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James Marshall

Second President of Coe College (1887-1896)

October 4, 1834 in Grove Township, Allegheny County, New York
September 11, 1896 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Educational Background:
A.B. degree from Yale University, 1857
Teaching Experience:
Ministerial Experience:
Ordained by the Presbytery of Onondaga, 1862; Union Army Chaplain 1862-1866
Key events/accomplishments during administration:
Enrollment and discipline issues lead to no graduating classes in 1889 or 1890
Post-Coe Career:
Died in office


The Troubled Times of Coe's Second President
by Bola George

The Iowa economy in 1887 was entering a long decline that would culminate in the Panic of '93. Coe College's expenses were exceeding revenue every year. Enrollment figures at Coe had slipped. There was no endowment for the college and the buildings needed renovation. There were also issues within the student body directed towards the college rules, and a feeling of unease that divided students from faculty.

Coe College functioned in loco parentis, monitoring the behavior and study habits of the students.  Study hours were compulsory: Monday through Thursday and Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. were spend studying.  Periods between recitations were also for studying and reading.  Students were not to loiter in the passageways, cloakrooms, or engine room.  Visiting during study hours was prohibited unless permission was obtained from an instructor.  The rules were not made to punish the students, nor were they considered by the college excessively harsh; such rules were standard in small private colleges and parents depended on the College to oversee the education of the students in a manner that was careful, deliberate, and Christian in its principals.

Students did not always obey these rules, and the Faculty Minutes of the year report several instances in which students were brought before the Faculty to answer for some disruption of school policies.  Cited in the Faculty minutes for February 10, 1887, is an incident in which a Mr. H. C. Martin, called to appear before the faculty for reasons unspecified in the faculty minutes, failed to follow the directive. 

In March of 1887, Mr. Martin was yet to have more trouble, less than a month after the first incident.  He had presented a paper at a meeting before the Alpha Nu society - the oldest literary society at Coe, extant since 1882 - that was considered by the faculty as unsuitable.  He refuted the allegation and accused the faculty of treating him unjustly.  He was cautioned by President Phelps to speak like a gentleman.

A week later, at another faculty meeting to reconsider the fate of Mr. Martin, Messrs. Warburton and Lyon, a senior and junior respectively, also appeared as members of Alpha Nu to accept responsibility for the actions of Martin.  This time, the faculty had assembled its case well.  He was accused of making "many references to the name and attributes of God, that are irreverent; disrespectful to authorities and subversive of good order and discipline, and tending to bring the college to disrepute."  This time he confessed his wrongs.  Faculty minutes reveal that he spoke like a gentleman avowing to guard his conduct with the assurances that there would be no more recurrences in the future.  He was then asked to read a letter of apology at the next meeting of Alpha Nu, which he did. 

It was this atmosphere, fraught with unsettlement between the faculty and rebellious students, like Martin, which heralded the college’s changing administration.  Dr. Stephen Phelps, the first president of the college, resigned at the end of the 1886-1887 school year.  Dr. Phelps was well-liked by the student body and the Faculty, though there had been some developing tension at the end of Phelps's tenure.  In selecting Dr James Marshall the Board of Trustees looked for a leader who would provide strong, authoritative guidance for the institution.  At the time of Marshall’s death, Rev. Burkhalter, a member of the board and someone who worked with Marshall throughout his administration, described Marshall as "a man of power, the power that is born of the possession of a high ideal, a concentrated purpose, an unusual faculty to organize and to lead, and unflagging zeal to execute and perform."  (Erikkson, 26)

A portrait of Marshall hangs on the third floor of Stuart Hall.  Though records about him reveal a man steeled to emotion, the portrait features him as a grandfatherly-like image - kindly eyes, a Father Christmas beard, and a faint smile at the corner of his lips.  It seems unlikely that any person with such an appearance would arouse such strong reactions.  In contrast to President Phelps, a man much loved by the student body but who had very little ability to curtail or discipline it, Marshall was a strict disciplinarian with an eye on the primacy of education and a notion on the way things ought to be done.

Marshall's uncompromising standards may well reflect his background and education.  A native of New York, born in Allegheny County in 1834, he earned an A.B. degree from Yale in 1857.  After acquiring a collar from the Presbytery in June 1862, he received from President Abraham Lincoln an appointment as a chaplain in the Union Army, a position he held until 1866.  During his 4 years as a chaplain, he was reported to have performed burial services for over 6,000 soldiers.  After his term of duty was completed, he went to Europe and traveled to London, Paris, Berlin, and Heidelberg.  Upon his return to the United States, he was a pastor at Presbyterian churches in New York and New Jersey.  An illness forced him to retire in 1883, and he lived a quiet life before accepting an offer to become Coe College's second president in the fall of 1887.       

The new Principal was a sterner man, liked and respected by the Faculty, as evinced by the fact that when Marshall was ill, the Faculty meetings would be held at his house so that he might attend them.  The unquiet of the student body did not trouble President Marshall; with the support of the faculty he pressed for stricter regulation of the college and diligence in creating an atmosphere for learning, not for frivolity. 

During the first weeks of his tenure, Marshall was the unwitting victim of a number of practical jokes by the student body, including the hiding of the bell he rang to signify class periods and the hanging of an effigy of the president on some telegraph wires over First Avenue.  In December of 1887, barely two months after his arrival, Marshall's capabilities were put to the test.  A student, Mr. Hamilton, was suspected of lighting firecrackers in the library.  Defending his innocence in the presence of the faculty as jury, he refuted all claims of his guild.  Faced with threat of police involvement, he named a Mr. Evans.  Upon interrogation, Evans denied any knowledge of the incident.  He said that a young man from Waterloo, whose name he did not know, had fired them.  Accused of lying, Evans finally admitted to the crime.  He was expelled, but within a week - perhaps due to faculty realization that they had overreacted - was reinstated. 

The faculty could be oversensitive to anything suggesting criticism of their policies or practices.  In one case the minutes refer to "Coe College Notes" an article from the Gazette February 6, 1888, which discusses a man whose, "eyes are quite sore as a result of studying too hard.  He goes around with a pair of blue glasses which would give him quite a clerical look were it not for the extreme whiteness of his hair."  In response to this Gazette article the faculty decided to establish a school paper "under the head and censorship of the Professor of English Literature."  This decision would lead to the creation of the Cosmos.

Less than a month after the Gazette article, there was another incident involving Martin. He had submitted a paper to be read before the Alpha Nu society.  The paper, entitled "Hell," sparked further controversy.  The Faculty considered the paper irreverent and out of keeping with a Christian college.  Martin, asked to rewrite the paper, refused to do so until given the first one back.  Marshall asked him if he would fulfill his obligation to the college and write another paper.  He replied in the negative.  Marshall then endorsed the faculty's decision to have Martin suspended indefinitely until he agreed to comply with the faculty's demands.

Following Martin's suspension, the sophomore class formed a delegation led by John Sprole of Traer, Iowa.  The delegation stated before the faculty, in a meeting at which Marshall was present, that the treatment of Martin was too strict.  Martin was eventually reinstated after complying with the wishes of the faculty.

On April 6, 1888, seven men were caught playing ball during study hours.  Their behavior was considered an "attempt to overthrow the good order of the college."  They were: Amos Randall (sophomore, Cedar Rapids); U.G. Evans (junior, Cedar Rapids); Samuel Hall (senior, Cedar Rapids); W.H. Martin, (sophomore, Hartington, NE); DeWitt Pelton (senior, Cherokee, IA);  John  Sprole (sophomore, Traer, IA); and Horace Coe (special courses, Clarence, IA).  All except Coe were expelled; he was suspended indefinitely. 

The boys appealed to the board of trustees.  After a meeting of the latter on May 1, 1888, the board recommended that the college reinstate Hall, Sprole, Pelton, and Randall pending the faculty's assurance that the students would comply with school rules.  All four were reinstated, as was Coe.  The Board upheld the expulsion of Evans and Martin, discerning a pattern of disobedience evident in the their students' previous difficulties.

In response, all upperclassmen left the college and were retroactively expelled, though seniors were allowed to return for Commencement.  The April 23, 1888 Faculty Minutes report that the Faculty convened a special meeting in which the Secretary was "instructed to use his own judgment in sending or withholding grades" from students who left the college.   This rebellion further weakened the college's already declining numbers and was seen as an embarrassment to the institution.  There were no graduating classes for 1889 or 1890.  The Faculty minutes, however, reveal no further major upheavals until April 1889 when a Mr. William Emerick was caught gambling, playing cards, and using vulgar language.  He was expelled and never reinstated.

During Marshall's tenure, no buildings were erected on the campus but he had pipes laid down to heat the buildings during the bitter winters.  The country's economic depression weakened the college's finances; perhaps Marshall's greatest contribution was the selection of the college colors, crimson and yellow, chosen by him and Miss Hamilton in 1892.  He should also be given credit for one other record.  During Coe's long history, honorary Ph. D. degrees have only been awarded in his administration.  These were to the Rev. Charles Hunt in 1893, and to C. O. Bates, Dr. G. E. Crawford, Levi Marshall, A. Gordon Murray, and J.M. St. John in 1894.

Once the students who had known Phelps' administration graduated, Marshall's popularity among the student body increased.  Marshall's tenure has been described as exciting at best and, at worst, as "nearly ruinous" in Erik Erikkson’s Founders of Coe College.  The best indication of how student opinion regarding Marshall changed is found in the October 1896 Cosmos:

At chapel exercises, Sept. 21, the students passed the following resolutions upon the death of the late President Marshall: Whereas, in the providence of God our beloved president, Dr. Marshall, has been called to his reward; be it resolved that in the death of Dr. Marshall we as students have lost a personal friend, a warm hearted supporter and a zealous helper; that the students as a body wish to express the high esteem and respect which they hold for our departed president; that we feel that one who has at all times sought the best interests of the stuents has been called from our midst.  That we tender the faculty and trustees our heartfelt sympathy and assure them that their loss is ours.

President James Marshall passed away in 1896, in the midst of active duties.  At his death, Marshall bequeathed the sum of $5000 towards the college endowment and $1000 towards a scholarship.  When he died the college still lacked an endowment, and outside the Board of Trustees the College was not well supported by the Presbyterian Church.  The college needed someone capable of raising an endowment and securing the financial future of the college. 

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