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Wimpress, MC's seventh president, remembered by Urban

01/07/2014

Gordon Duncan Wimpress, seventh president of Monmouth College, died Jan. 6 at the age of 91 in San Antonio, Texas.

Wimpress, who assumed the presidency in 1964 at the age of 42, was Monmouth’s first non-clergy president and helped steer the college into the modern era. He quickly established an expansionist policy, increasing enrollment and adding faculty. He oversaw the college’s first modern capital campaign, a $2.6 million effort to construct a new science building and library.

Three new residence halls—Gibson, Cleland and Liedman—and a fraternity complex were also built during his presidency.

Always a man of action and vigor, Wimpress enjoyed piloting his own airplane, driving a Corvette, playing golf and playing the drums. He won the admiration of many students for his support of the civil rights movement and Vietnam peace marches.

Wimpress left Monmouth College in June 1970 at the height of its peak enrollment of 1,300 students to assume the presidency of Trinity University in San Antonio, where he served until 1976.

A native of Riverside, Calif., Wimpress earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. in general semantics from the University of Denver. After five years of teaching journalism at Whittier College and seven years as assistant to the president of the Colorado School of mines, he assumed the presidency of Monticello College in Alton, Ill., which he held for five years.

A frequent commercial airline flyer (40,000 miles per year), Wimpress once explained he got tired of the delays caused by making connections to small towns, so he obtained his pilot’s license while at Monticello and began clocking an additional 25, 000 miles per year. At Monmouth, he flew a Cessna that was owned by a friend and leased at low cost to the college. His wife, Peggy, daughters Vicki and Wendy, and son, Scotty, often flew with him.

William Urban, Monmouth College’s Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies, was a young faculty member during Wimpress’s presidency and remained in contact with Wimpress throughout his career and later years. The following is excerpted from a brief memoir of Wimpress written by Urban.

Good Memories About Duncan Wimpress

By William Urban

Gordon Duncan Wimpress was president of Monmouth College from 1964 to 1970. Good Scottish names, but he only liked Duncan. His friends called him Dunc. (I felt too young to call him that, but he did not push familiarity on me or anyone — that is the ultimate form of politeness, to let people behave as they feel most comfortable.)

Duncan Wimpress was energy personified. He loved to meet people, to shake their hands, and he was not ashamed to turn to Eileen Loya afterward and ask who they were (she knew everyone, and as his secretary, she ran his office very pleasantly and efficiently). He could not go into the new Student Center and hear a jazz band playing without going on stage to ask the drummer if he could play for a few minutes; I’m sure that he would have been there all evening if his wife, Peggy, had allowed it.

He loved to fly, but after hearing one description of his Kamikaze descent into O’Hare, I was glad that he never asked me along. His most ambitious dream was built around his airplane — when Monmouth College was given land on the edge of Tucson, he noticed there was no liberal arts college there. He began to talk about Monmouth West — one administration, with faculty and students moving from one campus to the other. Of course, he would fly back and forth to oversee the operations. Eileen Loya and David Fleming could handle the details.

Duncan was a builder. He put up Cleland and Liedman dormitories, the fraternity center, Haldeman-Thiessen, and the library. Moving into the library in 1970 was a great event. He had added on the top floor despite not having the funds for it, saying that no future president would ever find the money, either, and it was cheaper to do it then. To save moving costs, he cancelled classes so that the entire community — administration, staff, faculty, and hundreds of students — could carry the books from the old Carnegie Library. It was freezing cold, but no wind, so the atmosphere was great. He, of course, loved it.

His six years were not without controversy. First, he was not a Presbyterian minister. President Gibson had led the way to moving the college away from its rather narrow outlook on how everyone associated with the college should behave, but traditionalists blamed Duncan. The college had always been progressive in its politics: women were admitted from the beginning, the sorority movement had begun here, and Blacks and Asians enrolled without controversy, but the college was very conservative regarding dress and behavior. Anyone wanting to smoke had to cross 9th Street, anyone wanting to drink had to go to Knox. Then in came Duncan Wimpress, who swept the college into modern life.

When some trustees objected, he briskly reorganized the governing board, replacing the ministers with businessmen. Old time Associate Presbyterians were not happy.

Second, he doubled the student body to 1,350. A third of the students came from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut; few were Presbyterians and even fewer were happy to be surrounded by cornfields and prime beef.

Third, he walked a tightrope on Civil Rights and Vietnam. He did not like the anti-war protests, but when the mayor refused a parade permit, he jumped in to press the students’ case. When the mayor would not give in, Duncan said, “Then they’ll walk on the sidewalk.” When the mayor said that he wouldn’t give a permit for that, Duncan retorted, “George, they don’t need a permit to walk on the sidewalk.”

The town was very conservative then. The first sign I saw approaching Monmouth from the west on highway 34 in 1966 was “Impeach Earl Warren!” But citizens had no idea he had turned down an invitation to interview for a major California university because he did not like the ultra-liberal politics there.

Civil Rights was just as hard. The Rev. Paul McClanahan and I took students to Detroit to learn about the riot there (McClanahan did all the work; I just paid the hefty parking fine for letting the meter run out because the mayor wouldn’t let us leave). After I gave a talk on our experience to several clubs and church groups, Duncan was approached by some leading citizens who demanded that he fire us. He declined to do so.

Fourth, he broke with the tradition of losing athletic teams. In 1966 he appointed Bill Reichow football coach, and before Midwest Conference foes realized it, Monmouth College was a powerhouse. This was a violation of the laws of nature, and our rivals did not like it.

Nor did Duncan like the tradition of genteel poverty. He said, “First-class colleges go first class.” Faculty-staff banquets had steak and lobster, and salaries were competitive with anyone in the region.

In early 1970, he took a group of faculty to a meeting of college presidents and deans in Chicago. After we came from two days of watching Type A personalities practicing one-upmanship on each other, we were very happy that we had the president and dean we did.

Many others will have memories of Duncan Wimpress, too, and perhaps different ones. The students of those years are only approaching retirement age now.

His was a golden era. Nothing slowed him, not even his breaking a leg while skiing in Colorado. We’ve been working ever since to get back there.