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The Disasters of Coe

1889 and 1890: The Two Missing Classes

Written by Charles Francis Clark, ’91 in 1948. The class of ’91 had six graduates. In 1948 only Clark and W. H. Jordan were still living. Clark wrote this document to explain what happened at Coe in the late 1880’s.

Many people in recent years have wondered why there were no Coe graduates in 1889 or 1890. Perhaps a record of the reason should be made while two or three of us who were in school at that time still survive.

Coe College was incorporated in 1881 and Dr. Stephen Phelps became the first President, setting until September, 1887, when he resigned and Dr. James Marshall took his place. I do not recall, even if I ever knew, what was the reason of the change. Dr. Phelps was a very lovable character and had the affection of all of his students and no one could have taken his place.

I might digress at this time to relate an incident which took place in November, 1884, when Grover Cleveland was elected President of the United States. The Democratic students were greatly in the minority, but they got up early and decorated Old Main with flags in commemoration of the victory. The stairway to the roof led from the third floor, between the western part of Old Main, which was then the college library, and the eastern part, which was the chapel. Dr. Phelps was still in the fifties, but his hair and beard were as white as the driven snow. He was a man of slight stature and when the struggle began to remove the objectionable flags, the students on both sides, all of whom were larger physically than he, simply pushed him to one side. A fierce struggle ensued, but resulted in the Republican students removing the objectionable flags. Quite a struggle took place on the roof to secure the flags and it is wonderful that there were no casualties.

Dr. Marshall came on the campus in September of 1887. Prior to that time he had been the head of a girls’ school or ladies’ academy somewhere in the East. He believed in discipline with a capitol “D”. He was never known to have smiled, but always looked at the students with a fierce frown over his glasses. His beard was trimmed in the manner which we see in the ancient pictures when Sennacherib was King of Assyria. His hair hung down in carefully curled ringlets which might have been the envy of any of the ladies of that time.

One of the first mornings that he came upon the campus, he saw a sight which filled him with horror. It was a beautiful September morning and eight or ten young people of both sexes were seated or standing and visiting at the entrance of Old Main, then the only college building on the campus, with the exception if Williston Hall. He fiercely attacked the students and when chapel convened gave them to understand that co-education meant only that boys and girls could belong to and recite in the came classes, but no social affair was to be permitted beyond that.

Three of us thought we would stir him up a little. The class periods were called by the ringing on the steps of Old Main of a hand bell such as auctioneers used at that time. This we did not think appropriate for a collegiate institution and we broke into the college one night and hid the bell. Every morning for the next week the new President read a lecture on discipline to the students assembled at chapel, and threatened dire vengeance on the perpetrators of this outrage. No one ever round out who did it. However, about a week later he received though the mail an anonymous letter, advising him that if he would ask the janitor to empty the waste paper basket in the President’s office that he would find the bell right there where it had been all the time.

Of course, this was only a joke. By the time Halloween came along, the situation had got beyond the joking stage. At that time there were very tall telegraph poles, with wires, going along First Avenue past the college. A group of us got together and decided that it would be very appropriate to hang his “Royal Nibs” in effigy on these telegraph wires. We did a good job of it. We got an old, long-tailed Prince Albert coat, put on the Sennacherib whiskers and the glasses, behind a frown which was visible from the street. We put the effigy on the wire and then with a cord pulled it along midway between the two poles, so that there was no way in which it could be removed until the Fire Department came about noon the following day and removed it from public view.

Things went on from bad to worse so far as the relationship of the President and students were concerned. About the beginning of the Spring term the men in the college classes (not including prepatory department) decided that the condition of affairs should be called to the attention of the Board of Trustees. A real “Round Robin” was prepared so that no one’s name appeared at the head of the list, but it was signed by every man in the college and some of the women. In terms such as those that were used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, we called attention to our grievances and asked that the Trustees make an investigation and that we be permitted to submit our case before them.

This document went to Dr. Avery at Vinton, then President of the Board of Trustees, and a copy of it was soon forwarded to the President of the college. A faculty meeting was immediately called and each of all of the men in the three upper classes were expelled from the institution. The ladies were not included in this; neither were the writer and W. H. Jordan who were members of the freshman class as it was assumed that we had been wrongfully persuaded by our elders to sign this. Of course, that did not leave much of a college and there was a meeting of the Trustees immediately called. I recall that United States Senator William B. Allison of Dubuque was then a member of the Board and attended this meeting

The Board convened at early candle light and did not adjourn until about 2:00 o’clock the next morning. We never knew just what took place in the Board meeting, but it resulted in the expelled students all being reinstated. As Commencement Day was not far away, the seniors came back to get their diplomas. I might add that of the men in the three upper classes who were summarily expelled in this manner, the majority were students for the ministry and several of the afterwards became quite prominent as pastors of Presbyterian churches.

The seniors came back, but the juniors and sophomores never did return, so that when college convened in the fall of 1888 there were no junior or senior classes, but the sophomore class was the head of the school. There were five sophomores, four men and one young lady, Miss Mabel Armstrong. She left school at the end of that year, and at that time the two Littell brothers, who afterwards were quite prominent as ministers of the United Presbyterian Church, joined the class, so that the class of 1891 consisted of six men and no women. This resulted in the writer of this history heading the list of students of the college in three consecutive catalogs.

As that time the gown and mortar board had not made its way from the English universities as far west as Cedar Rapids, and the classical garb for seniors on state occasions was a long Prince Albert coat, a tall silk hat and a cane. As we Sophs were head of the school, we at once assumed the Senior garb. When we first appeared with this uniform I was a callow youth of sixteen years and it must have been a sight for gods and men.




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