Eugene S. Wilson

Dean of Admissions and Class of 1929
Reminiscences about President Stanley King, 1952

[no audio available for this reminiscence]


Reminiscences about President Stanley King by 
Eugene S. Wilson, Jr. ‘29 

[These were prepared in June 1952 for Claude Moore Fuess ‘05 who was writing a biography of Stanley King at the request of his widow, Margaret Pinckney King.  The book was published in 1955 by Columbia University Press.] 

I first met Stanley King in June 1939 on the occasion of my tenth reunion. I had not been back to Amherst since graduation in 1929. I may have met Stanley when I was a boy because my father was engaged in so many Amherst enterprises with him. I do not remember. I do know that the Executive Committee of the Alumni Council had offered me the job of Alumni Secretary subject to the approval of Stanley King. He took an hour and a half of a busy commencement weekend to sit alone with me on his porch and discuss the position of Alumni Secretary. I queried him closely on his idea of the job and what he thought an Alumni Secretary should be and do. He spoke many times of the work and contribution Fred Allis had made and he made the job sound exciting and interesting. I had become interested in the work because I had been told that I could handle the occupational guidance of seniors, a project that interested me greatly, and because I thought there might be some way to encourage alumni to continue their studies after leaving college. Other phases of the work interested me too, but it was these two that attracted me to the position at Amherst. Stanley King discussed these thoughts with me and agreed that there was probably room for a real contribution in these areas. He said that he would heartily support any endeavors made along these lines. 

From 1939 in September, when I reported for work, until Stanley resigned, I had an unusual opportunity to observe him in action. I probably saw as much of him as any single man at Amherst except Dean Porter and Paul Weathers. I traveled with him about the country visiting Alumni Associations; I met with him two or three times a week on Alumni affairs; I watched him in faculty meetings; and in 1941, when I was made secretary of the Corporation, I had a chance to observe him with the Trustees. He was one of the most interesting characters I have ever known. 

To most people Stanley King was a remote, mysterious, businesslike personality. There was no great warmth that issued from him. Few people really loved him. All respected his ability and his integrity. His critics respected him so much that they were for the most part very careful not to meet him in open debate. 

Stanley had three great loves: Amherst, his wife, and himself. His devotion to Amherst was manifested in so many ways that I hardly need mention this fact. No man in the last fifty years gave more time, energy, or thought to Amherst than this man. No task was too great or too small for him to tackle if it involved Amherst. He would spend any number of hours waking or sleeping planning ways to better Amherst. No Amherst man who was in trouble, whether Stanley liked him or not, whether his record was great or small, and who cried for help failed to receive it from the President of the College. Though some of his actions and some of his work may be questioned, his devotion to the College cannot be questioned. 

His devotion to his second wife was puzzling to many who knew her. It was always constant, at least in the seven years I knew him. On trips he would wire her daily about his work and schedule. When he was home he was her constant companion. He spent many hours walking the campus with her. He apparently respected her opinion on all phases of college life. More than once when he had made a decision in faculty meeting, in committee meeting, or even in trustee meeting, he would come back the next day with a different point of view and those who knew him best said that the new point of view had come from his wife. When he was with her he would give her constant care often going upstairs or to other rooms to get her cigarettes, a book, a handkerchief, anything she wished. He was never heard to say anything critical about her. He always mentioned her when he had a chance to speak of his accomplishments around Amherst. 

His love of himself was not one that was based on false beliefs or imaginary accomplishments. He knew of his strength and power and he loved to tell of his accomplishments. No one can read his two books on Amherst, on the endowment fund and the buildings, without seeing the pleasure he got from telling of the times when he got what he wanted from the trustees, from students, from faculty, or from other opponents. His greatest thrill came from contests; he loved to match wits with anyone, and he rose to his greatest heights when he faced a situation which others had called an impossible one. My first chance to observe his egotism was on our first alumni trip around the country. As I knew very little about the man and had not talked with him at any length, he spent most of the trip entertaining me with stories of his achievements.* (*He did not once ask me what I had been doing or thinking for ten years since leaving Amherst. My ego was hurt!) His conquests were all exciting and I am sure they were factually true. They were stories of his early days at Harvard Law School, of his graduating from Amherst in three years, of his completing one year of law school without the use of his eyes. He told me of his early days in the shoe business, of his victories over labor, production problems, sales problems; he told me of his work as Under Secretary of War in the first World War and of his accomplishments there; and of the spectacular trip down the New York harbor in a patrol boat to meet the Secretary of War who was returning from Europe and whom he had to see before anyone else saw him. I hope you have this incident in your biography because it is an exciting story and shows Stanley at his best. He was a competitive person. He loved to win. After he had retired he liked to tell stories of how he had bested the faculty or the trustees in encounters with them. He told his stories in such a way as to bring offense to almost no one and yet each of them showed Stanley’s greatness in times of conflict. 

One of the reasons for Stanley’s ability to run smooth meetings was his gift for advance preparation. He went into no meeting of any sort without preparing himself completely for the business ahead. This preparation included a study of any possible opposition, its sources and its strength. If he knew ahead of time where opposition was coming from he would find a way to overcome it in advance. As a simple illustration of this, when he would take his alumni trips and have in some cities a reception with parents of students before the regular alumni dinner, he would come to that meeting with a list of the parents who would be there, the names of their sons who were in college, and the academic record of those sons at the last marking period. At that reception he could tell the parents exactly how their sons were doing. He knew at alumni meetings which alumni were apt to ask disturbing questions, who they were, and what their opposition was based upon. He also knew how to meet it. He knew in faculty meetings which measures would be opposed and by whom and he was usually careful to see that the opposition did not come up in meetings. In trustee meetings he again prepared himself carefully in advance and if he knew that some trustees of power were going to oppose him, he would call on them in their offices during the weeks preceding the meeting and make sure that they understood fully the problem and its possible solutions. By this technique he also found out about the nature of the opposition and he would be prepared to meet it if it arose. 

Nothing disturbed him as much as opposition that came up in a meeting suddenly without warning; opposition for which he had no chance to prepare. 

The first time I saw him angry was in 1940 or 1941 when the trustees had passed the T.I.A.A. program for the Amherst faculty. It was to go into effect in January and a notice had been given to the faculty rather suddenly. Some of the faculty felt that they needed more time to prepare for the T.I.A.A. contribution in their budgets and so a petition was circulated asking the trustees to put off the start of this program until July first. When this petition reached the president he was very angry at what he thought was an ungrateful move on the part of the faculty. I was secretary pro tem of the Board of Trustees at the time and Stanley had included me in the T.I.A.A. program although I had not been at Amherst the required number of years, three. I had signed the petition because I thought it a fair request. 

The morning the petition reached the President’s desk he phoned me in the Alumni Office reminded me that he had included my name only through his own generosity, and that I had shown myself to be very ungrateful, and not only that, foolish. I told him that I had planned to come over that afternoon and tell him about my signing it and why I had signed it, but he told me there was no need to do that, that he was disgusted and he slammed the phone down. 

I did not see him that day and at six o’clock that night just before supper a knock came on the front door of my home. I went to the door and it was Stanley. He was in a good mood, completely relaxed, and with no sign of anger in his manner or voice. I asked him into the living room and he took some time to tell me of Fred Allis’s work with the Board of Trustees, how Fred Allis never took sides on any issue, and how I was playing a very foolish role by taking sides with the faculty on the T.I.A.A. program. He reminded me that I was being considered as secretary of the Board and that a move like this might cost me this job. I told him that I thought I was free to express the opinion I had expressed on the petition; that since I had been included in it I had a right to vote and that I did not see that this had anything to do with my position as Alumni Secretary or secretary pro-tem of the Board of Trustees. 

Stanley pointed out that he was playing the role of a father in this matter and that he was merely trying to give me some advice that he was sure would help me in my stay at Amherst. We parted on a friendly basis though in complete disagreement. 

Twice during the war when I was an instructor in English, I spoke in faculty meeting in opposition to things he wanted done, though I shall not take the time to relate these incidents for they are not that important. On both occasions he summoned me to his office the next morning, reminded me that I was only an instructor; that I would lose friends if I opposed him in faculty meeting; and he suggested that I refrain from further participation in debate in the faculty meetings. 

I could not agree with the position taken by the President and since he offered to discuss in no way the merits of the comments I had made, but only the fact that I had spoken, I suggested that perhaps the best thing for me to do was to resign because I could not be comfortable in an organization where I was not free to speak my mind. He would not let me resign and again played the fatherly role and told me that he was making these suggestions for my sake and not for his and that he hoped I would take them on that basis. 

Once these encounters were over the President never referred to them again and our relations continued as formerly, at least on the surface. I did notice that a year after my two battles with him in the faculty meeting I was called to the Dean’s Office one day and informed that the college no longer could claim deferment from the Draft for me as an English teacher. I never knew whether the position which I was told was so valuable to the college a year before had suddenly become less valuable, or whether there was some other reason for my being removed from the list of men for whom the college was asking deferment. 

My relations with Stanley deteriorated rapidly after one encounter before the Board of Trustees. It came about over the request of the President of the Board that James Cleland, a teacher in Religion, be made a full professor and put on tenure. The meeting was in the President’s house on the Friday night preceding the regular Board meeting. It was an informal meeting and the last item on the agenda was Stanley’s presentation of the case for James Cleland. The full Board was present and Stanley had taken some time to tell the Board about Cleland, about his brilliant commencement addresses, which had brought fame to the College, and about his successful teaching. Stanley had had prepared by the Dean’s Office a list of Amherst’s Religion teachers and he had compiled the attendance at these courses for twenty-five years. He showed that Cleland was drawing more students than any other teacher in the last twenty-five years and that this was an indication of the man’s ability as a teacher. He spoke of his excellent work in Chapel talks and of his great popularity with the students. He then asked each member of the Board to say what he thought about James Cleland. None knew him well. A few had heard him at commencement addresses and spoke favorably of these addresses. Al Stearns who was Chairman of the Board wasn’t enthusiastic about the man but he could not say just why. When each trustee had had a chance to speak, there was a silence and Eustace Seligman turned to me and said, “I’d like to hear from our secretary because he is very much interested in Religion.” Stanley looked at me and I thought for a moment he was going to refuse to grant this request but apparently he decided that he couldn’t. I took a minute or two to try and decide whether I should speak or not because my views were so opposed to those of the President. Finally I decided that it would be better if I did present my thoughts. I informed the Board that Jim Cleland was a clever, humorous, popular teacher; that he was popular because of his cleverness and his humor rather than his depth of knowledge and that his classes were good entertainment. I was not sure whether they were good education. He rarely flunked anyone. I also informed the Board that Cleland did not have the confidence of his colleagues on the faculty and that I was sure the promotion of this man to full professor would not meet with the approval of the faculty at large. 

Stanley said nothing after I had talked and a member of the Board suggested the matter be held over until the next day for further consideration. So action was postponed and after the meeting Al Stearns, Eustace Seligman, Francis Plimpton, and one or two others asked me to walk back to the Inn with them and tell them more about Cleland and his position on the campus. I reported my beliefs and observations to them. The next day the promotion of Cleland was postponed for further consideration. 

Stanley said nothing to me about this incident but about two months later in New York when the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees met, in Francis Plimpton’s home, and after the business of the meeting had been concluded, Stanley said he had a serious matter he wanted the Executive Committee to consider. He wanted them to pass a motion stating that in matters of promotion no one but full professors of the Department concerned or related departments and the President and Dean would be consulted. I saw what he was leading up to and I asked him if it would make it easier if I left the room. He said, “no.” He wanted me to stay there and be in on the discussion. He then told the Committee that he thought my views on Cleland had no more importance than those of a member of the Buildings and Grounds Department; that I was operating out of my field and that the Board should not be influenced by the opinions of people in positions like mine. The Board Committee disagreed with him unanimously and he saw that he could do nothing on this matter in this way. Cleland was released a year later and replaced by Prof. J. A. Martin. 

I believe other members of the faculty can give stories of similar occurrences in Stanley’s early years here; instances of how he reacted against opposition. I often wondered what my fate would have been had I been an instructor at Amherst College and under his control, rather than one hired by the Alumni Council and independent of his control.

The story of the War Memorial and its erection is an interesting one and Stanley has told it in part in his book. He had given much thought to the kind of Memorial Amherst should have and he had discussed many different projects with me. He finally decided that the War Memorial which now exists was the one that was right for Amherst and he engaged Shurcliff to make the drawings and presented his plans to the Board of Trustees; they approved. He called me in one morning to present the plans to me and to discuss the War Memorial fund which was to be raised for the War Memorial. I believed strongly in memorial scholarships. I thought Amherst needed good students more than it needed additional playing fields and I told the President so quite frankly. He and I were obviously far apart. He suggested that each of us appear before the Alumni Fund Committee, whose job it was to pass on the project of the year, and each of us present our propositions and let the Alumni Fund Committee make a decision. I agreed with this wholeheartedly. We met with the Committee, each presented his proposition, and the Alumni Fund Committee voted to support Stanley’s program. I pledged my full support and as the record indicates at the end of the year we had the money to pay for the War Memorial Field, the monument, and its area. 

After watching this field in action and seeing what use the students have made of it, I believe Stanley’s solution was correct. I am glad that I had a chance to write him before he died and tell him that I was now happy that he had won out on that particular day when we appeared before the Alumni Fund Committee. I received a very gracious note from him in return. 

Stanley’s role in the alumni study on post-war Amherst was an interesting one. I presented my preliminary thought on this Alumni project to the Executive Committee of the Alumni Council and it instructed me to discuss the matter with Stanley and see what his reaction would be. I told him about our preliminary plans and asked him whether this project would meet with his approval and if so what cooperation the Council could expect from him and the faculty. 

Without hesitation he pledged full cooperation, enthusiastically supported the idea and said that he would open all the records that he had for the study of various committees. He also said that the college would help in the financing of the project. 

Charlie Cole’s resolution on the death of Stanley King credits Stanley with the idea of the Alumni post-war study. This was not correct for the idea was mine and was an outgrowth of my search to find a way to bring alumni closer to all sides of the college, intellectual as well as athletic. What Stanley did do and what makes him unique is that not only did he support the idea himself but he encouraged the faculty committee to work with the Alumni Committee. He was the one who originated the idea for four symposia held here in Amherst by the four separate alumni committees, symposia financed by the College and the Council, equally, and he was the one who welcomed any comment alumni cared to make. 

Stanley’s interests in discipline was as a punitive instrument rather than a therapeutic one, though often the distinction is slight. To give an example, I remember in the winter, I think, of 1944 when the war was on, Stanley learned that a group of students from the DU House had been seen by Mrs. Seligman, a trustee’s wife, and reported by her to the President as breaking windows with snowballs. Mrs. Seligman had told the boys that she thought this was a poor way to act when the materials were short and they had told her that only in a democracy could people break their own windows and with this they proceeded to break a few more just to prove how democratic they were. 

Stanley learned the names of the five boys involved and summoned them to his office at eight o’clock the following morning. When he arrived at a few minutes after eight the boys were in his outer office and one of them was stretched out dozing on the coachman’s bench which was in the outer part of his office. When Stanley had the five boys come into his inner office, he made the boy who had been reclining on the coachman’s bench lie down on the floor, because he was, “too tired to sit up.” Stanley then “read them the riot act,” placed them on the strictest kind of probation, and told each one that he would have to write his father and confess his sin and the father write back to the President stating what the father thought of the incident. The boys were sent from the office. 

For a week the campus buzzed with this case, but the discussion, interestingly enough, was not about the act itself but about how the disciplining of the students had been handled. Many thought that the boy should not have been forced to lie on the floor; that they should not have been forced to write their fathers. It seemed to some of us that a chance had been missed to focus the thinking of the students on the act rather than on the discipline. By the end of the week Stanley had heard from all the fathers but one, and on that Saturday the boy came into Stanley’s office, the fifth boy, and said he would have to resign because he hadn’t gotten up nerve enough as yet to write his father. He knew that his father would probably take him out of college. Stanley then relented, as I remember the story, and told the boy he would not have to write and when the four boys who had written heard this they were somewhat put out. Letting this boy off his responsibility for writing occasioned further discussion about the handling of the discipline in this case. 

Stanley’s punishments were fair I am sure, but they brought about behavior through fear of punishment rather than through an understanding of the crime and its injury to the community. In other words, Stanley used an old fashioned, punitive type of discipline. As you can suspect, he and I were far apart in our ways of handling student misbehavior. Only time will tell whether one way is better than another or not. As you know, there is much discussion about this matter both in secondary schools and in colleges. 

Well, Jack those are things that come to mind at the moment. I don’t know how much help this material will be to you. It is yours to use or not, as you wish. I know that some of the items can’t be used in a book that’s to come out in the near future, but I thought perhaps the observations should be in your file somewhere so that some future historian can put them together with other observations, and try to arrive at a true picture.

I have always had tremendous respect and admiration for Stanley. He and I differ basically in our approach to many items. Were it not for the present Mrs. King, I am sure were Stanley alive today our relations would be friendly, understanding and cordial. Unfortunately, in June of 1946, a faculty member told me that Mrs. King had said that I had only accepted three boys from St. Louis and all of them were Jewish. On hearing this I phoned Mrs. King to tell her that I had heard the report and asked her if I could call on her and discuss the St. Louis admission situation, which she had reported incorrectly. She became very angry that anyone should question her statements and at first denied having said this to anyone. When I gave her the name of the faculty member to whom she had said it she turned the phone over to Stanley with the remark that she did not want to talk to me again. Stanley in his loyalty to her told me that I was never to communicate with either him or her again except through President Cole. Though I did talk to him and he talked to me after this conflict, the incident with Mrs. King put an end to our informal relationship. 

As I look back on the incident now I can realize that were I a diplomatic person I would have talked to Stanley about it sometime when we were alone and that nothing would ever have come of the incident. My mistake was in talking directly to Mrs. King. 

I tell these things so that readers will know exactly the relationship between Stanley and me and so that they can weigh what part my emotions have played in presenting what I consider to be a straight factual account of the things I witnessed and participated in. 

E. S. Wilson 
June 1952