In this Q&A, James Hilty talks about writing the history of Temple University

Q: Chronicling 125 years of Temple University history era-by-era must have been a daunting task. How did you approach and envision this project?

A: Given my years at Temple and my training as a historian, I saw Temple’s history in two ways: first, as a noble experiment that transformed itself through a series of difficult challenges into a modern multi-purpose university and, second, as an exemplary model for the democratization and diversification of higher education.  From there the text and chapters seemed naturally to fall into discrete themes and distinct eras of change.  Historians, after all, are mostly interested in change over time.  And so I began by asking how Temple had changed over time and when, why and how the most significant changes had occurred.

Q: What surprised you about the Temple story in the research you did? What period of the history did you learn the most?

A: The early history and the biography and background of founder Russell Conwell provided the most interesting and sometimes most surprising revelations.  The period that fascinated and informed me the most about how Temple became what it is to day was the presidency of Robert L. Johnson (1941-1958).  Johnson made the case for Temple remaining in North Philadelphia, when many wished it would move elsewhere, and he used his considerable political skills to find the resources and energy to begin the building of today’s modern campus.

Q: The book details some of the crises faced by Temple through the years—such as neighborhood battles over property encroachment, financial issues, war and social changes. How do you think those situations were handled by the University?

A: The Temple-community confrontations in 1969-1970 taught the university several important lessons.  First, the university cannot plan as though the community does not have a vital stake in every major development.  Second, Temple’s historic mission as a vehicle for social change is one of its most important reasons for being, one of its most distinguishing characteristics.  Temple cannot ignore either lesson.

Q: Temple alums are everywhere. And while Bill Cosby and Shirley Tilghman are perhaps the most famous names, Temple University features call outs of notable Temple alums. What fascinating alums did you discover?

A: Distinguished academicians such as sociologist Robert K. Merton and chemist Frank Albert Cotton spring immediately to mind, as well as important activists for social change such as Sister Mary Scullion.  The entertainment arena is crowded with Temple grads, such as Hall and Oates, three of the Sisters Sledge; scads of Broadway performers, such as Hugh Panaro; many well-known musicians, such as jazz bassist Derrick Hodge and pianist Mark-Andre Hamelin; actors such as Jason George and Bob Saget; and news people, such as Barry Levine (executive editor, National Enquirer), Steve Capus (president of NBC News), and several Pulitzer-prize winners, including Clarence J. Williams III, plus many local TV-radio anchors, such as Marty Moss-Coane (WHYY).

Q: You document the famous figures who visited Temple in the 1960s—including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy, who campaigned here in 1960—why was Temple such a magnet for illustrious visitors?

A: Temple’s reputation for social activism and public service was part of the reason. In the 1950s most of the high-placed visitors (Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon) were Republican friends of Temple’s president Robert Johnson.

Q: What observations about campus life did you make over the course of your research? When were the students the wildest? (I’ve heard rumors of streaking in the 1970s).

A: The 1920s and early 1930s, deservedly or not, were reputedly the wildest.  When the first dean of women was appointed in 1930 she was aghast at the conduct of young coeds who publicly necked with their dates on the dormitory steps. Fraternities stationed volunteers near the fish tank in the library to deter pranksters from “gulping” the goldfish – a college fad (along with bath tub gin and raccoon coats) in the 1920s.

Q: Temple has a distinguished roster of professors, many of whom have contributed to the past century’s major discoveries. What can you say about the achievements of Temple faculty?

A: Temple should take enormous pride in its distinguished and accomplished faculty. There are far too many outstanding achievements to chronicle all of them in the book, but a few stand out: Jackson Chevalier (bronchoscope), O. Spurgeon English (pioneer in psychosomatic medicine), J. Lloyd Bohn (invented micrometeorite counter for Explorer I), Russell F. Weigley (the “dean” of modern military history), Sol Sherry (pioneer in thrombosis), Daniel Swern (plastics), and John Allen Paulos (Innumeracy).

Q: You have a chapter on Temple’s storied sports history, from Hall of Fame coach John Chaney to Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley. Is there a period where Temple teams excelled the most?

A: By far the most successful decade for Temple athletics was the 1930s – Temple boasted Olympic champion Jean Shiley (defeated Babe Didrikson), the world’s fastest human (Eulace Peacock who defeated Jesse Owens and held the world record for 100 meters), the first national championship in basketball (1938 NIT crown before there was an NCAA tournament), and a major powerhouse in college football coached by the legendary “Pop” Warner, who led Temple to be the inaugural Sugar Bowl. 

Q: The photographs are fantastic—where did you find all the images, and what criteria did you use to determine what to include?

A: Probably another book could be done with the photos we did not use.  We collected and scanned literally thousands of photos taken from Temple archives, publications and public sources.  I tried to select those photos that captured the essence of the institution, its people, mission and spirit.  The photos were selected with the purpose of reflecting Temple’s vital, thriving nature, to capture the aura and majesty of Conwell’s noble experiment, and to instill in its students, faculty and staff a sense of pride and involvement in the Temple Idea.

Q: How did Temple choose the Owl as its mascot?

A: The trustees in 1893 selected birds as symbols for the church (eagle), the hospital (dove), and the college (owl).  The owl in Greek mythology was sacred to Athene, the goddess of wisdom.  Since most of the classes in the early history of Temple (prior to 1901) were held at night, the owl was also an apt characterization of the early students, who thought of themselves as “night owls.”  Conwell encouraged evening study with the remark: “The owl of the night makes the eagle of the day.”  The owl is perceptive and resourceful, quick and courageous, and truly a fierce fighter.

Q: What is your favorite Temple memory?

A: Seeing and being a part of the reopening of The Temple (aka the Baptist Temple at Temple University).  The building is a critical part of Temple’s connection to its past and its restoration a symbol of Temple’s historical place in Philadelphia.


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