Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell

1986

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IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT TO FIND a Trustee of the college generation of the 1870's and 1880's who was a more devoted champion, defender, and supporter of Tufts than Austin Barclay Fletcher. As he wrote to President Bumpus in 1914, "I carry the college with me night and day." A graduate of the Class of 1876, a Trustee since 1909, and president of the Board from 1913 until his death in 1923, Fletcher quietly paid bill after bill for small things and large. He financed a reader for Professor Bolles, long-time chaplain of the College and Dickson Professor of English and American History, who lost his eyesight in the closing years of his long life. He supplemented the meager retirement income of Charles H. Leonard, Dean Emeritus of the Crane Theological School. Fletcher knew the first man intimately and admired him greatly, referring to Bolles frequently as "The Grand Old Man of Tufts." Leonard he had not "spoken with a half an hour in his life," yet Fletcher realized his great value to the College. The Tufts Trustee confided to a correspondent that he had himself, in the one year of 1915, "contributed about $12,000 to the College and to various things connected with it, a very large part of which is quite unknown." Much better known than his smaller benefactions were his arrangement of the Braker bequest to the College and his own gift which made possible the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. This pioneer venture in graduate education did much to make Tufts known far outside its New England boundaries.

It was public knowledge that Fletcher was a millionaire, although the exact amount of his fortune was not known until a considerable time after his death. Among his far-flung interests as a prominent New York corporation lawyer was the firm of Eppinger and Russell, of which he was long-time president and owner of

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nearly all of the stock. The firm, with headquarters in New York City, owned over 100,000 acres of woodlands in northern and central Florida and engaged in an extensive lumber, turpentine, and creosoting business.[1]  As the trustee of the estate of Henry J. Braker, Fletcher also supervised during his lifetime the operations of the Gregorian Hotel in New York City, which served as headquarters for many meetings of Tufts alumni in that area. Both the Eppinger and Russell Company and the Braker estate became intimately involved in Tufts affairs.

Fletcher was a strong personality, as any person intimately associated with the administration of the College soon had reason to discover. There is no question that he liked to run affairs in the grand manner. On June 28, 1914, when the financial plight of the College was compounded by the continued failure to secure a president to succeed Hamilton, the Boston Sunday Herald carried a feature article on the problems of the institution which was sufficiently embarrassing to result in the action which brought Bumpus to the presidency. A purportedly authoritative (but naturally anonymous) informant close to Tufts affairs revealed in an extended interview the "inside story" of the difficulties facing Tufts and intimated that alumni who "knew the situation" would hesitate to consider an offer of the presidency because they would "have to adjust themselves to the characteristics of the chairman of the trustees." The newspaper played up the account with a headline which undoubtedly distressed many a loyal alumnus:

FUTURE OF TUFTS HANGS IN BALANCE

May Become Merely a College

Institution Faces Real Crisis Because of

Lack of Strong Head and Financial Shortage —

Differences of Opinion Among Trustees

as to Use of College Funds

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Much of the responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs was laid on the doorstep of the strong-willed president of the Board of Trustees. The informant was quoted as having said that

Mr. Fletcher represents a certain type of New York business man.He is accustomed to sitting on boards of directors where he holds amajority of the stock, therefore is able to do what he pleases whatever the views of the others. Something of that spirit is displayed attimes in the meetings of the college board. He has been heard tosay many times that he has $4,000,000 of money which he wouldlike to give sometime, perhaps by will, for educational purposes....Trustees and faculty members are human .... Naturally, a certainamount of deference is bound to be paid to such a man under suchcircumstances. It makes it comparatively easy for him to have hisway in the administration of a school, and especially of a schoolwhich is in serious need of large sums of money.

Like many such assertions, this one was an oversimplification although not necessarily a falsehood. Fletcher by no means had

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his own way in everything concerning the College's affairs. At the same time, those whose ideas ran counter to his, even though they might have won the argument, knew that they had been through a skirmish - or battle - before victory was achieved. President Cousens combined tact, diplomacy, persuasive talent, and the art of interpretation in such judicious and skillful ways that he managed to carry out Fletcher's basic wishes at least in spirit without unduly antagonizing the man who was as loyal an alumnus of Tufts as he himself was.

 
 
Footnotes:

[1] It was from this firm that the College acquired much of its lumber, including that used for the bleachers constructed at the Oval in 1915. The assets of the company were a mixture of property owned in the name of the concern and by Fletcher personally. The Mendon Tract, consisting of 40,000 acres, was located near Orlando and was listed among the assets of the company. The Olustee Tract, owned by Fletcher, comprised 80,000 acres in the vicinity of Jacksonville. Both became part of the Fletcher estate after his death; the assets of the company were listed as $1,500,000 in 1923, and the profit from the Mendon Tract was estimated at $500,000 in 1924.

Description
  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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