The Persistent President

The Echoes of A. Ray Olpin’s Footsteps Still Reverberate Across Campus Today.

Wallace Stegner

By Vanessa Chang

It’s not possible to look around campus without seeing numerous examples of Olpin’s legacy.

The long-awaited biography of A. Ray Olpin, the University of Utah’s ninth president, reveals a man who cultivated a small liberal arts school and grew it into a world-class research university.

The completed work by Anne Palmer Peterson MPA’00, Years of Promise: The University of Utah’s A. Ray Olpin Era, 1946-64 (October 2009, University of Utah Press), chronicles the former president’s remarkable career and the school’s evolution during his tenure.

Olpin’s presidency began when the G.I. Bill was in full effect, allowing more men to enroll in higher education and dramatically changing the landscape of universities across the U.S. The time from his first day as the U’s president in 1946 to his last in 1964 is dense with academic and campus development: He directed the construction of 30 new buildings during a 10-year period alone and saw student enrollment more than triple during his tenure.

Over the years, Olpin also had various encounters within the local community that tested his abilities. Even though Gov. J. Bracken Lee tended to be suspicious of the ambitious president, Olpin managed to protect and even expand his turf. Yet when a complaint was lodged about the budding art department’s exposing unwitting adolescents to nude artworks, Olpin ordered the paintings removed. Accounts of run-ins such as these, as well as Olpin’s correspondence with prospective faculty, provide some of the most insightful and sometimes humorous perspectives on the man, according to Peterson.

“I read through letters extolling the virtues of our ‘clean mountain air’ as a boon to lure academics living in cold, damp parts of the world,” she says. Olpin was successful in that endeavor, and Peterson’s book includes a few fascinating bits of related correspondence, such as that with the respected Egyptian scholar Aziz Atiya, founder of the U’s Middle East Center. “Olpin brought in figures who themselves would make immensely interesting biographies,” notes Peterson.

Olpin’s contacts in the private sector were also vital to his obtaining additional financial support to establish new programs and lure world-renowned researchers and faculty to a relatively unknown state university. As a result, the small liberal arts campus began gradually morphing into a world-class research institution, complete with new facilities, graduate degree programs, and a respected school of medicine, thereby allowing local brain power to stay put and ultimately benefit the entire community.

“Olpin’s efforts for cooperative research still echo today,” Peterson says. For example, “Kennecott played a very important role in Olpin’s time, contributing funds for the Kennecott research lab and Pioneer Theatre. Now, as Rio Tinto, the company is a major donor to the Utah Museum of Natural History project.”

Peterson has herself held a variety of teaching and administrative positions on campus, which helped her to understand why establishing better ties between the academic institution in the foothills and the community at large in the valley was fundamental to Olpin’s policy goals. Peterson could relate to the task in her previous positions as director of alumni relations and editor of this magazine, as well as her current role as director of the Utah Business History Project at the David Eccles School of Business.

By the time Peterson set out to pen Olpin’s biography, several people had already attempted the task. “There have always been various incarnations of this project,” Peterson says. “Faculty committees consistently discussed how it should be written, since through the story of Olpin we are reading a crucial chapter of the University’s history.”

After Peterson was selected to write the biography, she set about to convey Olpin’s seminal role in creating a bridge between town and gown. Long before the faculty committee approached her, Peterson was aware that the University’s history was a fundamental component in representing the campus to the community at large. When she became the editor of Continuum, her predecessor, Byron “By” Sims BS’57, gave her a copy of Ralph V. Chamberlin’s book The University of Utah: A History of Its First Hundred Years.

“It was part of my job as director of alumni relations to know our history,” Peterson recalls. “I was always interested in what records and archives we had.” Through her Olpin research, she discovered that her current office in Fort Douglas is part of the Olpin legacy, located on land acquired by the ambitious new president to house the growing number of military veterans enrolled at the University.

Peterson is a careful writer, and her meticulousness was vital in sifting through the comprehensive archives. With access to thousands of documents from former Olpin assistants, colleagues, and archivists, Peterson pored through journals, memos, notes, and articles. Along with this substantial material, there was also the president’s monumental legacy to interpret through his own official papers and handwritten correspondence.

“When I was first approached to write the book, I really didn’t know anything in particular about Olpin,” Peterson says, so what she learned from scrutinizing the mountain of documents amounted to a revelation.

The result is a concise, detailed history that parallels the changing atmosphere of post-World War II culture as it heads into the Cold War era.

The sheer number of activities and events that took place during Olpin’s career could make for tedious reading were they to be chronicled. But Peterson, the University archivists, and the faculty committee wanted to avoid an encyclopedic account of this pivotal era. While Chamberlin’s historical volume is detailed and thorough, it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling reading. Olpin’s story required a different approach. “I didn’t write it as a traditional biography, because I wanted it to be about the University of Utah and its changing role in the community during the Olpin years,” says Peterson. “It is a history of the University of Utah during the A. Ray Olpin years, not a historical biography of the man who led.”

Peterson’s book moves chronologically, beginning with Olpin’s arrival as University president, succeeding LeRoy Cowles. The pace at which she chronicles Olpin’s first year sets a steady rhythm, reflecting the daunting tasks he had to face, often alone, as he had no funds for an administrative staff. But as Peterson illustrates in later chapters, from his previous roles as a researcher in television technology and in the University of Ohio’s branch of the Manhattan Project to his time at the U, Olpin proved to be no ordinary man.

As Olpin worked feverishly to develop the University, he was also keenly aware of the need to internationalize the campus. Fluent in Japanese (from his experience as an LDS missionary), Olpin traveled again to Japan, as well as other countries such as New Zealand, on behalf of the U.S. government and as a private education consultant. But what the worldly Olpin saw at U.S. embassies abroad distressed him; the attitudes and conduct of many in the Foreign Service, he believed, was contrary to the American ideals he thought should be promoted abroad. Believing that students should operate as world citizens, he developed global studies and international service programs. One initiative in particular caught Peterson’s attention.

Anne Peterson

Anne Palmer Peterson MPA’00 directs the Utah Business History Project at the David Eccles School of Business. A former editor of Continuum, past staff writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, and Utah’s sole stringer for Time magazine for a decade, Peterson holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in public administration from the University of Utah. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of London’s Institute of Education. To conduct research on this book, Peterson was awarded the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Fellowship for research into western hemispheric history and policy studies at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Peterson is a contributing editor of two nonfiction books, Mad Genius: The Odyssey, Pursuit and Capture of the Unabomber Suspect (Warner Books, Inc., 1996) and Siege at Marion (Time-Life Books, 1989).

“When President Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps in 1960, Olpin, who had a fairly large ego, I think, felt it was a plagiarism of his idea,” says Peterson. “By this time, Olpin had come up with a plan very much like the Peace Corps and had circulated it throughout D.C., so many important people knew about it.”

These glimpses of Olpin’s sentiments and reactions are the book’s only window into the president’s personal life. While it contains a litany of his professional achievements, it reveals relatively little about him as a father and husband. But that was Peterson’s intent. “There aren’t enough living readers who knew Olpin to make a biography a very desired format for interpreting our university’s history via Olpin,” she says.

And by all accounts, Olpin was a “workaholic” in today’s parlance. “He definitely had a problem delegating,” Peterson says. “His desk had huge stacks of paper that took a long time to process because he felt he had to be responsible for everything.”

Also conscious of their public responsibilities, Olpin and his wife, Elva, frequently opened up their home on South Temple to faculty and students for concerts, garden parties, and discussion groups. “He was very much a family man and incorporated his family in his presidential ‘hosting’ responsibilities to the extent possible,” says Peterson. “He had a tremendous faith in what the University of Utah was capable of becoming, and this was the primary motivation for his actions.”

Of course, Olpin’s history is also the University of Utah’s history. During his remarkable 18-year career at the helm, he established the trajectory that the University of Utah would continue to follow on its path to prominence. Though many students, particularly younger ones, may not understand the specific relevance of the name attached to the current Union Building, it’s not possible to look around campus without seeing numerous examples of Olpin’s legacy.

—Vanessa Chang is a writer living in Salt Lake City.

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