By Thornwell Jacobs, President of Oglethorpe University (1915-1943)
In all the history of American educational institutions there has never been written a more charming chapter, interwoven with real romance and moral beauty, than the story of the birth and death of Old Oglethorpe University.
And rarely has there been in America a finer illustration of the immortality of high ideals than is exhibited in her resurrection from the gray ashes of fratricidal strife to her present position of honor and power among her sisters. She is perhaps unique among standard institutions of learning in that she alone, having died for her ideals, has also been raised from the dead. For today, on Peachtree Road, she is rapidly arising as one of the most beautiful universities in the whole world. …
My personal interest in this tragic romance originated in the stories told me when I was a little boy by my grandfather who used to visit his son in a little village of South Carolina and tell us, among his grandfather’s tales of the days when he was a professor at this old school in Milledgeville. I remember I used to say to myself, “When I am grown up and ready for college, I am going to Oglethorpe.” But his reply was, “No, my boy, you will never stand on the Oglethorpe campus.”
As a matter of personal history, I finished my University work at Princeton. …During those wonderful three years at Princeton I heard the mention from the far West talking about Leland Stanford; the men from Illinois praising the new University of Chicago; the men of New England telling of Harvard and Yale, and before my own eyes were rising the exquisitely beautiful buildings of the new Princeton. During all that time, I knew in my heart that there was not in the Southern states a single university whose architecture and construction could be compared with the best of Eastern and Western institutions. All this seemed to me strange because the South, more than any other section of America, is the home of beauty and ideals, of romance and courage. So I made up my mind that if the time ever came I would be true to the great University with its dreams and its deeds. …
So it came to pass that without invitation save from within, and without authorization save from above on September 13, 1909, we came to Atlanta to refound Oglethorpe University. For there was practically no choice in the matter of location. Oglethorpe had been founded originally in the capitol of Georgia, and when later the capitol was moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta there had been an attempt to reopen the University on the site of the old Girl’s High School on Washington Street, where it had lasted for a couple of years until the disorders of reconstruction days rendered further efforts futile. Since that day the little city had grown into a great metropolis and had become the intellectual, artistic, and commercial capitol of the Southeast. Thus did she who was founded by invisible, intangible, and inaudible powers draw another spiritual adventurer to her borders. …
[The story of Oglethorpe] is the story of the immortality of the ideal which is an illustration of the way in which the beautiful thing persists to influence the lives of men, for here, in the city whose name Oglethorpe never heard and of whom Lanier knew little is being gathered the most precious heritage of all Georgia—the legacies left by her two best citizens, James Oglethorpe, her founder, and Sidney Lanier, her poet. For they are centering on their campus three great traditions. One is that inimitable excellence of statecraft and philanthropy exhibited by James Edward Oglethorpe, cleanser of the prisons of England and founder of the commonwealth of Georgia. The second is the tradition that clusters around the incomparable Lanier, first of that sweet chorus of Southern singers whose word-music breathes the same principle of magnanimity and generosity and love. From Oglethorpe they draw the inspiration of humanitarianism and wisdom in politics and government. From Lanier they win their ideals of literature and art. For this Oglethorpe boy, one among the Southern-born, has won his right to sit down with the nine immortals of American Literature: Bryant, Longfellow, Emerson, Lowell, Whittier, Holmes, Whitman, Poe, and Lanier. His diploma hangs over the desk of the President and his spirit hovers over the campus of his Alma Mater. The third is the spirit of the university itself into which is gathered all the love of the invisible., intangible, and inaudible greatness of the past and the splendid generosity of spirit, the elegance of soul, and the purity of sentiment of her Lanier and Oglethorpe and to this is added the utter abandon of love of new worlds of science and discovery which is the perpetual gift of God to each generation, and all the solid conviction of the essential sinfulness of veneer and sham or anything short of the absolute truth which is so well expressed in her architecture and construction and management.
Two men were standing in the Great Hall of the Administration Building of Oglethorpe University. They had been looking at the beautifully carved oak room, the heavy, quartered oak furniture, the leaded glass-work, the sturdy tiling, the attractive lighting system, and the beautiful lime-stone fireplace with the inscription carved on it,
“Square round and let us closer be,
We’ll warm our wintry spirit;
The good we each in other see
The more that we sit near it.”
The visitor turned to the president of the institution and remarked: “Doctor you have spent enough extra money on this great hall alone to educate one hundred men! Why have you done it?”
“Because we plan to educate one hundred thousand men with it,” replied the President.
This is the keynote of Oglethorpe University. The purpose of the founders of the institution is to build a school which will express all the fine qualities of a great human soul in its architecture, equipment and appointments.
Adapted by J. Todd Bennett