Umphrey Lee papers
A Guide to the Collection
Umphrey Lee enjoyed a long and unique relationship with Southern Methodist University. He entered SMU in the fall of 1915 for the university’s first academic year and was a member of the first graduating class the following spring, receiving a Master of Theology degree. During his year at SMU, he was elected the first president of the student body. His most prominent university role came in 1939 when he became the university’s fourth president, and served in that capacity until 1954. The Board of Trustees then established the office of chancellor, and Lee was appointed as SMU’s first chancellor; he served in that role from 1954 to 1958.
Lee was born March 23, 1893 in Oakland City, Indiana. His father, Josephus Lee, was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Umphrey later became a member of the clergy as well. The family moved to Texas in 1909, settling in Brownwood. Lee attended Daniel Baker College in Brownwood from 1910-1912, and then transferred to Trinity University (at that time located in Waxahachie, south of Dallas) for the next two years. He received his A.B. at Trinity in 1914.
By that point, Southern Methodist University was on the verge of opening for its first academic year. SMU had received its charter in 1911, and Umphrey Lee arrived there in 1915 as a graduate student. He completed his M.A. during his year there, and was a member of the university’s first graduating class in June 1916. He continued his education at Columbia University in New York, receiving a Ph.D. in 1931. Lee later received several honorary doctorates, including one from his alma mater Trinity University.
Lee married Mary Margaret Williams at Christmastime in 1917. She attended Southwestern University and completed her A.B. at the University of Texas. They had a son, Umphrey Lee, Jr., who became an English professor.
Lee’s ministerial career began in 1918 with his ordination and appointment as pastor at the Methodist church in Cisco, Texas. He served there for only a year, and became Director of the Wesley Bible Chair at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1919. He also worked briefly as the pastor of the Methodist church in Ennis, Texas from 1922-1923.
Following his brief service in Ennis, Lee came back to Dallas as pastor of the Highland Park Methodist Church, and served there for thirteen years. He taught homiletics at SMU’s School of Theology for several years beginning in 1927. In 1936 Dr. Lee moved again, this time to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he worked as dean of the School of Religion.
Dr. Lee’s tenure as dean of the School of Theology was, like his early appointments, brief. In 1938, SMU President Charles C. Selecman was elected a bishop, and the university began the process of finding a new president. That process culminated in the selection of Dr. Lee, and he was elected as the fourth president of SMU in November 1938. He was formally inaugurated on November 6, 1939.
The new president was highly regarded by the entire university. As the 1940 Rotunda stated, "Students knew the man for his democratic ideas, his part in helping organize student government; townspeople knew of his capabilities in working with young people, his activities in the fields of education and theology... Continued prosperity of SMU under the guidance of Dr. Lee is everyone’s prophecy."
Such a prophecy proved to be correct in many respects. During President Lee’s 15-year presidency, university fundraising and overall university assets grew impressively. In 1939, the total worth of SMU was $6 million. At the time of President Lee’s resignation in 1954, the university was worth $27 million. Faculty size and student enrollment also rose during this period. In 1939, SMU had about 175 faculty members, and about 2500 students enrolled. In 1954, those numbers were 300 and 4100, respectively—with student enrollment peaking during the Lee years in 1948 at 8000, with the entrance of World War II GIs accounting for much of the increase.
The physical appearance of SMU also changed dramatically. In 1939, the university had about 20 permanent buildings. Although there wasn’t any major building construction during World War II, massive construction in the postwar years resulted in 30 new buildings being added from 1946 until the end of Dr. Lee’s presidency.
One notable accomplishment that President Lee helped to secure was the chartering of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at SMU. Still a fairly new institution by the late 1940s, SMU had made several attempts to install a chapter in previous years. Lee was credited with helping successfully bring Phi Beta Kappa to SMU in 1949, and was the first to sign the charter register. The prestige of having the honor society come to the university can hardly be overstated. At the time, SMU was only one of three universities in Texas to have a chapter, and the establishment of the society was seen as "a true vote of confidence for the intellectual life of what was then a young university."
This drive for academic excellence and recognition for SMU fit into President Lee’s ideas as to what education was supposed to mean for each college student, and what it meant for society as a whole—especially one that was democratically-based. He was a great proponent of a liberal arts education that would not simply grant degrees to students so they could later get jobs (a criticism made of American higher education during the 1960s). As he commented, "SMU will not give ‘production line’ degrees."
His observations on the true role of education in American society can be found in a speech given in December 1940 to the SMU chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Liberal education, he said, was criticized for having degenerated into mass education. One possible solution was to make education highly individualized. Doing so, Lee said, could result in courses of study that had no resemblance to each other at all; "we might... make matters worse by carrying individualized education to the point of wiping out such little common culture as now exists." He also noted one proposed remedy for this: an emphasis on general education that could provide each student with a broad understanding of multiple areas of knowledge, and which would give each student something in common with other students.
The great purpose of a liberal arts education, especially in the context of world events in 1940, was not merely to confer diplomas on students so they could get jobs and acquire material comforts for the rest of their lives. The point of an education was to give each student the knowledge necessary to advance the course of democratic society. If a democracy gives each citizen political power over the decisions government makes, Lee argued, liberal arts should make students think about their responsibilities in society. Moreover, a successful liberal arts program would instill personal and social values in students that would enable them to live with others and make good choices, and give them an appreciation for the beauty found in the arts, literature, and the sciences.
Despite the changes and improvements SMU experienced during the Lee years, the university also had to contend with uncertain times resulting from the Depression, and then by World War II. The school was not the only institution to face difficult times during the Depression, and as the United States increasingly focused on the threat emanating from Europe in the late 1930s, the prospect of war and resulting loss of male students to military service was hardly reassuring for Lee and others trying to assure the future of SMU.
Out of patriotic dedication, and the need to keep the university as financially stable as possible, President Lee worked to bring contracts for military and civilian training programs to SMU as a way of compensating for the loss of donations and student tuition resulting from the Depression and diminished male student enrollment during the war. Lee stated his intention to keep the university up and running as long as the war continued. University life did not, however, remain completely unchanged. Training programs for the armed services were set up, and the university implemented the trimester schedule (replacing the two-semester academic year) to enable as many students as possible—especially those going off to fight—to complete courses and degrees quickly.
War-related programs brought to SMU included the Civilian Pilot Training program, and the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program. Civilian programs in air raid preparedness and first aid were also created. Due to the need for college-educated men, especially those trained in scientific and technical fields, the armed services encouraged those already in college to finish their education prior to entering the war effort.
The navy established its several V-programs for high school and college students that would provide military training while still enabling those enrolled to take classes. The V-7 program recruited college graduates for officer training; V-1 attracted college underclassmen, and V-5 enlisted those who had not finished the V-1 program, as well as high school graduates, for aviation training. In 1943, SMU became one of 131 schools across the country to take part in the Navy College Training (V-12) program. V-12 placed students on active duty as apprentice seamen who would still be able to finish college. The program would thus prepare as many men for officer positions as possible through the use of American institutions of higher learning.
With the conclusion of the war (V-E Day coming in May 1945, V-J Day in August), President Lee welcomed the first postwar freshman class to SMU in the fall of that year. As was true for the country as a whole, the transition to peacetime was not altogether smooth for the university, as Lee had to confront problems that were not fully addressed during the war years. He had intended to work on increasing the school’s endowment and constructing new buildings when he had taken office, but neither goal was satisfied due to the war. SMU emerged from the war with a considerable budget deficit.
President Lee also had to contend with the problems caused by the rapid influx of veterans entering college via the GI Bill. The school benefitted from the increased enrollment—and the tuition resulting from that enrollment—but the school simply did not have the facilities to house all of the incoming students. That problem was solved, for the time being at least, by the use of temporary buildings established on campus to house students. Steps also had to be taken to deal with the concurrent lack of classrooms, but in the last several years of the Lee presidency, SMU experienced a building boom that greatly improved its ability to handle increased student enrollments.
More than a minister, educator, and college president, Umphrey Lee was also a writer. He wrote ten books during his lifetime, including The Lord’s Horseman (1928), John Wesley and Modern Religion (1936), and Our Fathers and Us: The Heritage of the Methodists (1958, completed just before Lee’s death). He also wrote numerous articles on church- and university-related issues, and a regular column in the Dallas Times Herald.
Dr. Lee served as SMU’s president until his decision to resign due to declining health. Following a heart attack in 1953, and advice by his doctor that a year of recuperation would be necessary if he wanted to fully resume his duties, Lee offered his resignation to the Board of Trustees on March 11, 1954. The Board convened at the end of that month and accepted his resignation, although the university community greatly regretted his departure. Bishop A. Frank Smith lamented that, "The retirement of President Lee will bring great distress to the university family, to Methodism, to the Southwest and to the entire educational world. His brilliant leadership for 15 years has brought Southern Methodist University into a secure place among the great universities of America." Students requested that the student center under construction at the time be named in honor of Lee (currently the Umphrey Lee Center).
Despite Lee’s departure from the SMU presidency, the Board of Trustees appointed him to the position of university chancellor at the same meeting in which they accepted his resignation. The chancellorship did not carry any administrative responsibilities, but it did enable Dr. Lee to remain connected with university affairs in a consultative capacity. The Board appointed him to his new position for a period of four years until the normal retirement age of 65. In their meeting on May 6, 1954, Board members paid tribute to Dr. Lee’s years of service to SMU, and heard the report of the special committee set up to nominate a new president. Dr. Willis M. Tate was chosen as SMU’s fifth president at that time.
Dr. Lee served as chancellor until his death in June 1958. The previous month, Lee had been honored at a university luncheon, during which the school conferred upon him the titles of Chancellor Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of History, and he would have officially received those titles upon his retirement as chancellor, which was set for July 1, 1958.
President Tate noted with admiration the many years of work that Lee had dedicated to SMU. Upon Dr. Lee’s death, Tate remarked, "More than any other man he is the symbol of the university. To him we owe the stature and accomplishments of Southern Methodist University... He had great dreams for this institution, and it will be the purpose of every member of the university faculty and staff to see that those dreams are fulfilled."
Umphrey Lee "Biographical Information," Series 1 in collection.
Anderson, Pamalla. "Mustangs Go to War: Campus Life During World War II," in Legacies (Vol. 20, No. 1), Spring 2008: 24-35.
Weiss, Winifred T. and Charles S. Proctor. Umphrey Lee: a Biography. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.
This collection contains the papers of Dr. Umphrey Lee, President of Southern Methodist University from 1939-1954. Included is biographical information on Dr. Lee, news articles and correspondence relating to his inauguration as president, records from the World War II years and Dr. Lee’s efforts to gain military contracts for SMU, and draft copies of his books, articles, and speeches.
The papers are divided topically into five series. Series 1 holds biographical information on Dr. Lee: early life and family background, educational information, and general facts about him. Two oversize boxes with a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and other publications that appeared on the occasion of his inauguration and death are also included.
Series 2 includes correspondence and news articles (covering both his inauguration and his resignation), and university reports submitted to him. Some news articles on his tenure as university chancellor are also included. Users should note, however, that the chancellorship was more of an honorary than an administrative position, and there probably were not many documents that resulted from any decisions or actions Dr. Lee made while serving as chancellor; if there were such records, this collection does not have them.
Series 3 contains SMU records from the World War II years. The university instituted military-related programs that could provide male students with training while still allowing them to finish their educations. This series covers these programs and SMU’s transition back to peacetime in the latter half of the 1940s.
Series 4 contains drafts of speeches Lee gave before and during his time as SMU president. These are arranged both by date and by topic; this was the way the speeches were arranged when the DeGolyer Library received them. Included in this series are addresses pertaining specifically to SMU, church sermons, radio addresses, and lectures given by Dr. Lee as parts of lecture series.
Series 5 holds Dr. Lee’s writings: book drafts and galley proofs, articles on matters related to the Methodist church and American higher education, and copies of the regular columns he wrote for the Dallas Times Herald. Within this series, material related to his books/pamphlets appears first, followed by material on his articles. Users should note that some of Dr. Lee’s lectures were apparently published in book form, and those drafts can be found in Series 4. In addition, this series holds copies of his Dallas Times Herald columns, but not published copies of his books; only book drafts are included. Users should check the SMU library catalog for his books and for the 1971 biography of Umphrey Lee written by Winifred T. Weiss and Charles S. Proctor.
Access to Collection:
Collection is open for research use.
Permission to publish materials must be obtained from the Director of the DeGolyer Library.
It is the responsibility of the user to obtain copyright authorization.
Umphrey Lee papers, Southern Methodist University Archives, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.
Paul H. Santa Cruz, 2008.
Lara Corazalla, 2008.
Detailed Description of the Collection