Centre remembers Thomas A. Spragens, Part II
RELEASED: Feb. 23, 2006
Update: There will be a memorial service for Dr. Spragens on Saturday, March 4, 2 p.m., at the Presbyterian Church of Danville. Visitation, and a reception sponsored by the College, will follow the service in the fellowship hall of the Church.
DANVILLE, KYThe Centre community lost a dear friend and exceptional leader Saturday, Feb. 11, with the passing of President Emeritus Thomas A. Spragens.
During his tenure of nearly a quarter-century, President Emeritus Spragens guided Centre College through a $30 million fundraising campaign; oversaw the merging of the men's and women's campuses in 1962; led the College through the replacement or renovation of nearly all campus buildings, including construction of Norton Center for the Arts…the list of his achievements goes on and on.
The Centre community was asked to share their remembrances of the late Dr. Spagens. Following is part two of a selection of the responses:
William E. "Bill" Galbreath:
Thomas A. Spragens, Tom to all his fellow club members at the 'Coffee Club' which is located in downtown Danville. Dr. Spragens, a long time member of a very small group, that he helped organize and finally secure their own 'spot' on Main Street, leaving the normal gathering place at then, Grider's Pharmacy. He was always frequently seen at the Coffee Club during the morning and the afternoon coffee sessions.
Many a subject was discussed during Tom's visits. As Tom was a founding member of the Coffee Club, I might add that some called it the "Old Goats Club," but that just did not fit the mold; thus Tom requested that it be referred to as the "Coffee Club." Certainly a mixture of backgrounds in livelihoods abound amongst the members, several college presidents, educators, doctors, dentists, local businesspersons, lawyers, bankers, retirees from the private sector and the military. No TV, no radio and no card playing—those were the orders of the day. With such an agenda, Tom knew it would force conversation, which ranged from here to yon but always in good taste; everyone had their time on the 'stump.'
Tom, you were one of a kind! What a privilege to have known you in an arena, which not everyone was privy to. You were a friend, you are a friend and you always will be called my friend. A gentleman's gentle man.
Eric Mount, Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion:
From what I know of the Centre story, I can think of no one whose influence is more significant than that of Thomas A. Spragens. And when I look beyond members of my own family, I find no one whose influence on my personal story has been greater. The first claim is not unique to me or new for me. The second has only fully dawned on me as I have had the occasion to go through the files in my office after retirement.
With his death, the legacy of President Spragens at Centre is now being listed and lauded again as it was at the times of his retirement in 1981 and of recent honors by the College. That record includes the campus he consolidated, the faculty he shaped, the buildings he erected, the resources he raised, and of course the vision he communicated. Equally important, if not more so, in his legacy is his commitment to racial integration, his cultivation of a community of civil discourse, and his inculcation of a sense of civic virtue or zeal for the public good. Before he assumed the presidency and even before the board of trustees voted to make him president, he made it clear that Centre must abandon racial barriers, something President Groves had advocated without success. Tom's courageous efforts toward racial justice at the college and in the larger community were numerous and notable.
Also highly noteworthy was the unusual spirit of civility and collegiality that many of us treasured about our years at Centre and often found lacking in other colleges and universities of our acquaintance. This spirit was modeled and encouraged by President Spragens with consummate skill. In similar fashion, concern for the common good and for service to society was a hallmark of his life, his leadership, and his vision of higher learning. Centre's commitment to civil discourse and civic virtue did not begin or end with Tom, but it has had no greater exemplar or broader exponent.
As for my own personal story and the influence of Tom and of Catharine along with him, I first recall that it was Tom who drove Truly and me to the airport after our campus visit for an interview in December, 1965 and that he himself called us during the Christmas vacation to offer me a position as religion professor and college pastor.
(I immediately accepted the offer and cancelled other interview plans.) We moved to Danville in August, 1966 as the next-door neighbors of the Spragenses, who welcomed us warmly and facilitated our connections with church and other community organizations. Through the years, Tom was my president, my colleague, my advisor on matters ranging from house purchases to political alliances, my fellow delegate on the Boyle County McCarthy slate to the Kentucky Democratic Convention in 1968, my fellow church choir member and faculty volleyball team member, and, above all, my friend. I shall never forget the ways in which he showed confidence in me by the various responsibilities that he entrusted to me, the tasks that he delegated to me, and the counsel that he sought from me.
In addition to his influence as a mentor and friend, the reason Tom had great significance in my life and that of our family is the incalculable role he played in making Centre a place where I wanted to work in 1966 and where I wanted to stay throughout my 36 year academic career. Numerous other factors and friendships made Truly and me invest our lives here, but no single one of those could match the importance of the Spragens factor. It is safe to say that, among the faculty members of my generation, I am not alone in this sense of indebtedness and gratitude.
Tom Cowens '85:
It's hard to believe that he is gone. When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1981, he was the President. When I was graduated from Centre in 1985, Richard Morrill was the President who handed me my diploma. In my opinion, both were great presidents, and more importantly, great men. I feel extremely fortunate to have experienced the strong leadership of both men during my time at Centre. After all of these years however, when I want to return to Centre in my mind, I close my eyes and I see Tom and Catharine Spragens enjoying a leisurely stroll about the campus. For me anyway, Tom Spragens quite simply is Centre College. "Good evening, President Spragens."
Bill Breeze, Special Assistant to the President for Endowment:
Tom Spragens was undoubtedly Centre's greatest president in the twentieth century. The College was at a low ebb when he arrived in 1957. His vision for what needed to be done (his strategic plan) was completely thought out and well articulated in alumni publications. But his greatest achievement was in implementing that plan, knowing what to tackle first and who to call upon for assistance and when, and so on through one after another. He accomplished an unbelievable number of significant objectives in a 10-12-year period.
Becky Stubbs Hensler '94:
I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Spragens one evening at the Norton Center. I worked there as house manager and following a performance was introduced to him. I was completely taken aback when he not only expressed an interest in me and my future plans, but extended a genuine offer of assistance, and some advice. That brief conversation really helped to solidify my thinking and gave me the confidence to trust my own instinct and judgment. I wrote him a short thank you note about a week later and received a truly beautiful letter in response.
Years after he left the college he constantly gave 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there that changed the lives of countless students. I feel distinctly privileged to have been touched by his warmth and kindness. My sincerest condolences go to his wife. The loss to our community is great, but hers is much greater. She is indeed in my prayers.
Bill Kingsbury '64:
Dr. Spragens was a friend to both my father and me. I was always surprised that he knew every student's name, and years later when you ran into him, he still remembered you. When I think of Centre, I think of Tom Spragens; when I think of Tom Spragens, I think of Centre. He truly laid the foundation upon which Centre became the leading liberal arts college of Kentucky and an example for the entire nation.
While I was at Centre my father, Gil, was a trustee at the University of Kentucky. Dad would often share with me the role and influence that Dr. Spragens had on higher education throughout the Commonwealth. He was an example to all of what could be accomplished with steadiness, perseverance and dedication. He was always a gentleman with a manner, insight and intelligence that was honored by those with whom he came in contact. His contribution to higher education spread far beyond the "little college in the heart of Bluegrass."
As I stated, Dad was a trustee for the University of Kentucky. He was appointed when I was a sophomore at Centre. I know he would have liked me to transfer to UK. I think it was because Dad's respect for Dr. Spragens I was allowed to stay at Centre.
Thomas C. Fenton '76:
Ann Atkinson Bell '69:
It was my privilege to serve as captain of the Centre wrestling team in 1975. We were 17 young men, and while as a group we did not post a particularly fine record of wins and losses, we did produce a fine record of collegiate athletic competition pursued by those who understood the original meaning of amateur—derived from the Latin amare—one who engages in an activity for the love of it.
In the spring of 1975, the College decided to disband the wrestling team. After unsuccessful protests within the athletic department, some of my teammates and I decided to take up the matter with the President. Tom Spragens agreed immediately to meet with us, and as I recall it, we met at Craik House. While I do not member the details of the conversation, I recall Dr. Spragens hearing our cause with patience and empathy, and explaining the College's decision with patience and clarity. The rationale advanced went something like this: the resources of the College have limits, within those limits the College must serve its students as well as it can, and it must attract and serve its future students as well as it can. In the 1970's soccer was the up-and-coming sport, exploding in popularity among college and high school students. To position the College well, Dr. Spragens believed it was time for the College to institute soccer as a varsity sport. The funding for that had to come from somewhere, and although he knew the wrestlers would suffer disappointment, Dr. Spragens believed the College and the universe of its students would be better served by instituting soccer. By the end of our conversation, less than an hour later, we knew we were still disappointed, but we also knew he was right.
This example of leadership is not well known. I have related it to a few people over the years, but it has never been told in a public forum. And though the audience was small, it was leadership nevertheless. Dr. Spragens' leadership in that one conversation has shaped my experience to this day and continues to do so. He listened, expressed empathy, claimed responsibility for the decision, explained the reasons, and was demonstrably guided by his vision of what the College was and what it was to become.
We are all beneficiaries of Dr. Spragens' love of Centre College and its students.
I feel honored to have known Dr.Spragens not only as the president of my college, but as a friend. I was lucky to have worked for him briefly in the development office of Pikeville College in the mid '80s. I kept in touch with him for a few years after this.
Dr. Spragens chaired meetings at the college's development office with great skill. He valued our opinions and had a way of making us think we had come up with remarkable ideas. I suspected Dr. Spragens had come to our meetings with those very ideas!
Dr.Spragens set the highest standard in his bearing and behavior. He was businesslike but good-natured and kind. Most of all, I remember Dr. Spragens' kindness.
How wonderful that Dr. Spragens could be as brilliant in understanding us coworkers as in understanding the ins and outs of major donor development for the college!
I feel privileged to have known and worked for Dr. Spragens and fortunate that he was president of Centre when I was there. No wonder we progressed so much during those years.
I was privileged to know Dr. Spragens during my career at Centre
(1961-1965). He always had time for me and my life. As an educator, I
have tried to put many of his leadership qualities into practice. Both
Centre ane I are richer because of our association with him.
During my time at Centre C. (78-82), I have nothing but fond memories of Dr. and Mrs. Spragens. Both represented themselves and the college with honor and poise. I will always remember Dr. Spragens as a gentleman and a person who wasn’t afraid to laugh with the students. These qualities meant a lot to me as a student and still do today. Even today, I still show my students how to spell letters of the alphabet with body movements as we did following our final football game (fall) as a tribute to Dr. and Mrs. Spragens. (Thanks to Andrew Self!).
Our prayers and best wishes go to Mrs. Spragens and their family.
Paula B. Hill '64:
Dr. Spragens was truly as great a man in his community as he was on his campus.
Our families were friends. I grew up with son. My mother considered Catharine a dear friend, and my father, West T. Hill, respected him as a leader and colleague.
I graduated from Centre in 1964. I can still see him climbing that winding staircase at old Main. Whenever I met Dr. Spragens on campus, no matter who he was with or how busy he was, he always spoke to me by name. At church on Sunday, he hugged me. As an adult, when I came back to visit Danville and my family, I looked forward to seeing him and visiting with Catharine.
After playing on a faculty softball team, Dad told me Dr. Spragens looked as cool and unwrinkled after the game as he did before. I believe it! He and Catharine were a stunning couple.
As president of Centre, he took great pride in his office, his college, his students, his community and his demeanor; we, in turn, were proud of him!
We miss them both in Danville and will always remember them with great love. My love goes out to his entire family.
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
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