Based on a work by Dr. Jack Lane with additional material by Randy Noles
Photos courtesy of the Rollins College Archives
Editors Note: The basis of this story is a chapter of an upcoming book called The Rollins Centennial History: A Story of Perseverance, 1885-1985, written by Dr. Jack C. Lane, professor of history emeritus. For use as a stand-alone magazine piece, some portions were edited, revised or deleted for space considerations. In addition, some material was added for context.
Unusual circumstances surrounded the arrival in 1949 of Rollins College’s ninth president, Paul Wagner, a 31-year-old wunderkind whose personal magnetism initially captivated the campus. Even more unusual circumstances surrounded Wagner’s departure in 1951, when he was ousted following a bitter brouhaha that roiled the community and continued to reverberate decades later.
Hostile memories engendered by what would become known as “the Wagner Affair” forever poisoned friendships. Individuals in Winter Park who were on opposite sides never spoke to one another again.
The college was so embarrassed by the whole episode that it consigned relevant documents to a locked filing cabinet that sat for years, hidden from view, in a shadowy corner of the Mills Memorial Hall basement. The cabinet was labeled simply “Wagner.”
Of course, the seemingly placid campus had been the scene of infighting before. Controversial characters had come and gone with some regularity. But never had one person — particularly one with such promise and such lofty intentions — wreaked such utter havoc.
When Wagner was ultimately deposed, he refused to relinquish power. For a time there were two presidents on campus, with Wagner’s anointed successor conducting business from a makeshift office a few hundred yards away.
Although documents and news accounts provide the chronology, the entire episode remains surreal, as though Rod Serling had set out to write an episode of The Twilight Zone set on a college campus — and then gave up when the plot became too unwieldy and implausible.
Simple explanations — hubris on one side, naiveté on the other — seem somehow inadequate. Yet, one conclusion can surely be drawn: Paul Wagner was one heck of a salesman.
With eyesight severely weakened by measles, Wagner struggled through elementary and secondary school by listening to his mother read aloud and by taking tests orally. Still, he made good grades and graduated from high school at the age of 16.
Wagner outgrew his sight problem and, according to later press releases and published interviews, completed four years of work at the University of Chicago in three years, earning his undergraduate degree at the age of 19.
Impressive, but not quite true. Wagner did indeed graduate from the University of Chicago, becoming a protégé of its respected president, Robert Hutchins. But he did so in 1938, three months shy of his 21st birthday, and took a full four years to earn a degree in education.
This may, at first blush, appear to be a minor exaggeration, or even an honest mistake. But it was repeated numerous times — most often by Wagner himself — perhaps because it bolstered his carefully cultivated image as an academic boy wonder.
After graduation, he became an English teacher at the university’s experimental high school, where he was a pioneer in audio-visual education. He then earned a master’s degree in English at Yale, where he attended on a Carnegie fellowship, before returning to Chicago and joining the faculty at his alma mater.
Shortly thereafter, Wagner became an instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York. He also wrote feature stories and drama reviews — as well as some of the earliest columns about television — for the New Haven Journal-Courier.
With the outbreak of World War II, Wagner offered his services as a civilian consultant to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago, where he introduced the use of audio-visual aids in training recruits.
In 1942, the Department of the Navy offered Wagner a lieutenant’s commission to continue his work at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he developed training materials and made hundreds of films to support the college’s evolving curriculum.
After the war, Wagner joined American Type Founders, a manufacturer of foundry type and printing presses, as assistant to the president. He then worked as a counselor to the Committee on Economic Development, a private consortium of executives formed to promote the free enterprise system. (The Washington, D.C.-based CED remains a potent advocacy group today.)
In 1947, Wagner seemed to land an ideal position at Bell & Howell, a leading manufacturer of motion-picture equipment, where he was described in newspaper articles as “right-hand man” to company president Charles H. Percy, who would later be elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois.
While at Bell & Howell, Wagner produced educational films — including one that featured Eddie Albert, who would later portray gentleman farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas on the sitcom Green Acres — and gave hundreds of presentations throughout the U.S., Mexico and Canada on the promise of technology in the classroom.
But the restless Wagner was eager to put his educational ideas to practice in an academic setting. In 1949, when he learned that Rollins was looking for a new president, he impulsively flew to Florida, arriving unannounced as Hamilton Holt, the retiring president, was interviewing another candidate.
Holt, a New England-bred sophisticate who had served as president since 1925, didn’t see Wagner until well into the evening, and even then, he did so grudgingly. It was late, and the frail but formidable man affectionately known campus wide as “Prexy” was tired. He initially judged Wagner to be brash and egotistical, exuding a grating, super-salesman persona.
As the evening wore on, however, Holt began to change his mind. He found Wagner more and more appealing, and decided to recommend him to the search committee. There had been more than 200 candidates, many of whom, unlike Wagner, had been academic administrators or college presidents.
Like a professional actor upon a stage of his choosing, the young man with the movie-star smile simply overwhelmed Holt, the search committee, the executive committee and the board of trustees with the force of his personality and the polished nature of his dazzling multimedia presentations.
Surely, it seemed, a president with Wagner’s energy and acumen could build upon the progressive educational model that Holt — an innovator who had gained national attention in the late ’20s with his teaching-oriented Conference Plan — had worked so hard to build.
At the May 31 commencement meeting, the trustees unanimously elected Wagner, making him the youngest president of an accredited college in the country. The announcement created a considerable stir in the academic world, and earned coverage from mainstream media outlets as well.
Colliers dubbed Wagner “education’s new boy wonder.” Newsweek also wrote a flattering story about the youthful dynamo, who seemed so full of novel ideas on how to prepare the college — and higher education in general — for a new era in which multiple modes of teaching would be available.
An Associated Press story quoted the “broad-shouldered, square-jawed” Wagner as saying that he hoped graduates would be “generalists” who like football as well as poetry, insisting that “such men will be the next leaders.”
Wagner also rebuked colleges in general for eschewing sex education. “Now think of this,” he told the AP reporter. “We spend about two thirds of our lives living with the opposite sex — and these schools practically ignore the subject.”
Wagner, pacing and pontificating while chewing on the earpiece of his glasses, made it clear during the interview that he wanted students to be challenged: “Today, facts are flooding in upon us,” he said. “The students are becoming mere walking catalogues of facts. But there’s the crux of it: Do students know what these facts mean?”
Warming to the subject, Wagner elaborated on the importance of critical thinking in ways that were strikingly prescient, considering the state of American political discourse in 2017: “In totalitarian states, only a few people have to know the significance of facts. Here in America, everyone has to know what facts mean.”
If the college community was entranced by Wagner, they were also charmed by his attractive family, including his wife, Paula (“a slim, pretty blonde,” according to a newspaper account), and their 3-year-old son, Paul Jr.
The dynamic go-getter certainly presented a contrast to the 76-year-old Holt, an ailing widower who’d given his all to the college he loved, but was now ill and exhausted.
Said Holt in a parting address to the Alumni Advisory Council: “Mr. Wagner has youth, health, brains and character, a fine academic background, a glowing personality and a rare gift for making and keeping friends.”
The irony, in retrospect, of Holt’s reference to Wagner’s skill at making and keeping friends is difficult to ignore. But it certainly seemed true at the time.
And so, with considerable pomp and misguided optimism, the charismatic Midwesterner was installed. The college’s press release was light on specifics, noting that Wagner was more than six feet tall, “ruggedly handsome” and “an all-around athlete.”
The release made no mention of Wagner’s goals for the college — indeed, the president had told several campus groups that he hadn’t yet formulated any — but brief bullet points summarized his “educational aims.”
Among them: He planned to use the Socratic method to learn about the challenges and opportunities to come. Visual aids, while no panacea, could “speed up” the educational process, which was important since a college had only four academic years “to impart the wisdom of the ages.”
Finally, he believed in “teamwork between education and business; between administration, faculty and students.”
During the first months of his administration, Wagner appeared to exceed expectations. In his inaugural address — and in both formal and informal conversations with faculty and students — he talked of continuing Holt’s progressive legacy.
However, a couple of early incidents clouded Wagner’s bright beginning. For example, in the fall of 1949, in the midst of football season, he decreed the program’s demise.
The announcement, at least initially, rattled the campus. Had Wagner not traveled with the team, diagramming a few plays at halftime? Had he not told some students that the college would have a football team as long as he was president?
Indeed he had. But, faced with the sport’s $57,000 annual deficit, he persuaded the trustees to drop the program, although he agreed to allow students who had been given football scholarships to continue until graduation. He likewise threatened to pull the plug on other intercollegiate sports if they, too, caused deficits.
Students, however, reacted much less vociferously than expected, at least in part because Wagner diffused the explosive issue at a two-hour meeting — during which he made extensive use of slides and charts — with the entire student body at the Annie Russell Theatre.
He not only convinced attendees that football wasn’t worth the deficit, he also persuaded them that a substitute program of less costly sports — golf, tennis, swimming and sailing — would be more beneficial and facilitate greater participation. Wagner’s presentation, a model exhibition of salesmanship, was met with applause.
Charlie Wadsworth, featured columnist for the Orlando Morning Sentinel, reflected that “Rollins will get along just as well or better without football. It won’t be the same, but the school will get along.”
The football issue diffused, more concerns then arose when Wagner began making personnel changes. Almost immediately, friction developed with Holt’s dean of men, Arthur Enyart. The 68-year old dean had been at the college since 1911, and had earned the moniker “Mr. Rollins.”
After a stormy meeting during which Wagner shouted that he was tired of Enyart’s constant “infantile” behavior — the older man had vocally opposed dropping football — Enyart announced his resignation, ostensibly “for health reasons.”
Wagner, of course, had a right to form his own administrative team. But his attitude toward Enyart alienated many of the dean’s friends, some of whom were influential alumni who held deep affection for him.
With Enyart gone, Wagner made what he called “several shifts in administrative responsibility.” He ignored the college’s longstanding governance structure — faculty committees and faculty meetings — and instead relied upon a small staff for counsel before announcing policy changes as a fait accompli.
Typical of all new presidents, Wagner wanted to know the overall condition of the institution he was to run. To begin the discovery process, he assigned Wendell Stone, dean since 1943, to conduct what Stone described as a “lengthy and exceedingly complicated” survey of the college’s economic and academic status.
Wagner then appointed Horace “Tolly” Tollefson, director of the library, as his executive assistant and “coordinator,” with the duty of promoting a more businesslike approach and implementing greater operational efficiencies.
This wasn’t how business had previously been conducted at Rollins, where it was customary to involve the entire community before assigning individuals these kinds of institutional studies. Then all factions would have ownership of — and responsibility for — the outcome.
Wagner’s approach, some grumbled, flatly contradicted his statements about how he would govern.
A more serious unease rose over Wagner’s “educational aim study,” launched in the summer of 1950. By his own admission, the project was unconventional.
Rather than following the traditional method of appointing a special faculty committee for such a study, he asked each faculty member to submit a report based on an outline of “what every educated adult should know about … factual information, general knowledge, attitude, appreciation, techniques.”
Many faculty members resented this extra burden heaped upon them during their summer vacations, and became impatient as they grappled with what one called “a rigid, inelastic, superficial approach that left out vast areas of learning.
Nothing came of the study because in the fall of 1950, coping with serious financial problems became Wagner’s top priority. Despite its knowledge of perennial deficits during the Holt era, the faculty was surprised to learn that such shortfalls were suddenly considered to be a crisis.
Two external pressures on enrollment caused heightened concern. First, as with most institutions of higher learning, rampant inflation threatened to deplete the already meager treasury. Second, the number of World War II veterans — the group primarily responsible for swelling college enrollments — suddenly decreased.
The problem was exacerbated by the outbreak of the Korean War, when reintroduction of the draft threatened to deprive the college of even more male applicants. Although a college deferment was in place, there was a chance that all 18-year-olds might be declared eligible for conscription after the November election.
As the 1950-51 academic year began, these forces — plus an inherited debt of a quarter of a million dollars — began to weigh heavily on Wagner’s mind. “In the event that we should lose 200 of the 356 men to the draft,” he warned, “there are several possible but undesirable answers, including a reduction of faculty and staff.”
In December, Wagner again turned to Stone, instructing him to estimate enrollment for the 1951-52 academic year, and to analyze the college’s financial viability based on what would presumably be much lower tuition revenue. Rollins, Wagner decreed, must “play it safe by assuming that the total amount of student fees will be the operating budget.”
The president left no doubt that some faculty and staff would have to be dismissed. The actual number would depend upon the size of the gap between operating expenses and tuition revenue. On the assumption that cuts would be necessary, Wagner told Stone to construct “a system of related values for determining who would be dropped.”
It couldn’t have been an easy job for Stone, particularly on a close-knit campus where congeniality was valued. Nonetheless, in February he presented Wagner with a highly pessimistic report on present and future conditions at the college, as well as a dossier of personal and financial information on individual faculty members.
Stone’s findings, combined with treasurer John Tiedtke’s equally gloomy projections, gave Wagner all the data he needed to present the trustees with a comprehensive cost-reduction plan.
At the trustees’ meeting on Tuesday, February 27, 1951, Wagner found himself in the familiar role of super-salesman. He delivered, as usual, a virtuoso performance, employing a slide show with graphics and spontaneously writing figures on large sheets of newsprint — then ripping and casting the paper aside as he spoke.
Wagner steamrolled the trustees with his apparent grasp of the challenges at hand. Not in war nor peace nor depression had the college ever faced such a crisis, Wagner insisted.
As in the business world, he said, the college must make decisions in a “tough-minded way.” Businessmen, he noted, lived not in a “romantic” but a “realistic” world — and a college “is, in effect, a business.”
Wagner reported that all colleges, including Rollins, expected a 30 percent drop in enrollment. Therefore, he was planning for only 449 students in the coming year — a decline of 29 percent.
Since the operating budget would depend entirely upon income from student fees, he said, and since income from those fees could drop by as much as $150,000, then cuts at least equal to that amount would have to be made.
Tiedtke had already done all the paring back he could, Wagner added. The only area left untouched, he continued, was the educational program budget, which would need to be reduced by $87,000. In more relatable terms, that meant between 15 and 20 faculty members would have to go.
The trustees seemed stunned by Wagner’s rapid-fire, fact-filled performance. His arguments sounded logical, but it was difficult — perhaps impossible — to absorb all of the figures and statistics in one sitting.
Wagner had chosen not to distribute a printed report for later, more careful perusal. Nor had he offered any alternatives. He had considered other plans, he explained, and except for the one he presented, had found all of them wanting.
Tiedtke confirmed that a serious financial problem was looming. But, while not directly contradicting the president, he reminded the trustees of the college’s mission: “We have a Cadillac assembly line, and we cannot turn out Cadillacs without fenders or radiators or wheels; nor can we turn out Fords, for we are not built that way.”
Worried that the college could destroy its reputation over the long term, Tiedtke asked the trustees to consider all the ramifications of draconian cuts: “I look at this very much like a cancer. To save your life you may have to amputate your hand, but it’s a serious matter to amputate your hand.”
Stone then reported that many faculty members were moonlighting simply to make ends meet. Because Wagner had argued that his plan would allow the college to raise salaries for remaining faculty members, this knowledge seemed to make dismissals somewhat more palatable. At least some people — those still employed — might be better off, and the college would be spared ruin.
Consequently, the trustees voted unanimously in favor of Wagner’s plan, and prepared an ominous public statement instructing the president to reduce the faculty, exempting some part-timers as well as those who taught courses deemed necessary.
Having dispensed with the matter of budget and faculty cuts, members of the executive committee, who had known of Wagner’s proposals in advance and unanimously supported them, moved abruptly to solidify the president’s position ahead of a predictable backlash.
They voted Wagner a $2,000 raise beginning in March 1951, and promised him an additional $500 annual increase until his salary reached $15,000. Additionally, they adopted a resolution praising his good work and lauding his “constructive plans for the future of the institution.”
The following day, the executive committee tried to further insulate Wagner by offering a 10-year contract — later reduced to five years, after some trustees objected — and adopting an amendment to the bylaws stating that the president “shall have the sole power to hire and discharge employees and to fix administrative and educational policies of the college subject to the veto of the board of trustees.”
Many trustees left the meeting with an uneasy feeling about the propriety — perhaps even the ethics — of raising a president’s salary and handing him a five-year contract while simultaneously voting to deprive numerous faculty members of their sole means of support.
But no one voted against the motions to do so. Some few salved their consciences by recording their abstentions.
Wagner now began to study Stone’s report on the personal financial situations of faculty members. Conveniently, between 15 and 20 were financially secure or able to survive a year’s leave of absence, according to the analysis.
Stone also provided Wagner with an overview of departmental conditions, pointing out areas in which dismissals would most harm the college academically.
Believing that he had completed his due diligence, Wagner began compiling a list of faculty members to be released at the end of the academic year. In the midst of this process, he appeared before a regularly scheduled faculty meeting on Monday, March 5.
In an abbreviated repetition of his whirlwind trustee presentation, Wagner outlined his retrenchment policies, presenting what he called the trustees’ “mathematical formula” for determining faculty dismissals. These objective criteria, he explained, were designed to obviate the need to make judgments on a personal basis.
Then he added this chilling warning: There would be “no appeal and no discussion” following dismissal announcements.
Faculty members understood the college’s desperate financial situation. But how could they respond to Wagner’s proposed solution when they had seen nothing on paper, nothing concrete to ponder and nothing to analyze?
Although Wagner had permitted no questions, many lingered. Who developed the “mathematical formula?” What did the criteria for dismissal mean? Who, in fact, could even remember those criteria?
Wagner had promised to issue letters of dismissal immediately. In the interim, faculty members anxiously hovered around their mailboxes, expecting the worst.
As Royal France, a professor of economics, later expressed it: “For two breathless days the axe hung suspended over faculty heads, no one knowing who was to be decapitated, and soon anger rose alongside fear.”
The axe fell on Thursday, March 8, and the thudding of heads falling reverberated throughout the community. Initially, the numbers alone were startling. The dismissals totaled 19 full-timers and four part-timers — one-third of the entire faculty.
Then, as the names became known, the shock turned to anger. Thirteen of those dismissed had earned tenure, and most had served the college for 15 to 20 years. Among them were some of the college’s most popular and respected instructors.
Wagner had dismissed the only two faculty members who could teach German and calculus, both of which were required for pre-med majors. Also sent packing were all faculty members in education and business, thereby abolishing those departments.
Five of seven full-time English professors were out, leaving two full-timers and two part-timers to teach required English composition to 400 students. Among those vanquished was Nathan Starr, perhaps Rollins’ most distinguished scholar and one of its most popular teachers.
Other talented faculty members across academic disciplines were let go, leading to questions about Wagner’s methods as well as his judgment. As an alumnus wrote to a trustee, the president might have gotten away with a handful of dismissals. But the sheer number — and the stature of those who were terminated — demonstrated a “lack of wisdom.”
Even faculty members who received notices of reappointment didn’t feel secure, because they were given only one-year contracts. Gloom and dread hovered heavily over the campus by the end of what became known as “Black Thursday.”
That same afternoon, the local American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called a meeting in the campus Art Studio, where the faculty began a discussion of alternatives to the cuts in their numbers.
Wagner arrived, turning the gathering into an official faculty meeting and giving another lecture on the necessity of making tough-minded decisions. He did, however, agree to hold another meeting that Sunday, at which time practical alternatives could be presented and discussed.
If Wagner had understood how transformative decisions were made in a democratic small college — indeed, if he had any administrative experience at all — he might have employed such a strategy several months earlier to positive effect.
At this point, however, a meeting with an angry and bewildered faculty was bound to be explosive. The imperiousness of Wagner’s governance style had become obvious to everyone, as news of the mass dismissals spread like a brushfire throughout the campus.
On Friday, a student group met in the dean’s and the treasurer’s offices to suggest ways in which they could help the college save money. Ideas included student participation without pay in maintenance, dormitory and dining-room work.
A large group of students gathered the next morning to discuss the dismissal issue, but the mood turned sour when it was learned that Wagner wouldn’t grant them an audience. The group dispersed only after student leaders pledged to persuade the president to attend another meeting on Sunday evening.
But as the weekend got underway, the campus boiled with activity. Small groups of students and faculty met informally and spontaneously, seeking to separate rumor from fact. By mid-Sunday afternoon, both groups felt increasingly angry and disrespected.
At that day’s faculty meeting in Dyer Hall, attended by Wagner, a motion was unanimously passed demanding that “the president right here and now rescind the dismissals and begin work with the faculty and students on alternative proposals.”
Wagner quietly remarked that he had no authority to revoke a decision made by the trustees. The faculty then assembled a special committee to confer with the trustees “on the whole problem and to resolve the situation.” Wagner, who was asked to leave, acquiesced. But it would be the last time he would be sent away without putting up a fight.
With the president out of the room, Nathan Starr introduced a resolution that stated: “The faculty feels that the present situation within the college has been handled improperly and could have been avoided. Our confidence in the presidential leadership has been irreparably damaged.”
A long discussion of this “no confidence” resolution ended at 6:30 p.m., when the meeting recessed with no vote, but with a plan to reconvene “without the president” on the following Tuesday.
As the faculty filed out, a crowd of several hundred students had gathered in the student center awaiting their rescheduled meeting with Wagner. The president was joined by the executive committee and, for reasons not quite clear, the mayor of Winter Park, William McCauley.
It was perhaps Wagner’s last opportunity to prevent a full-fledged campus revolt. Student president Kenneth Horton opened the meeting with a plea for calm and restraint. “Nothing constructive,” he cautioned, “can be achieved through emotional upheaval.”
Other student leaders echoed Horton’s plea for a rational discussion. But one student, Hal Suit, a veteran of World War II who had lost a leg at the Battle of the Bulge, was having none of it. The dismissals, Suit stated, had lowered the quality of education at Rollins and, in effect, “broke student contracts.”
Executive committee member Eugene Smith, not Wagner, attempted to respond. To the contrary, Smith said, the president and the trustees were upholding college standards by forestalling bankruptcy. He insinuated that the students ought to be thankful for Wagner’s wise leadership in such difficult times.
Suit, however, wouldn’t be easily pacified. If the college was in such dire straits, he asked, why was so much money spent on decorating the president’s office and in furnishing the president’s home?
Wagner, who to this point had remained silent, responded that the trustees wanted constructive answers, not insulting questions. When students groaned at the admonition, Wagner noted that he had made a $75,000 cut in administrative services during the last two years.
Another student asked why Wagner had refused to accept faculty offers to teach without compensation. When the president replied that no one had made such an offer, the student brandished a list of five names. “Let me see those names,” Wagner demanded, but the student refused.
At that point, Wagner abruptly walked out of the meeting, accompanied by the mayor and the executive committee. His peevish behavior served only to unify faculty and students into a solid core of opposition. As a result, the college was edging toward the brink of a major crisis that would leave a residue of hatred and resentment for several decades afterward.
After the contentious student meeting, opposing forces coalesced: the president, his staff, the executive committee and, later, a coalition of Winter Park citizens on one side; faculty, students, alumni and a majority of the trustees on the other. Retiring to their appropriate redoubts, they gathered ammunition for their causes and began hurling accusations, resolutions and press releases at one another.
Faculty members initiated the first skirmish when they reconvened on Tuesday, March 13. They listened politely — but without sympathy — to impassioned speeches by members of Wagner’s staff, who professed loyalty to the president and faith in “his honesty, sincerity and integrity.”
Following the testimonials, the faculty passed a statement lauding the president’s and the trustees for their “tireless efforts,” but also taking exception to the arbitrary manner in which Wagner had acted. The dismissals represented a violation of the spirit and letter of the college’s rules on tenure, the statement read.
Further, Wagner’s unwillingness to at least hear out students was harshly criticized: “We deplore the failure to take advantage of student sentiment. The shock to the student body was profound. With youthful idealism the students are asking for guidance and advice as to how and where they can help and will be bitterly disappointed if it be not forthcoming.”
On the same day, almost simultaneously, the executive committee prepared its own statement, arguing that economic conditions mandated drastic action. It was unfortunate, the statement read, that “the natural distress over the loss of valued members had led to insinuation and charges of personal vindictiveness” toward the president.
“The existence of this college is at stake,” the statement continued. “Personal considerations and personal feelings, important as they may be, must under such circumstances be subordinated to the preservation of an institution in the value of which we so strongly believe.”
The dueling documents were circumspect in language, but revealed hardening positions on both sides. In the following days, there were plenty of meetings — but no meeting of the minds.
In the subsequent weeks, pro- and anti-Wagner factions tore the campus asunder attempting to force the surrender of the other. Through the public relations office, the president issued news releases supportive of his cause.
A student committee began meeting with a faculty counterpart, and held gatherings almost daily in the student center. The editor of The Sandspur, the campus newspaper, expressed student attitudes through weekly editorials, accusing Wagner of breaking his word and of taking the college “down the rocky road of ruin.”
Two days after the faculty meeting, another group — and a highly influential one at that — weighed in. The Alumni Executive Committee, headed by local aviation executive Howard Showalter, announced that it had lost confidence in the president’s “judgment and leadership,” and called upon the trustees to remove him.
On that same day, Winthrop Bancroft, chairman of the trustees, took action that would lead ultimately to the end of Wagner’s stormy presidency. He appointed fellow trustees George Carrison, Milton Warner and Eldridge Haynes to investigate the campus upheaval.
The Rollins row already dominated local news and, by mid-March, it had been picked up by national wire services. The Christian Science Monitor carried a story on the faculty cuts and the ensuing discontent. A few days later, The New York Times cited the turmoil in an article on the effect of the Korean War on higher education.
A week later, Time and Life carried the news of the Wagner Affair, both placing it in the context of a national educational malaise. Some aspect of the tumult appeared almost daily on the front page of the Orlando Morning Sentinel or the Orlando Evening Star.
The Carrison Committee convened on Wednesday, March 21, to hear everyone who had made appointments to speak. The trio met with all factions, spending several hours with a faculty delegation and a total of 107 hours with individuals.
The following morning, the committee received a group of 34 faculty members. Art professor Hugh McKean, the spokesperson, was succinct in his remarks: “We are some of the members of the faculty who think that Mr. Wagner should resign as president. We do not wish to take up your time with conversation; we just wish to show ourselves and make this statement.”
Carrison asked for a show of hands to gauge support for McKean’s position. All 34 indicated agreement, with several reporting that they held proxies for others who couldn’t attend. The demonstration of solidarity greatly affected committee members, especially Haynes, previously a Wagner supporter. In fact, Wagner had insisted that Haynes serve on the committee alongside Carrison and Warner.
The following day, the executive committee — which had previously praised Wagner’s decisiveness and given him both a raise and a contract extension — invited the Carrison Committee to a meeting in the president’s office.
There, its members heard Wagner read several supportive letters from students, faculty and alumni. In addition, the beleaguered president made a lengthy speech accusing his opponents of using “communist and fascist tactics.”
On Friday, the Carrison Committee again met with the president and the executive committee, to whom Haynes presented findings and recommendations. The evidence proved, Haynes said, that Wagner could not possibly continue in his present role unless he was willing to do a complete about-face.
“He should immediately call a meeting of all faculty members, students and alumni and tell them, in his best manner, that he and the board had misjudged the tremendous response that was made by the Rollins family,” Hayes said.
Further, Wagner should recommend that the trustees reinstate the dismissed faculty members, and agree to “gamble on our ability to get students, to raise money and keep Rollins as we know it.” The president should also personally commit to an aggressive fundraising effort, Haynes added.
Wagner burst into a long, agitated speech charging “character assassination” and condemning the persecution he had been forced to endure. Pressed for a reply regarding a reversal of course, he promised to give his answer in a few days.
But weeks passed with no response from Wagner. In the meantime, the Carrison Committee began preparing a report for a special trustees’ meeting slated for Saturday, April 14.
Then, Hamilton Holt — his leg recently amputated due to a foot infection and his health rapidly failing — finally offered an opinion. On April 10, from his home in Connecticut, “Prexy” wrote his young successor that, as far as he could determine, the situation was untenable.
No president, Holt declared, could operate effectively with both students and faculty aligned against him. Therefore, he concluded, Wagner should resign for the good of the college.
When Wagner refused the entreaty, a disillusioned Holt — no stranger to controversy during his own tenure, but surely baffled that his judgment had so thoroughly betrayed him in the case of Wagner — sent a copy of his letter to the Orlando Morning Sentinel, which published it on the front page.
Holt died a few days later, the Wagner Affair still unresolved — but careening toward a reckoning.
Tension prevailed when Bancroft opened the much-anticipated Saturday trustee meeting. The Carrison Committee, after presenting its report, solemnly recommended the president’s dismissal.
After a brief silence, the room erupted into a cacophony of heated accusations and unstructured debate. As one trustee later recalled: “Everyone was furious. Everyone was shouting. Ray Maguire [a trustee and the college attorney] was pacing up and down, shouting things no one had asked him to say and no one was listening to.”
Some called for adjournment; others protested that they were leaving town that evening and wanted a resolution. Finally, after Bancroft restored order, the trustees agreed to adjourn until the following morning, hoping to resume deliberations in a less volatile environment.
That night, opposing forces prepared strategy for the Sunday-afternoon showdown. When Bancroft called the meeting to order, two members simultaneously asked to be recognized. By prearrangement, Bancroft recognized trustee Miller Walton, who moved to adjourn and reconvene on April 27 in New York.
Wagner, who wanted a debate, shouted “Point of order! Point of order!” But Bancroft ruled that the motion wasn’t debatable and, over the objections of Maguire — who contended that parliamentary rules were being ignored — broke a seven-seven tie to ensure its passage.
Although neither Wagner nor the executive committee appeared in New York, a bare quorum of 11 trustees did assemble. By then, a face-saving plan had emerged. If Wagner would resign the presidency, the trustees would place him in charge of a “Commission to Study the Financial Problems of Liberal Arts Colleges” throughout the nation.
They gave Wagner until May 3 to accept or reject the offer. Rejection, however, meant dismissal, so the intent was for Wagner to be removed from office either way.
A discussion followed regarding “possible persons who might be able to save the college from ruin.” Hugh McKean, the art professor and Holt protégé, emerged as the preferred candidate and was conferred something akin to president-in-waiting status.
Haynes personally discussed the trustees’ proposal with Wagner, who seemed genuinely interested in the prospect of heading such a commission. Still, he tearfully said, he wanted most of all to remain president of the college. Hayes simply couldn’t convince him that this option wasn’t being offered.
Again, Wagner agreed only to give the matter serious thought. But by the time May 3 arrived, he had not responded to the trustees. McKean then automatically became acting president, despite Wagner’s continued — and obviously unwelcome — presence on campus.
In fact, Wagner still occupied the president’s office in Warren Hall, compelling the man tapped as his replacement to set up shop in the nearby Morse Art Gallery, which he directed and which his wife, Jeannette, had founded.
Rollins, implausibly, now had two presidents.
Wagner, who had technically not yet been fired — at least not in a manner that he regarded as legitimate — marshaled support where he could find it. A “Citizens Committee for Rollins College” placed a full-page ad in the Orlando Morning Sentinel beseeching locals to rally around a man whom the campus community had vehemently rejected.
On May 10, a majority of students walked out of classes and refused to return until Wagner resigned. Wagner called a faculty meeting the following day to determine “what action the faculty wished to take toward the student strike.” The unsurprisingly hostile gathering lasted all of 15 minutes.
Two days later, the college’s deans announced that “in order to restore harmony,” they would begin working with McKean rather than Wagner. A group of trustees headed by Carrison met with Wagner, hoping against hope to persuade him to resign quietly, thereby ending the standoff and preserving for him some measure of personal dignity.
It was not to be.
“Paul, this is getting us nowhere,” Carrison told Wagner. “The time has come when we cannot negotiate any further.” It could be argued that the time had, in fact, long passed.
Carrison then handed Wagner a letter of dismissal, left the meeting and walked to the Morse Gallery of Art, where a press conference had been arranged and where a sizable group of faculty, students and alumni had assembled.
At the gathering, Carrison announced that McKean had been appointed president of the college. The next day, McKean called an all-college meeting at the Annie Russell Theatre, where he, Tiedtke and Carrison gave victory speeches to an ecstatic audience.
When the meeting ended, students spontaneously lifted McKean on their shoulders and carried him through the campus, exuding optimism and shouting cheers. The euphoria, however, would be short-lived.
Four days later, the Orlando Morning Sentinel’s front-page headline read: “Wagner Says Still President.” An accompanying story explained that the deposed president refused to recognize the legality of the action taken at the New York trustees’ meeting.
The executive committee, which still consisted of Wagner loyalists, held a special meeting to discuss the matter, but failed to secure a quorum as trustees pointedly stayed away.
A pro-Wagner citizens committee, after holding a large meeting at the Winter Park Country Club, began publishing a series of ads in the Orlando papers. The first ad asked “Who Owns Rollins College?” It listed the names of the trustees who had attended the New York meeting, and implied that they had acted illegally.
The second ad, labeled “Fair Play the American Way,” accused the trustees of defaulting on their promise to back Wagner following the downsizing decision. An anti-Wagner group responded with its own full-page ad, explaining “What Rollins is Trying to Achieve.”
On May 21, Wagner filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the 11 trustees who had voted for his dismissal. And then, to further complicate matters, the Florida Legislature inserted itself. The local legislative delegation, at the behest of influential pro-Wagner campaigners, had pushed through a bill ousting all out-of-state members from the board of trustees.
“It is the duty of the Legislature,” the pro-Wagner committee declared, “to remove this valuable asset of the state from the grasp of a small group of selfish and irresponsible men from other states and their rabble-rousing followers on the campus, and put it under the control of open-minded, capable people close to the situation and aware of the interests of Central Florida and the whole state.”
News of the bill threw the campus into turmoil once again. A hastily called meeting of faculty, students and townspeople resulted in a “Friends of the College Committee,” which began mobilizing opposition.
More than 200 people in cars and buses traveled to Tallahassee seeking to scuttle the bill, which was seen as unprecedented meddling in the internal affairs of a private institution of higher learning.
In the face of mounting pressure, representatives asked Governor Fuller Warren to return the bill for a second consideration and, on May 28, both houses unanimously rescinded the ill-conceived legislation.
The following day, the trustees held their regularly scheduled — and now critical — commencement meeting, at which they would either reconfirm or reverse the decision made in New York. When members arrived at the conference room of Knowles Memorial Chapel, they found Wagner and his attorneys already seated.
Bancroft gaveled the meeting to order, called the roll — 15 members were present — and then declared a recess, during which he asked Wagner and his team to leave the meeting.
When they refused, Bancroft reconvened the meeting and announced that it would be moved to the Morse Art Gallery. The Wagner contingent, Bancroft insisted, would be barred from the building “unless they use force to enter.” An escalation was averted when Wagner and his attorneys did not follow the trustees to the new location.
Then, in quick succession, trustees Raymond Greene, Louis Orr, Eugene Smith and Ray Maguire resigned, leaving the remaining trustees to affirm the results of the New York meeting, and to formally remove Wagner as president “effective instantly.”
Still, Wagner continued his suit and hovered around campus for several days, watching commencement exercises from a distance. He didn’t relinquish the keys to the president’s office until June 8 — more than a month after his dismissal. McKean took possession of the space five days later, and would occupy it until 1969.
A grim-faced Wagner and his frightened family, menacingly surrounded by students whose angry expressions were captured by news photographers, had to be escorted off the campus under police protection.
The AP carried a news story shortly after Wagner’s departure announcing that the “ousted college prexy” had enrolled in the Stetson University College of Law, from which he had received an honorary degree in 1949.
“The 33-year-old educator said he was interested in a particular problem and was taking the course in order to do research on it,” the article read, adding cryptically, “He did not give details.”
Perhaps Wagner’s motivation was the ongoing lawsuit against the college, which was settled in 1953 for $50,000. But by then, he had left Central Florida, and was seeking to rebuild his life and career far from Florida.
Not surprisingly, for a man of Wagner’s gifts, he bounced back. The deposed president went on to become executive director of the Chicago-based Film Council of America, then a vice president of the New York-based public relations firm Hill & Knowlton in Manhattan.
He divorced and remarried Jeanette Sarkisian, who later became vice president of the Estee Lauder Companies. After her retirement in 1999, the couple founded a public relations firm specifically to work with nonprofits on a pro bono basis.
Sarkisian’s stature was such that she was invited to lecture at the college’s Crummer Graduate School of Business in the late ’80s. Apparently, no one realized that her husband had once been the institution’s president, and that he remained persona non grata in some circles.
Then-President Thaddeus Seymour, however, got wind of the visit. He graciously invited Wagner, who had accompanied his wife, to tour the campus with him. The sight of Wagner, even decades later, left some professors who had lived through his reign — or had heard stories about it — in shock.
Wagner, who died in 2015 at 98, lived his final years in historic Sag Harbor, New York.
Whatever responsibility the college bears for making a rather impetuous hire, Wagner and Wagner alone was responsible for his downfall. Pure hubris deprived the college of his insight into the future of higher education, and the opportunity to position itself at the forefront of coming technological innovations.
The Wagner Affair left the campus community exhausted, and longing for peace and harmony. As a result, it looked backward, to the perceived harmony of the Holt years, thereby ensuring that “Prexy” would continue to cast a long shadow.
GETTING TO KNOW THE REAL WAGNER
By Thaddeus Seymour Sr.
It was a real treat to get to know Paul Wagner and his delightful wife, Jeanette Sarkisian. We met almost by accident.
“The Wagner Affair” is famous, indeed infamous, among those who lived through it in the ’50s. Front-page stories about it appeared in almost every issue of the Orlando Morning Sentinel and the Orlando Evening Star, and the controversy was even prominently featured in Life magazine and newspapers around the country via wire service reports.
By the time Polly and I arrived in 1978, though, Paul Wagner’s name was never mentioned, and there was no visible indication that he had ever served as the ninth president of Rollins College from 1949 to 1951.
There was no portrait of him hanging on a wall, and no mention of his name in catalogues or handbooks. When I asked, no one seemed to know “what had become of him.”
For the heck of it, one day on a trip to New York, I picked up the phone book (you remember those) and looked up “Wagner, Paul A.” Then I dialed the number.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said. “but I’m trying to locate the Paul Wagner who was president of Rollins College.”
Pause. “Yes … ?”
We met in the Metropolitan Club for a drink and a cordial visit, and I began a mission to bring him back into the Rollins family. It wasn’t easy. There were many people, including trustees, who were still furious about his dropping football and firing half the faculty during his two-year tenure.
One major donor threatened to cut off his substantial financial support if I “let the SOB back on the campus.”
But time heals and donors go to their rewards.
Soon, I persuaded Paul to send a favorite photo for display in the administration building. He sent a handsome Bachrach portrait, but it disappeared from the wall within a week. At my awkward request, he sent another one, and we used bolts to hang it.
Jeanette was at the time vice chairman of the Estee Lauder Companies, and some years later the Crummer Graduate School of Business invited her down to speak, unaware of her husband’s notorious Rollins connection.
He accompanied her, stopped by my office, and I had the fun of showing him around the campus, with all its exciting and handsome new developments. I even bought him a Rollins T-shirt.
We kept in touch, usually via Christmas cards, over the years. One summer about 10 years ago we were visiting our son and his family on Shelter Island, a small community at the end of Long Island. On the map, I discovered that it was next to Sag Harbor, and I remembered that the Wagners had a summer home there. One phone call and we were together for lunch.
That’s where Polly took the snapshot that accompanies this story. We continued to stay in touch, including occasional luncheons when we were visiting Long Island. We’ll miss those congenial gatherings and conversations, which covered a range of interesting subjects.
But the one topic he would never discuss was his brief tenure as president of Rollins College.
Editor’s Note: Thaddeus Seymour was president of Rollins College from 1978-1990. He is today president emeritus and, with his wife, Polly, remains involved in an array of college programs and community organizations.