Saturday, September 13, 2008

Vernon Schwalm

When Otho Winger resigned as President of Manchester College after 30 years of leadership, there was great curiosity as to who would be his successor. Winger had become part of the institution of the college, part of its fabric and personality. But the college was entering a new era, and the trustees knew they should waste no time looking for a successor. They turned to former Manchester professor and dean Vernon Schwalm, who in 1927 had left to become president of McPherson College.

Confessing that it felt "almost presumptuous to attempt to be [Winger's] successor," Schwalm in the end was persuaded to leave his 15-year post at McPherson. Schwalm, not surprisingly, hesitated to give the trustees at Manchester an immediate acceptance. His hesitancy gave rise to this incident, recounted in his autobiography:

A curious thing happened on January 12 [1941], the next day after my election. I had gone to Ottawa, Kansas, to preach. During the day the Kansas City Star called for me. When my wife said I was not home for the day, they said, "The Eastern papers say your husband has been elected President of Manchester College. Has he decided to accept?" When she said, "You'll have to ask him about that," they asked, "Do you think he will accept?" She said, "Yes, I think he will." Next day the papers announced my election and added, "His wife thinks he will accept."

When McPherson agreed to release Schwalm from his unexpired contract ... he felt free to say "yes" to Manchester. That fall, he formally accepted the work, with an inaugeration speech affirming that he was "keenly aware of the heavy responsibility ... and highly appreciative of the high privilege it affords."

The first months of the school year ushered in a crisis that would demand every ounce of Schwalm's new-found authority as president. The campus, like the nation, was stunned by reports on Sunday, December 7, 1941, that Pearly Harbor had been bombed. The war had an immediate effect on student enrollment. In just two years, enrollment had dropped by almost 25 percent with a similar effect on income.

Schwalm would summarize his personal views about the war as he affirmed, "I am still a pacifist in that I will not kill, and I want to uphold our pacifist students, but I am not an obstructionist nor an anarchist. I want to be a constructive, cooperative American citizen."

Whatever Schwalm's ability to maintain campus life during a time of crisis, he clearly was not content with mere maintenance. Even in the midst of drastic declines in enrollment, he held high expectations for Manchester's place in academic circles. His insistence on excellence began with the faculty. "We ought to build an institution that is intellectually comparable to the best," he told the trustees in 1942.

Paul Bowman, a student during Schwalm's early years, remembers President Schwalm sometimes complaining, "I have never been president during "normal times." Indeed the flood of students after the war gave credence to his complaint for these also strained the college.

Schwalm's years at Manchester was one of continuing to build on what Otho Winger had begun, including the need for new buildings. Even as his presidency began to draw to a close, he continued to look ahead with a 10-year development program approved in October 1954. By the spring of 1956 a new, modern brick dormitory for women was completed, by July of that year, when Schwalm retired, nearly half a million dollars had been raised for a new Science Hall.

Schwalm's presidency, characterized by a lack of "normal" circumstances and plagued by war and its aftermath, ended, nevertheless, on a positive note. Schwalm had been a reserved but capable scholar, administrator, and churchman. His leadership in the college, church, and state educational organizations brought him distinction. It represented a period of academic, financial, and administrative strengthening. It was a time of reaching for an excellence that would aid the college's movement into the future.

Source: A Century of Faith, Learning and Service