BYU presidents leave legacy for students, staff



    Each of the 11 BYU presidents has shared a vision of the destiny of this university. Coming with different experiences and expertise, they brought unique changes and progress to the school.

    Warren H. Dusenberry opened up Brigham Young Academy in 1875 with a total of 70 students and a campus consisting of 1.17 acres. He only served one term as the school’s president and became a local businessman and county judge.

    More well known is Karl G. Maeser, a convert to the Latter-Day Saint Church, and the second president of the BYU Academy. Before becoming president in 1876, Maeser had already served three missions for the LDS church and was the Tabernacle Choir organist.

    ?MD+IT?Brigham Young University: A House of Faith?MD-IT? related an incident when Maeser’s students tied a mule to his desk early one morning before his arrival. Upon seeing it Maeser said,`You seem to have chosen the smartest among you to stand at the head of the class in my absence.'”

    In 1881 Former apostle James E. Talmage, Maeser’s student, was the first BYU student to receive a collegiate diploma.

    The next president, Benjamin Cluff Jr., was the first BY Academy student to go on a mission and the only faculty member with a college degreewhen he was ppointed. After touring eastern universities and attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Cluff was referred to as an “eastern intellectual.”

    During his 11-year administration he increased the number of colleges and pushed for the BY Academy to become Brigham Young University in 1903. He also headed an expedition to South America hoping to validate geographic sites mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

    George H. Brimhall became the fourth president in 1904. He actively recruited professors with Ph.D’s to increase academic scholarship. Three professors eventually had to resign during Brimhall’s term because of teaching organic evolution and biblical criticism.

    University archivist Brian Reeves found an incident from Brimhall’s administration recounted by J. Edward Johnson. After being informed “a rash of pilfering had hit the student body,” and citing the theft of a watch 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’.” He then suggested the guilty party return the watch. The next morning the president found several watches on his desk.

    Franklin S. Harris served 23 years, the longest of the BYU. He was a respected academic and the first president to hold a doctoral degree. In 1938, while president, he announced 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 during World War II, and his term as the 6th president began at the end of that war in 1945. He used his military experience as president. When the school ran short on classrooms and dorms, McDonald arranged for military barracks to be transported from San Francisco to Provo. He also fought to keep BYU’s position as a church university and for more funding from the Board of Trustees.

    Known not only because of the Wilkinson Student Center, the 5-foot 5-inch tall Ernest L. Wilkinson was also known to colleagues as the “Little General,” “Little Caesar,” “Little Napolean,” or the “Tasmanian Devil,” according to “BYU: A House of Faith.” He was a successful eastern attorney and became president of BYU in 1951.

    While president, Wilkinson was hospitalized because of heart problems. The book said while listening to the University of Utah defeat BYU in a game on the radio he suffered a massive heart attack.

    Dallin H. Oaks, a respected attorney and now apostle of the church, became the 8th president in 1971. He advocated women’s issues and strived to distance BYU from ultra-conservative factions.

    Oaks also had a sense of humor about his job. When it was suggested that BYU faculty grow beards in honor of the Centennial year he replied, “I think it is a splendid suggestion, 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.”

    Also a current apostle of the church, Jeffrey R. Holland was a religious educator in several positions and the church commissioner when he was nominated as the 9th president of the church in 1980. He was the last president to live on-campus.

    Darryl Gibson, operations manager of BYU Newsnet, remembers the Holland’s dog, Sir Isaac Newton. He 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 add and find their dog.”

    Rex E. Lee was a student body president before coming BYU’s 10th president in 1989. He was also the founding dean of the law school. A runner, Lee participated in various marathons and was very active. He also battled cancer and a variety of other ailments.

    Tom Britsch, who served as his academic vice-president, commented on his optimism and brilliance. He 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.”

    Finally, Merrill J. Bateman, current president, has continued these various legacies by contributing to the mission of making BYU a “Zion university.” He served as a lecturer of economics in Ghana, dean of BYU’s Marriott School of Management and LDS church presiding bishop before beginning his term in 1996.

    All of these men have strived to create the destiny of BYU as we know it today. With each came a unique spirit and emphasis that added to the overall university.

    For more information on BYU’s history see “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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