New Parsons College Alumni Hall display focuses on history department
The Parsons College Alumni Hall in the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center is featuring a new display focusing on the now defunct college’s history department.
Dave Neff, president of the Parsons College Foundation Fund, said the two display cabinets in the hall contain Piera yearbooks open to pages with photos of the history department staff, as well as history books students might have studied from in their classes.
Neff said the history books were provided by former Parsons history teacher Robert Tree of Fairfield.
History of the history department
Parsons College, in its 98-year history, with the arrival of Dr. Millard G. Roberts, had a decade from the mid 1950s through the mid 1960s, where its name was known around Iowa, the midwest and the nation for culture, athletics and academics.
During the rise of Parsons, its history department had one of the top academic curriculums in the college, based upon the number of students enrolled as a major course of study. The college academic areas had a very well paid faculty, which allowed the professors to focus on the students and not become involved in the “publish or perish” formula for many larger universities.
In 1954, doctoral candidates Ralph Sayer and Lewis Wheelock were the two professors of history at Parsons College. In addition to teaching, Sayer was assistant to then-president Tom Shearer.
Shearer moved to Caldwell College in Idaho as its president in 1954. While Parsons was looking for a new president, Sayer was the acting president. He completed his undergraduate work at Grinnell College and later earned his graduate degree from Columbia University.
Wheelock was a Fairfield native and was doing additional research at the Newberry Library in Chicago when he made the acquaintance of Robert L. Tree. Tree was just completing his doctoral research at Northwestern University after completing his undergraduate work at Grinnell College. The two men were doing similar research and struck up a friendship strong enough for Wheelock to invite Tree to Fairfield for a meal the first weekend of November.
Saturday evening a small dinner party was being hosted by the Wheelocks at their home on East Burlington Avenue. Mr. and Mrs. Sayer were present. As the evening progressed, Mr. Sayer received a phone call from one of the Parsons trustees who had extended an invitation to Dr. Millard G. Roberts, a Presbyterian minister from upstate New York, to become the next president of Parsons College effective July 1, 1955.
Sayer was invited to join Tom Shearer in Idaho and become the dean of Caldwell College.
In the spring of 1955, an invitation was extended to Tree to come to the college for an interview, and Sayer and Goltry offered the history position to him.
This provided the opportunity for Tree and Wheelock to cover the teaching duties in the history department at the college. Wheelock was responsible for the western civilization courses and some American history, and Tree for American history and American, state and local government classes. As the college grew, so did the history department faculty.
The following is the order of hiring and the years served at Parsons by this group of professors:
Lewis F. Wheelock, PhD, 1953-1962, University of Iowa
Robert L. Tree, PhD, 1955-1973, Northwestern University.
Robert Elkin, PhD, 1959-1970, University of Illinois
Richard H. Barton, PhD, 1963-1973, Michigan State University
J. Wilson Ferguson, PhD, 1963, Princeton University
Jack W. Hines, PhD, 1963-1973, University of Kansas
William B. Munson, PhD, 1965-1973, University of Illinois
Edwin C. Blackburn, PhD, 1966-1972, University of Michigan
Thomas C. Duffey, PhD, 1966-1969, Clark University
Benjamin Rogers, PhD, 1966-1973, University of Minnesota
Munson moved from the teaching staff to administration as vice president of academic affairs and to acting president when Roberts finished his responsibilities with the college.
Tree also moved to administration as the dean of the college at that time when Jack Brown, the former dean moved back to teaching biology and returned to a school in the southern United States.
Prior to the arrival of Roberts as president, the college had eight PhD’s on the 33-member faculty.
Roberts, being from the east coast, knew where there were more students than class space at the eastern schools and also knew a number of the professors, who he felt would embellish the already rich academic tradition of Parsons College. The history department grew dramatically, as well as did other academic disciplines under the guidance of Roberts.
The entire college had tremendous depth in the area of preceptors and tutors.
Preceptors, tutors of history
In addition to the professors listed above, there was a support staff of eight individuals, not including the preceptors, who provided additional services to the history department.
Because of this strong faculty, there were a great number of history majors at Parsons. The professors were hired to teach and provide face time with the students, and they enjoyed having the students around.
The history department was one of the largest majors on campus when Parsons was at the top of its game in the mid 1960s.
The preceptors were an important part of the department. As part of the Roberts “Parsons Plan” each student had three hours per week of lecture with a full professor with a PhD and two hours a week with a preceptor who had a masters degree in that discipline as a required discussion class. A student had five hours of contact per week with each class taken, significantly more than other colleges and universities of that time.
The preceptors were: Neil White, Vaughan Camp, Harry Dahleimer, John Davies, Evan Garrett, John Giavaras, Frosty Schwengels, Arnold Kramer, Gerald Polinsky, O. B. Nelson and Lillian Waugh. Waugh was a preceptor in history and a graduate of Colby College class of 1963. Tree recalled Waugh was very bright and very attractive; quite a number of male students were attracted to her discussion classes, but she handled them quite well and did not seem to be bothered by the attention.
The tutorial department was for those students who still were not able to grasp the subject matter during the five hours of classroom contact each week. The tutors were available for one-on-one contact with the students, at no additional cost from the standard tuition.
Linda Bicknell, Glenn S. Dickson, Georgena Duncan, David Hubler, Gerald Newborg, Evelyn Soblotne, Gertrude Solheim and Rein Talman were the tutors for the history department.
Tree said Solheim had received a two-year degree and was teaching in the Fairfield elementary schools when the Iowa Department of Education passed the requirement that a four-year degree was required. When she went back to Parsons to complete her degree, the staff liked her so much she was asked to continue and work as a tutor.
Many a time a meandering college student needed a jump start with a “kick in the butt” to get them motivated, compliments of Solheim, said Tree.
In retrospect, Tree feels the quality and depth of the history department made it one of the strongest in the college and it could compete with like undergraduate departments in other schools in America. The great universities of higher education represented by these professors provided extremely deep insight for the students who were history majors at Parsons College.
Note: The body of this article was obtained in a personal interview with Robert L. Tree May 7 at his home in Fairfield by David Neff, president of the Parsons College Foundation Fund.