they made you feel, I had two experiences. Now I had been spoiled at UCLA, which had a very beautiful new union building, Kirkhoff Hall. It had a men’s lounge, a women’s lounge, and one where the two sexes could intermingle. Now in the men’s lounge, it was very informal. It was common for some to stretch out on a sofa and go to sleep. Well, that may have been going too far. But at Utah on one occasion I was sitting up in a high-backed chair and dozed off. You can understand why. I was milking cows, getting up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. Well, the woman in charge was watching and came over. “This is no place to sleep, young man,” she said and asked me to leave. So I did. And the next time, I was sitting up in a straight-back chair reading in the men’s lounge. The woman came over and said, “The place to read is in the library. Either put up the book or leave.” So I left and never went back. Others had the same experience. Now, there was enough freedom that a fellow could come in and pound around on the piano or talk; but to be frank, I didn’t have enough friends among the students to even go in and talk with anybody.
Sad that the students didn’t feel welcome in their own building.
About the only indoor place you could talk with a woman, except for empty classrooms, was the reserved book room. And during warm weather, student social life centered on the front steps of the Park Building. In the good weather, those Park Building steps would be so solid with students that people couldn’t walk up and down them. That’s where the students would come to sit and talk, see and be seen. In cold weather, the social center moved inside the Park Building on the lower floor where the bookstore was located and on the stairways leading to the library. Now I didn’t sit there because I wasn’t involved in student life.
[p.63] What about your studies? Your undergraduate degree was in philosophy and history?
No, actually it was in the history and political science department. By the summer of 1934, I’d decided that I didn’t want to pursue the study of law but had decided to stick with philosophy and history. I didn’t do as much work in history as I should have done. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t concentrate on history, but I was quite taken with political science at that time. As graduation approached, I actually qualified for graduation either from the history and political science department or from the philosophy department. Professor Neff wanted me to get the degree from his department, and Ericksen thought it would be a good idea. By then it was obvious that I was going to go on for my M.A. in philosophy. So that’s why I did it.
You wrote your master’s thesis during the academic year 1936-37, Sterling. What was your topic?
Well, my subject was the theory of knowledge in St. Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. The university library was very short on a lot of things—didn’t have all of Augustine’s works. I had to get the complete works of Aquinas through Monsignor Duane G. Hunt, later bishop of the Utah diocese of the Catholic church. He had it in his personal library. He lived in Holy Cross Hospital and made arrangements for me to use his library any time of the day or night. I lived very near there. We became good friends and had some association after he became bishop and I returned to Utah. But when I’d worked on the university history, I ran into a complete set of St. Augustine’s works at the LDS Church Historical Library. So I went back down to the library and told Alvin Smith that I would like to have the privilege of spending some time with the writings of St. Augustine. “Never heard of him,” said the official librarian of the Mormon church. Well, I’m sure he hadn’t! “Never heard of him. We don’t have anything of his here,” he said. “Well,” I said, “Brother Smith, you do.” “You show it to me,” he said gruffly, so I took him back and there it was. So he gave me permission to use it.
Your lifelong affiliation with the University of Utah began with two degrees, an excellent education, and many strong friendships. Let’s turn next to exploring those friendships and how they influenced you.