A Tenure of Depression and Elation

By Dr. Jack C. Lane

Rollins didn’t hire William Freemont Blackman as a fundraiser. But as the 20th century dawned, that’s what he became. Between chasing money and dealing with an eccentric philanthropist, the distinguished educator exhausted himself — but kept the college afloat.

Despite their busy schedules, the brilliant William Blackman and his sophisticated wife, Lucy, made time for music, gathering around the piano to sing hymns. Often the president, his wife and three children were pressed into service to perform at local funerals

Editor’s note: Dr. Jack Lane, Rollins College’s Weddell Professor of American History, Emeritus, was asked in 1984 by then-President Thaddeus Seymour to write an official history for the college’s centennial celebration the following year. Lane, who took a year off from teaching to tackle the daunting project, wrote a highly entertaining, warts-and-all account of the college’s development, encompassing financial crises, erratic leadership and famously fractious faculty members. Rollins: A Centennial History, while not shying away from controversy, also explored the innovative educational methods and brilliant personalities that won national acclaim for the college, and helped establish its reputation as one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the nation. Unfortunately, Lane’s complete work was never published. So, Winter Park Magazine will periodically select excerpts and present them here for the first time in print. In this issue, Lane delves into the eventful but financially tenuous tenure of the president he calls his favorite, Dr. William Freemont Blackman. In fact, at his retirement in 1999, Lane received the William Freemont Blackman Award for “achievements which reflect the ideals and standards set by President Blackman.” This condensed excerpt begins when Dr. George Morgan Ward, whose heroic efforts kept the college open in the aftermath of the Big Freeze of 1895, resigned the presidency. Ward, whose story will be told in a subsequent issue, would return to serve two more stints as president in later years.

The search for George Morgan Ward’s successor was unexpectedly brief. When Ward told the trustees that he definitely would not return after the 1902-03 school year, J. H. Wittmore, a Connecticut industrialist who had supported the college from its beginning, put forward the name of Dr. William Freemont Blackman, a sociologist and lecturer at Yale Graduate School.

The executive committee investigated Blackman’s background, found him interested in the position and recommended him to the board of trustees in January 1903. The following month, hw was hired as the fourth president of Rollins College at an annual salary at $2,500.

Unlike the previous three presidents, Blackman had no administrative or fundraising experience. But he brought to Rollins a solid educational background, a scholarly reputation and a brilliant mind. He held a B.A. from Oberlin and, after receiving a B.D. from Yale Divinity School, served for 10 years as a Congregational minister in Ohio, Connecticut and New York.

While he was pastor of the Congregational Church in Ithaca, N.Y., he earned a Ph.D in sociology at Cornell University. Following a year of study in Germany and France, he accepted a position as professor of Christian ethics at the Yale Divinity School. In 1901, Yale Graduate School appointed him lecturer in social philosophy and ethics, a position he held when Rollins called in 1902.

In addition to his admirable personal qualities, Blackman brought with him an active and interesting family that would leave an indelible stamp on the college and on Winter Park. His wife, Lucy Worthington Blackman, was a woman of varied talents. Although born and reared in provincial Stubenville, Ohio, she had been educated in private schools and had traveled widely in the U. S. and Europe.

Lucy’s gracious touch transformed the president’s home into a cultural center for the college and the community; a place where educated and artistic people gathered for teas, receptions and musical recitals. By all accounts a superb hostess, she immediately distinguished herself as an active worker on behalf of both the college and the town.

Shortly after arriving, she formed the Ladies Auxiliary of Rollins College, forerunner of the Rollins Women’s Association. In one campaign, the auxiliary raised more than $2,000 for the college endowment fund. She also served on the executive committee of the Florida Audubon Society and was vice president of the Winter Park Women’s Club, which she helped to found.

On campus, Lucy started the college’s Domestic Sciences Department — the first in Florida — and conducted classes for two years until funding was found for a permanent teacher.

While they were in New Haven, Conn., three children were born to the Blackmans: Berkley in 1886, Worthington (Win) in 1888 and Marjorie in 1889. All the Blackman children would graduate from Rollins; Berkley would become the college’s first Rhodes Scholar in 1908.

Still, despite busy social and professional lives, the close-knit family made time for themselves. In the morning and almost every evening, the Blackmans gathered around the piano to sing hymns and other favorites. The president provided accom-
paniment while the others harmonized.

In fact, the Blackman quartet became an institution in Winter Park. Lucy sang soprano, Marjorie sang alto, Win sang tenor and Berkley sang bass. During the summer months they sang for funerals, later prompting Marjorie to write: “I wish I had a dollar for every time we stood at a yawning grave and sang ‘Sleep Thy Last Sleep Free From Care and Sorrow.’”

The president’s home, then located at the corner of Interlachen Avenue and Morse Boulevard, was transformed into the college’s social and cultural heart. One visitor described the ambiance as “not prim but orderly. There were large easy chairs, a piano open with music on it and books lying about — not books on display, but books to be read and reread.”

With its long, spacious rooms and its rambling veranda, along with cooling shade trees, the president’s house (the old Frederick Lyman house at the corner of Interlachen Avenue and Morse Boulevard, where a condominium project now stands) provided an ideal setting for entertainment and relaxation. Lucy, queenly and gracious, and her husband, dignified and scholarly, endowed the home with its warm-hearted atmosphere.

One visitor described the ambiance as “not prim but orderly. There were large easy chairs, a piano open with music on it and books lying about — not books on display, but books to be read and reread. It was a home of a cultured American family.”

Given Blackman’s lack of college administrative experience, one could reasonably assume that the trustees had been attracted to the new president because of his educational background, and therefore saw in him the opportunity to raise the academic  prestige and quality of the institution.

Either the trustees told him, or he and his family assumed, that fundraising would not be his primary concern. According to Marjorie, he was led to believe that “he would devote his brilliant mind, his fine education, his forceful personality to administrative duties, to lecturing about Rollins through the state, to increasing the number of students, and especially to raising scholastic standards.”

Ward had come with similar assumptions, leaving a lingering suspicion that at least some trustees, anxious to secure a president, did not discourage such a misconception.

Blackman’s vision of himself as simply a college administrator and a scholarly spokesman was debunked before he even assumed office. On the morning prior to his inauguration, scheduled for the afternoon of April 2, 1903, the trustees, at the request of a wealthy physician and eccentric philanthropist named Daniel K. Pearsons, called a special session of the board.

At that meeting, Pearsons presented a stunning proposal: “I will give you $50,000 if you will raise $150,000. I will give you one year to raise the money. This  money is for a permanent endowment; only the income can ever be used. The original sum of $200,000 must be kept intact forever for the use and benefit of Rollins College.”

After a brief discussion, the trustees unanimously accepted Pearson’s offer, and composed a stirring statement contending that Rollins “has vindicated its right to existence by noble history: its field of usefulness is rapidly extending, and the need for it is more imperative than ever.”

During Blackman’s presidency, three large construction projects were undertaken. Chase Hall, made possible by a gift from Loring Chase, one of the cofounders of Winter Park, was the first non-wooden structure on the campus. It encompassed 14 rooms, a large common area and a terrace overlooking Lake Virginia.

The board made an appeal for assistance and characteristically shifted the incredible burden of raising $150,000 — the equivalent of $1.25 million today — on the shoulders of the new president, who had not expected to be a fundraiser but nonetheless cheerfully accepted the challenge. He probably had no other choice.

The gift did indeed seem to offer a golden opportunity to create a much-needed endowment. But in the end, both financially for the college and personally for Blackman, it proved to be an unusually mixed blessing.

In a period when former presidents had struggled mightily to raise as much as $20,000 a year from gifts, Blackman was expected to find over seven times that amount in the same period of time.

Throughout the following year, Blackman received able assistance from Oliver C. Morse, a fundraiser hired during the Ward administration, and William O’Neal, the college’s treasurer. But the ultimate responsibility was Blackman’s. He scarcely had the opportunity to tour the campus before he was “money-grubbing,” to use his daughter’s phrase.

Her father, wrote Marjorie, was “in person and by letter, entreating, begging, pleading, exhorting, traveling to knock on hard doors, and harder hearts, wearily sitting in anterooms to talk to the wealthy and various foundations, taking disappointment and even humiliation.”

Still, Blackman doggedly sought the funds to meet Pearson’s proposal. Through almost constant effort, by February he managed to raise all but $40,000 of the required sum

In his first annual presidential report, he reminded the trustees that the college was still short of the goal, and he also issued a warning: “Failure would create a psychological effect that would be fatal to the college.”

Despite this plea. on the deadline of April 14, 1904, the effort was still $20,000 short. With time running out, Morse, O’Neal and Blackman searched desperately for last-minute pledges. When the day ended, the entire sum had been collected or guaranteed.

The Blackmans, including sons Berkley and Worthington (Win) and daughter Marjorie, were a close and lively Victorian family. The servant is unidentified.

Upon the arrival of Pearson’s check, Blackman called for a rousing celebration. Classes were dismissed, games and entertainment were organized throughout the day and a commemorative dinner was held. There, Blackman noted that the trustees had chipped in half the funds, while the remainder had come from 73 separate contributors. He then read a letter from Pearson congratulating the college on its success, proposed a toast to the benefactor and led attendees in a college yell.

With its first endowment, Rollins had taken a giant step toward financial stability. But the benefits were not to come without immediate cost. Although Ward had managed to make significant improvements in the college’s financial condition, Blackman had nonetheless inherited an operating deficit of $7,000.

The matching funds campaign left him no time to raise money for the college’s day-to-day expenses. Consequently, at the end of Blackman’s first year, the deficit had doubled to more than $15,000. This “perplexing debt,” as Blackman described it, would plague his administration from the beginning to the end.

The worsening shortfall was but one of the complications attending the Pearson gift; the Blackman family had to accommodate the additional burden of Pearson himself.

The old philanthropist was in the process of disposing of $5 million, thereby remaining a potential source of revenue for the college. So, when Pearson wrote the Blackmans hinting that he would like to stay at their home when he next visited Winter Park, they were scarcely in a position to refuse.

Blackman wrote in a generous tone that he and Lucy would “welcome no one more heartily than yourself.” Pearson, having inveigled the invitation, announced his further wishes: “I am an old man who wants quiet. I do not like a crowd. I seek rest and perfect quiet. I do not wish to get acquainted with anyone. I know more people now than I desire to.”

The Blackmans would never forget the winter of 1906, when Pearson moved in. Lincolnesque in appearance with a spare frame and a granite-like face with a jutting nose, he spoke in a gruff manner that never included such social amenities as “please” and “thank you.”

Though his successes were many, Blackman suffered from chronic nausea and insomnia brought on by the constant strain of raising funds. He resigned his post in 1915 and went on to become a successful rancher, businessperson and conservation activist.

Though probably an understatement, “eccentric” was the most common adjective used to describe Pearson’s personal habits.

For example, the Blackmans had constructed a separate bathroom especially for their guest. But as far as the family could tell, he never used it for any purpose that entire winter. Every morning after breakfast he stuffed a handful of toilet tissue in his coat pocket and vanished into the adjacent woods.

No one heard him take a bath nor saw him change his old-fashioned black garments, which were, according to Marjorie, “liberally embroidered down the front with a ghost of vanished meals.” But no description of Pearson can match Marjorie’s account of his most disgusting idiosyncrasy:

“Doc had a full set of dentures. After every meal he removed them, dunked them up and down in his water glass, shook them onto the table cloth, and shoved them back into his cavernous mouth. The first time this happened, I made a mad rush to the bathroom, where I lost my breakfast.”

As a measure of their Christian character, it is noteworthy that the members of this cultured family accepted Pearson’s presence with a resolute cheerfulness. Ironically, except for a small gift to help build the library, the old man never gave the college another cent.

In more ways than one the Blackmans had paid heavily for that $50,000 gift.

During the first decade of the 13-year Blackman administration, the college realized substantial growth in all areas. The total number of students averaged around 170 annually, a three-fold increase since 1900. The campaign connected with the Pearson grant created an initial endowment that rose to more than $200,000 by 1912.

Most notably, Blackman added three large buildings to the campus. Chase Hall, the result of a gift from Loring Chase, one of the co-founders of Winter Park, was a two-story brick building finished in 1908. Chase Hall, the first non-wooden structure built on the campus, contained 14 rooms, a large common area and a terrace overlooking Lake Virginia.

A year later, prominent American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie offered a matching grant for the college’s first library, appropriately dubbed Carnegie Hall.

The two-story, sand-lined brick building with a red tile roof contained an interior richly decorated with stained, carved wood. The first floor housed a reading room and space for bookshelves, while the second floor contained administrative offices, including the president’s.

Blackman and the trustees felt that the library should be placed near the center of the campus, and came to the conclusion that Cloverleaf, a three-story women’s dormitory, occupied the ideal spot. Cloverleaf was therefore moved to the southeast of its original location, and the library was constructed in its place.

The third building came as a result of a fire that destroyed Knowles Hall, leaving left the college without recitation rooms. The new Knowles Hall was built with an additional small gift from Carnegie and money from the Frances B. Knowles family.

Placed on the east side of Cloverleaf, “Knowles II” contained, in addition to classrooms, a large chapel and science laboratories.

Yet, despite more buildings and more students, the college continued to run a deficit. The Pearson and Carnegie gifts, both of which required matching funds, had forced Blackman and other administrators to devote their time to raising money for specific projects, thereby diverting their attention from routine operating needs.

“After the increasing struggle of the past five years to meet conditional offers of this sort,” Blackman stated in his 1909 president’s report, “I feel both depression and elation in the view of the tasks set before us.”

By 1912, the deficit had risen to $48,000. The tone of Blackman’s letters during this period reveal a sense of dejection and defeat. He had simply worn himself out in a fruitless and seemingly endless search for elusive funds.

On Feb. 24, 1915, thoroughly humbled by his failure to improve the college’s financial condition, he submitted his letter of resignation.

The years of fundraising and the prevailing “disturbed business conditions caused by the war in Europe,” had simply drained him of all his energy. He believed that once economic conditions improved, the college could find the funds it needed, but he could no longer “endure the strain of it.”

Blackman admitted that he was suffering from chronic nausea and a “haunting” insomnia brought on by the worry and strain of the presidency. For several months prior to his resignation, according to Marjorie, he had managed only an “hour or two of sleep at the beginning [of each night] and then a lighted lamp and wakefulness most of the time until welcome daylight.”

Marjorie later wrote that her mother invariably “read him to sleep every night, and as long as he could hear her voice, he slept peacefully. But when from sheer weariness her book fell from her hands and her eyes closed, he was wide awake again, worrying.”

In retirement, Blackman bounced back. He bought a ranch in Sanford and founded the Bank of Winter Park. He was elected president of the Florida Conference of Charities and Corrections, an organization of educators that dealt with sociological challenges, and joined the Commission on Family Life of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America.

Florida Gov. Sidney Johnston Catts named him to the Florida Livestock Sanitary Board in 1917. In 1921 he became president of the Florida Audubon Society and an activist for conservation causes. He wrote books, including a history of Orange County, as well as monographs on conservation, ornithology, religion and education.

Blackman died in 1932, and his funeral was held at Knowles Memorial Chapel. For once, he did not have to worry about who would pay the bill.


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