John C. Kilgo (1861-1922)

The Shirt-Sleeve President

 

John C. Kilgo, undatedJohn Carlisle Kilgo arrived on campus in August 1894 as Trinity's fourth president, the second to lead the school since it relocated to Durham. Thirty-three years of age, he already had a reputation in Methodist circles as a committed churchman,  fiery orator, and up-and-coming educator. Kilgo caught the attention of the search committee at Trinity College because of his success as the financial agent for Wofford College, a Methodist school in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There his charge was to increase endowment and awaken greater interest in the school, similar needs of Trinity. In 1894, when President John F. Crowell resigned, Trinity was heavily in debt because of the relocation, and dependent on annual donations by the Duke family, who were thought to be disillusioned by the surprisingly large financial needs of the college.

A man of strong convictions and considerable oratorical skill, Kilgo was not timid, seeming almost to welcome a fight. His brother once commented that he doubted if Kilgo "ever preached a sermon or delivered an educational address that did not result in dividing the crowd. . . . The pulpit was his throne, the privilege to occupy it his delight."  He was in sharp contrast to his predecessor. Crowell had been intellectual, scholarly, more given to articulating a vision. Kilgo was passionate and determined, with a mixture of the idealistic and the practical. As preacher-president, he led by idealism and accomplishment. His leadership drove the school forward and kept it forever in the public spotlight.

The students quickly became enamored with their youthful president. They identified with him as he sometimes walked about campus in shirtsleeves and cowboy hat with his dog alongside, and they appreciated his personal interest in their welfare. They also took pride in his leadership in erecting a flagpole for the nation's flag, which some claimed to be the first flagpole on a college campus in the state. Today, such a claim seems surely an error, but, in 1898, the nationalism fostered by the Spanish-American War competed with lingering southern recovery and a renewed interest in the Civil War. Kilgo clearly preferred looking forward to backward.

Most students actually looked forward to the daily chapel services because of Kilgo's captivating oratory and his habit of inviting speakers to campus. However, he took a particularly bold step in 1896 when he invited the renowned African-American leader, Booker T. Washington, to speak at Trinity when Washington was in town for another occasion. Students heartily welcomed Washington at his first appearance on a non-African-American college campus in the south. Kilgo also spoke out forcefully for private, especially Christian, higher education and for the co-education of women and men. While his positions on these controversial issues aroused opposition and branded Trinity as clearly liberal for the day, they won strong favor with the Duke family. By 1902, Washington Duke had contributed $300,000 toward endowment, and his sons, Benjamin Newton and James Buchanan, had donated money for as varied causes as buildings, beautification, scholarships, faculty salaries, and $10,000 for books for the new library.

Two legacies from the Kilgo era are an emphasis on high academic standards and a firm belief in academic freedom. Kilgo led Trinity in joining with five other institutions in founding the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States, an accrediting agency supporting high admission standards among member schools. Such a pledge at a time when public schools, especially urban graded schools, were developing in the south, marked Trinity as being more committed to the quality of students than quantity. Trinity even started its own preparatory school, Trinity Park School, in order to prepare students for admission to the college.

In 1903, Kilgo eloquently defended Professor John Spencer Bassett before the Board of Trustees when state political leadership demanded that the history professor be fired for his questioning of the racial status quo which sought to keep African Americans in subjugation. Kilgo, along with every faculty member, was prepared to resign if the Board of Trustees acceded to the demands to fire Bassett. Their resignations were not offered, however, when the Board voted 18-7 to support Bassett's right to express his personal views.

Kilgo's presidential term of sixteen years is the third longest in the history of the institution, behind only the tenure of Braxton Craven from 1842 to 1882 and William P. Few from 1910 to 1940. When Kilgo resigned in 1910 upon election as Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the trustees voted to build a residence for him on campus. Today, his house is used by the program of Continuing Education and appropriately called Bishop's House. Another evident legacy of the era is the plaque in the main quadrangle of West Campus citing the aims of the university. The aims cast in bronze were written by President Kilgo in 1903 and continued by action of the Board of Trustees when Trinity College became Duke University in 1924.

Kilgo's personality and actions won friends and made enemies for Trinity College. One student remarked on being warned by his pastor to avoid the "strange fire" being offered at the school, but most students and alumni were grateful for Kilgo's bold attacks on the "narrow tenets of orthodoxy" of the day. The "prince of pulpiteers" was recognized by the Board of Trustees as the "real builder of new Trinity." All were confident that the school was in a very strong position to become a leader in higher education in the twentieth century.


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© 1997. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.