Max P. Cavnes, legendary Centre dean of men and a 27-year member of the history faculty, died early Tuesday, April 28, 2015. He was 92.
For many alumni, Cavnes and Centre College remain inextricably intertwined. For Cavnes, his students remained forever essential parts of his life, their accomplishments joyfully celebrated and their passings deeply mourned.
Cavnes and his beloved late wife, Doris, arrived on campus in July of 1958. In addition to teaching American history, he jumped right into life at the College as the faculty resident of Breckinridge Hall.
Young, and perhaps a bit naïve to accept such living quarters—Breck then housed first-year men—Cavnes once described his secret to making it work.
“I finally decided that every time I approached the west entrance to Breck Hall, I would imagine the motto to be the same as that on the Purina dog food bag,” he said. “‘All you add is love.’”
Tales of Cavnes on nighttime patrol with his dog Happy are legion. He kept order by being visible—and by being willing to talk to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His approach—and sincere belief—was that if something was important to one of his students, it was important to him, even if it happened to be 5 a.m.
Years later he would recall, “The men and women on that little campus were the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. We wandered in and out of each other’s lives during our years in the freshman dormitory and have continued to do so in our years in retirement.”
Although he enjoyed all his time at Centre, Cavnes is probably best known for the 13 early years he spent as dean of men. His primary rule as dean was simple: Never lie to him. No matter what the infraction, Cavnes supported his students—and never held a grudge—as long as they told him the truth.
He also knew how to get the best out of students. Bobby Elliott ’71 recalls an unexpected conversation the two had the summer before Elliott’s senior year.
“I thought I was in trouble again,” Elliott says. “He asked if I would be willing to be a dorm counselor on a freshman men’s floor. I expressed surprise that he would ask me. His response was, ‘I’m trying an experiment with you. I figure those freshmen could not possibly come up with something that you have not already tried, so you will know exactly how to handle it.’”
More seriously, adds Elliott, Cavnes “taught grown men how to express love and respect for each other regardless of skin color, background, or walk of life. He was one of a kind.”
Cavnes’ tenure as dean, 1960-73, coincided with tumultuous years at colleges across the country.
“Human nature hasn’t changed a whit, but other things did,” he told the Centrepiece in 2010. “Remember that during those years we had alcohol. In the late sixties, we had drugs. We had Vietnam. We had to integrate the campus—President [Thomas A.] Spragens had come in 1957 with the understanding that there would be no discrimination.”
Cavnes was instrumental in easing the way for the first black students at Centre, beginning in 1962 with Timothy Kuzi ’65, a transfer student from Ghana. Speakers on a panel held last year during Centre’s first Black Alumni Weekend repeatedly mentioned Cavnes’ importance as an advocate during the early years of integration.
To cite just one example, he famously told fraternity leaders in 1971 that every fraternity would pledge black members that year—or he would recommend that their charters be lifted. And thus the fraternities integrated.
Although his students always came first, Cavnes’ love for dogs was legendary. A number of canine characters—among them Charley Brown, Tripod, Underdog, Little Black Dog, Whiskey, Max, and Rusty—enjoyed the lofty title “campus dog” during his time at Centre, and he helped found the Danville-Boyle County Humane Society in 1972.
Randy Kell ’69 recalls Cavnes as an “unusual and wonderful man,” who said he loved dogs more than humans, “but I don’t believe that,” says Kell.
Kell adds, “He did know and appreciate dog personalities as well as the personalities of young men in their late teens and early 20s (which have a lot in common), and he was equally accepting, understanding, and supportive of both, whether they deserved it or not. He was a friend who you knew you could call no matter what.”
An Indiana native, Cavnes held degrees from Indiana University (Ph.D., M.A., A.B.) and a divinity degree from Yale. His undergraduate education was interrupted by military service during World War II.
Among his many Centre honors, he received the David F. Hughes award given for outstanding service to Centre in 1982, was named an honorary alumnus in 1991, and received an honorary degree from Centre in 1997. His name continues to be an important presence on campus through the Max P. Cavnes Freshman Book Prize awarded each year to the male and female students with the highest GPA at the end of their first year, the Max P. Cavnes Prize awarded to the “best-loved and most-respected” senior man and senior woman, and the Doris and Max Cavnes Scholarship that helps needy students attend Centre.
“What a guy he was,” says Centre President John A. Roush. “It was clear to me that he made it his business—always—to do those things that would build better young men; help to raise citizen-leaders for our nation.”
Doris and Max Cavnes (pictured above, at a 1985 reception in their honor) retired to Vermont in 1985, from where they shared their love of the Green Mountain State by hosting frequent delegations of alumni and friends. One such visitor was John Newman ’66.
“It is stating the obvious to say that Max Cavnes had a great love for Vermont,” says Newman. “Living and working in NYC, it was an easy trip for me to visit Max and Doris at their home in Wells, Vt., and, after Doris died, to visit Max at his Wake Robin retirement community near Burlington. Aside from his annual trips to Centre’s homecoming (we all remember how he would take up position near the entrance to the football stadium so he wouldn’t miss seeing anyone), I would also see Max in Vermont at least once a year, and for several days we would stay up late into the night while he talked about his Centre ‘boys.’ As a result, I feel that I know a great many Centre graduates (his ‘boys’ included a great many women) who attended Centre before or after my time there, even if I have never personally met them.”
Cavnes acknowledged that his students might well forget the details of the dates and treaty provisions that he taught them in class, but never his quirky, uniquely Cavnesian recipe for achieving peace of mind: “You must have at least three great love affairs in life: one with a mountain, one with a rose, and one with a dog. And in addition, remember that Vermont is beautiful.”
Cavnes is survived by his son, Richard Cavnes Neese; two granddaughters, Karen Sunseri and Kelly Eoff; and three great grandsons. A campus memorial service will be held in the fall during Centre’s Homecoming.
by Diane Johnson
April 29, 2015