BYU presidents shared common goals



    The vision of BYU’s destiny as a Zion university has been shared by each of its 11 presidents.

    With 70 students and a 1.17-acre campus, Principal Warren H. Dusenberry opened Brigham Young Academy in 1875. Dusenberry remained at the academy only one term and moved on to a career as a local businessman and county judge.

    Karl Maeser, a convert from Saxony to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, served three church missions and a stint as the Salt Lake Tabernacle organist before becoming principal of the Brigham Young Academy in 1876. Although often regarded as a stern disciplinarian, according to those closet to him he had a disarming sense of humor.

    “When students once tied a mule to the principal’s desk early one morning before his arrival, Maeser deadpanned, ‘You seem to have chosen the smartest among you to stand at the head of the class in my absence,'” according to the book, “Brigham Young University: A House of Faith.”

    Maeser stressed discipline and character building as fundamentals to education. One of Maeser’s pupils was the former apostle James E. Talmage, who received the school’s first collegiate diploma in 1881.

    Benjamin Cluff Jr. was the first student of the academy to go on a mission and subsequently the only faculty member with a college degree when appointed principal of the BY Academy. Cluff’s tour of eastern universities after his graduation from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and training in the East earned suspicion from many of the faculty who branded him as “an eastern intellectual.”

    Cluff increased the number of colleges during his 11-year administration and pushed for the BY Academy to become Brigham Young University in 1903. Cluff headed a controversial expedition to South America hoping to substantiate geographic sites mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

    George H. Brimhall became BYU’s fourth president in 1904 and encouraged academic scholarship by actively recruiting BYU’s Ph.D.s. Three professors resigned during his administration for teaching organic evolution and biblical criticism.

    Brian Reeves, university archivist, found an incident recounted by J. Edward Johnson particularly entertaining. According to Johnson, Brimhall had been informed that a “rash of pilfering had hit the student body.” Citing the theft of a watch stolen from a gym locker, Brimhall said that if the culprit had “even so much as a trace of conscience and character every tick of that watch would say to him,’thief.’ Thief, thief, thief, thief. Brimhall suggested the guilty party return the watch. The story goes that when he came into his office early the following morning, Brimhall found several watches on his desk.”

    Franklin S. Harris holds the distinction of serving the longest term of any BYU president, remaining 23 years. A respected academic, Harris was the first of BYU’s presidents to hold a doctorate. While president of BYU, Harris announced in 1938 his candidacy for the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket, according to the book “BYU: The First One Hundred Years.”

    Howard S. McDonald fought in an artillery brigade in Europe in World War II and worked as a school administrator before becoming BYU’s sixth president in 1945. McDonald fought for BYU’s continuing position as a church university and subsequent funding from the Board of the Trustees. McDonald arranged for military barracks to be transported from San Francisco to Provo to allieve the shortage of classrooms and dormitories.

    Ernest L. Wilkinson held a career as successful eastern attorney before his appointment as the seventh president of BYU in 1951. “Colleagues remember the 5-foot 5-inch tall president as the “Little General,” “Little Caeser,” “Little Napoleon” or “Tasmanian Devil,” according “BYU: A House of Faith.” While Wilkinson was hospitalized because of heart problems, the book reports he suffered a massive heart attack while listening to the University of Utah wallop BYU.

    Dallin H. Oaks, a respected attorney, became the university’s eighth president in 1971. Oaks advocated women’s issues and struggled to distance the university from ultra-conservative factions during his administration.

    Oaks had a ready wit which he displayed when it was suggested that faculty members grow beards in honor of the BYU Centennial year.

    “I think it is a splendid suggestion,” Oaks said, “and in keeping with the historical flavor of the idea, I’m sure we could arrange for the salaries of those who grow beards to be paid in kind with corn, beets and potatoes.” Oaks was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles four years after he left BYU.

    Jeffrey R. Holland served as a religious educator in a variety of positions and was Oaks’ superior as church commissioner when nominated as the ninth president in 1980.

    Holland was the last president to live on campus. Daryl Gibson, operations manager of BYU NewsNet, remembers the Hollands’ dog, Sir Isaac Newton, who bore a resemblance to Benji.

    Gibson recalls, “The dog used campus as his private home and would routinely get lost, and Sister Holland would call and request The Daily Universe to run an ad to find their dog.” Gibson remembers seeing the dog streak across campus and dive into a ditch and streak back home soaking wet.

    Holland was ordained as an apostle in 1989.

    Rex E. Lee was student body president at BYU and the founding dean of the Law School before his appointment in 1989. Lee enjoyed running and participated in a variety of marathons. Although he battled cancer and a host of aliments, Lee had an infectious optimism, according to Tom Britsch, who served as his academic vice-president.

    Britsch said Lee’s “sparkling wit came from his brilliant mind and that it was an education just to watch this superb legal mind at work.”

    Merrill J. Bateman, BYU’s current president, served as a lecturer of economics in Ghana, dean of BYU’s Marriott School of Management and as the LDS Church presiding bishop before coming to the university in 1996.

    While each president brought a unique spirit to his administration, each searched to shape and define the destiny of BYU as it is known today.

    For more information on BYU’s history, read “BYU: A School of Destiny,” “BYU: A House of Faith” or “BYU: The First Hundred Years,” a four-volume history edited by Wilkinson.

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